Dynamist Blog

"Quickie Analyses and Quotes for the Post"

Reader Joseph Britt, who recently joined Pejman Yousefzadeh's new ChequerBoard group blog, emails some think tank thoughts:

Just a note to say that I read your comments on think tanks the other day, the replies to them on Drezner and other sites, and your replies to the replies. I think you are absolutely right on the substance, and agree that this is a useful conversation to have.

About three years ago when the farm bill was going through Congress I noticed the same kind of thing from the major conservative think tanks that I had noticed years before when I worked in agriculture policy in Congress myself. Heritage and Cato would come up with some quickie analyses and quotes for the Post after the legislation cleared committee, by which time farm bills are pretty much set in concrete; a few Congressmen entirely unacquainted with the subject would quote them in one-minute floor statements; and the legislation would breeze through to enactment as if the think tanks didn't exist. I thought to myself, here I've been gone from Washington for a good decade, and nothing has changed.

For my money -- and I'll grant this was some time ago -- the "think tank" that churned out the most consistently useful papers was the Congressional Research Service. All the others produced such a high ratio of chaff to wheat that, like you, I was strongly tempted to ignore anything they sent me.

The chaff-to-wheat ratio raises an important point. Think tankers can always point to some good work. But what percentage of their output are they actually proud of? What percentage makes a difference, if not in changing immediate policy then in raising new, sophisticated arguments, answering new objections, and swaying public opinion? What percentage is interesting? What percentage will people who really know the issues take seriously?

These are all important, if subjective, judgments that people in think tanks are well-qualified to make (and do make, at least in their own heads). Unfortunately, they are not the criteria rewarded by supporters who, as far as I can tell from their complete lack of response, have absolutely no interest in this discussion.

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