Dynamist Blog

Think Tanks from the Inside

Heritage Foundation economist Tim Kane writes:

I have been a big fan of yours for some time (even stayed up late to see your appearance on Dennis Miller a few months ago). I'm sure you are already getting lots of response to your think tank riff, but I have to pile on. You made some good points, but you overstretched and oversimplified. Don't get me wrong: you don't owe anyone an apology -- and in fact I think this is a fascinating, worthwhile discussion.

As a think tank scholar from the Heritage Foundation - probably the singular example of the institution you are describing - it is difficult to compose a response without the feeling that it will come across as reflexively defensive. Your critique boils down to whether think tanks could be better by doing "better" research. I wonder. First, I suspect that think tanks in general like to have a mix of scholars and screamers (in different ratios). From personal experience, I can attest that Heirtage prides itself on getting the facts right, not on spinning. I'd like to point to some of my own research, but gosh that feels awfully self-serving. And while you're right that good people leave ... is it fair to assume that they're replaced by lesser people? Would you prefer a world where all the analysts at Heritage stayed forever? Turnover is dynamic, Virgina, and no one should have to remind you of that!

The real issue is that think tank analysts - unlike most university scholars - put a premium on policy formation. So does the media, and so does Congress, but they have very different incentives. And who watches the watchmen? It is challenging enough to shame Congress away from its instinct for comfy incumbency, but harder still to puncture the myths of the MSM. And it would be nice if academic institutions took on that role, but they don't. Period. (even if you were patient enough to wait for a generation for good research to become conventional wisdom). Watching the watchmen is the role of think tanks.

For example, the MSM continues to peddle the myth that enlistees in the Army are underprivileged. There are no facts to back this claim, but it goes out unchallenged simply because it was asserted and never disproven. Where are the academic studies on this one (or isn't that a tenurable topic, perhaps)? You see, there are holes in the academic community as well, and gaps on what it studies due to its own institutional limitations. But I can tell you that we are about to publish a major study on troop demographics, and guess what? The MSM is dead wrong. Not only is the Army not disproportionately underprivileged, it is in fact disproportionately overprivileged.

Will I go on TV and radio to promote the finding? Absolutely. Especially if our excellent media team comes to work next month. But understand that I could never get media attention as a young academic, all by myself. I wrote op-eds as an assistant professor, and I didn't have the capacity to get them to the right editors anywhere. A few weeks after I joined Heritage, thanks to the media relations team, I was published in the New York Times. The Foundation is a force multiplier, true, but the NYT published the op-ed only because it was based on solid and compelling research.

One way to think about think tanks is from the perspective of a young scholar who faces the choice: (1) academic career or (2) policy career. For me at least, I didn't have confidence that I would be happy at Big Megaversity economics dept., let alone Southwestern State Smalltown College -- writing dry papers for dusty journals (and there are many). I loved teaching, and I loved policy talking points ... two things that don't matter for tenure. And I didn't have confidence that those institutions reward activism, and may even punish it. Drezner should know this, given his musing about blogging and tenure. So that's the choice.

It seems quite an error to suggest the think tanks are hollow of genuine scholarship, when they seem to be rather inspiring as one of the few institutions where free inquiry is still rewarded. And you shouldn't presume the academics own the moral high ground on thoughtful research. I mean, isn't it funny that Krugman skewered policy scholars (entrepreneurs, he called them) in a book a few years ago, and now is one of the most intellectually dishonest ideologues in the arena?

I will have further thoughts later, but now I must go do some real work.

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