Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Book Review: Think Tanks in America

Here are some highlights from the new book on think tanks (which Think Tank Watch has previously mentioned) by Thomas Medvetz called "Think Tanks in America."

On the concept on think tanks:
For the scholar who wishes to understand the think tank and its place in American society, the basic problem is that the central concept itself is fuzzy, mutable, and contentious.
On fundraising at think tanks:
To raise money, a think tank must orient itself to the market for donations by tailoring its work to the interests of potential sponsors.
Think Tanks & lobbying:
...There is the image of the think tank as a mercenary organization - or essentially a lobbying firm in disguise.
On think tank existence:
Think tanks exist as such only insofar as they have formed their own relatively stable institutional niche.
On the "space" of think tanks:
Think tanks such as the Hoover Institution and the Institute for International Economics, for example, are known for their close and visible ties to academia, while other are known mainly for their affiliations with political networks and institutions, such as government agencies (e.g., RAND Corporation, Urban Institute), legislative coalitions (Northeast-Midwest Institute), political parties (Progressive Policy Institute), and social movements (Worldwatch Institute).  Still other think tanks exist in close proximity to business firms (Competitive Enterprise Institute) or labor unions (Economic Policy Institute)...Finally, a small number of think tanks sit nearest the field's media pole (e.g., New America Foundation), as revealed by their strategies of cultivating ties with organs of the news media and journalism.
On categorizing think tank "experts":
"Wonks" are those policy experts who derive their authority from their technical proficiency and academic credentials; "hacks" are those who bear more than a passing resemblance to political consultants, lobbyists, and legislative aides; "policy entrepreneurs" are those with the keenest eye for marketing their intellectual wares and raising funds; and "quotemeisters" are policy experts who are more comfortable speaking on television than writing in an empty office.
On think tank intellectualism:
At one level, think tanks use academic capital to perform a kind of ritual of self-purification.  Tarnished by their associations with the government, the market, the media, and the world of lobbying, they must "consecrate" themselves by establishing a connection with the quasi-sacred world of intellectual production and the priestly authority figure of the intellectual."
On think tanks and "deep lobbying"
The most egregious instances of corruption, [Steve] Clemons maintained, involved the practice known as "deep lobbying," in which lobbyists effectively funnel the money of private interest groups through think tanks as a way of skirting federal lobbying regulations...According to Clemons, the corruption of think tanks is enabled by a "lack of IRS resources to investigate the non-profit sector in any serious way," and "the inherent fuzziness in differentiating between 'public education' and lobbying."
On think tanks and political access:
...Many think tanks also turn down certain opportunities to increase their political access.  The Heritage Foundation, for example, has long been careful to maintain a certain distance from the Republican Party...
On the Washington Post's coverage of think tanks:
From 1999 to 2003, the Washington Post ran a weekly column about think tanks called "The Ideas Industry."  The punchy feature, which typically strung together several short items, was soon replaced by "Think Tank Town," a series of columns submitted on a rotating basis by 13 major think tanks.  In 2010, the Post began publishing a blog called "Think Tanked," by Allen McDuffee, a political journalist and ex-think tank fellow.
On think tank "poaching":
A few patterns emerge from the data, such as the tendency of certain think tanks to recruit from others (e.g., Brookings from the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Institute for International Economics and Hoover from Brookings; CSIS from the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies)...The data also suggest the importance of geography in the recruitment patterns of think tanks.  For example, RAND and Hoover (both located in California) share a strong personnel connection, despite their structural dissimilarities, and each is tied more weakly to the main Washington think tanks.