Sunday, July 2, 2017

"Ideas Industry" and Think Tanks

The following are a few of Think Tank Watch's favorite excerpts from Daniel Drezner's new book The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of Ideas.

Drezner, a professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.  He has previously worked at RAND Corporation and the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

Think tanks in general
  • "Both think tanks as institutions and individual analysts in the employ of think tanks must cater to client demands more than even the most conciliatory of academics.  Universities have larger endowments and an additional revenue stream from tuition; think tanks are much more reliant upon benefactors, donors, and grants to finance themselves.  Individual researchers at these institutions are also more interested in serving the government causing them to be more solicitous of the needs of the bureaucracy."
  • "On at least one occasion, I felt like my think tank boss was trying to reverse-engineer a report I was writing.  He knew the conclusions he wanted the report to draw and just wanted to make sure that my analysis was consistent with the conclusion."
  • "A century ago, America's plutocrats converted their wealth into university endowments, think tanks, or philanthropic foundations.  Today's wealthy set up their own intellectual salons and publishing platforms."
  • "The proliferation of media platforms renders it impossible for any intellectual to be heard."
  •  "A 2014 Chicago Council of Global Affairs survey suggest that Americans believe their voice should carry more weight in foreign affairs, while universities and think tanks should play a lesser role."
  • "Two Federal Reserve economics surveyed the state of replicable findings in top-tier economics journals, and found that, on their own, they were only able to reproduce a third of the surveyed findings."
  • "The comparative advantage of think-tankers has historically been the informal scuttlebutt they glean from being based in Washington, DC.  Compared to academics, policy analysts based at think tanks tend to know much more about the bureaucratic or legislative state of play surrounding a particular policy arena."
  • "Donors are more likely to provide project-specific funding rather than more general financial support.  They are less interested in funding think tanks than 'do tanks.'"
  • "Think tanks are competing with consulting firms, law firms, SuperPACS, lobbyists and advocacy groups.  That puts pressure on think tanks to be more responsive to donors."

On the Heritage Foundation
  • "Heritage [Foundation's] Index of Economic Freedom has been an important gauge of the market-friendliness of national policies around the world; it is also a component of the US Millennium Challenge Corporation's criteria for dispensing American foreign aid.  The foundation's Center for Data Analysis had the necessary intellectual firepower to compete with the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office in modeling the economic impact of proposed legislation."
  • "[Heritage] commissioned former Bush Administration Office of Legal Counsel head Steven Bradbury to write two papers on the role of the National Security Administration's controversial surveillance programs...[Then Heritage President Jim] DeMint did not like the paper's conclusions and therefore scotched its publication at Heritage."
  • "In my 2016 survey of opinion leader, an overwhelming 79 percent of respondents said they had little confidence in Heritage reports, more than double the percentage of any other think tank in the survey."
  • "On foreign policy questions, smaller right-wing think tanks like the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies [have] supplanted Heritage's influence."
  • "Heritage [has] manage to avoid the rash of conflict-of-interest allegations that plagued more mainstream think tanks like Brookings or CSIS."
  • "The decline of Heritage's intellectual quality has come as its political grip over the GOP has increased."
  • "Despite backbiting about Heritage Action, its influence was large enough to entice most of the 2016 GOP presidential candidates to attend their September 2015 Take Back America candidate forum."

Trump Administration and think tanks
  • "The Trump Administration has at best a strained relationship with conservative think tanks."
  • "Most conservative think tanks distanced themselves from [Trump's] policies."
  • "During the Republican primary, [Trump's] campaign rejected most outreach efforts by GOP-friendly think tanks to help tutor him on questions of world politics."

Think tanks after 9/11
  • "The post 9/11 demand for international affairs research meant flush times for foreign affairs think tanks...salary inflation took off among think tanks fellows.  The sustained demand, combined with the pre-2008 boom in asset markets, triggered a surge in think tank budgets."
  • "In the five years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, one was hard-pressed to walk down Massachusetts Avenue in northwest Washington without seeing ground being broken for a new think tank building."

Think tanks after the Great Recession
  • "The Great Recession forced some wrenching changes in the economics of think tanks.  The most direct effect was the dramatic contraction in their traditional sources of financing.  Endowments naturally shrunk in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, as did the income earned from them...Longstanding philanthropic groups like the Carnegie Corporation and the MacArthur Foundation were forced to reduce their grant giving because their own endowments contracted during the Great Recession."
  • "The contraction of traditional revenue streams forced most think tanks to tap more unconventional sources.  In some cases, this has meant more partnerships with multinational corporations."
  • "At the same time that the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment's government funding shrank, its private consulting revenue increased nearly tenfold." 
  • "A welter of think tanks, including CFR, CSIS, and Brookings, developed corporate sponsorship programs to offer these companies select privileged access to their experts."
  • "Between 2003 and 2013, corporations went from being responsible for 7 percent of large donations at Brookings to being responsible for 25 percent."
  • "For the corporations, this kind of partnership can be as valuable as spending on lobbyists.  Think tank funding is less heavily regulated than more traditional forms of political spending, such as campaign contributions and lobbying members of Congress."

Tidbits about specific think tanks
  • "Questions have been raised about the intellectual independence of [the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace's] leaders.  Several policy analysts for Carnegie also work for lucrative consulting partnerships.  Russian dissidents, as well as multiple think tank analysts based in the US, accused Carnegie of sacrificing its intellectual autonomy and analytical rigor to maintain its Moscow headquarters."
  • "Demos and the left and the Center for the National Interest on the right, have fired individuals who made public statements contrary to institutional preferences."
  • "Parag Khanna was a nondescript graduate students when he pitched the New America Foundation for a grant to travel the world and write about shifts in world politics.  He received a fellowship that led him to write his first book."
  • "Intelligence analysts Michael Tanji declared that 'virtual think tanks' could eventually supplant their brick-and-mortar forefathers.  He founded the online-only Center for Threat Awareness, convinced that "think tank 2.0" would prove to be leaner and meaner than organizations with such high payrolls, physical plant, and overhead.  His Center for Threat Awareness lasted only a year."

Private sector vs. think tanks
  • "Stylistically, the private sector is far better at conveying ideas than university professors or think tank fellows."
  • "Many ex-policymakers who are involved in consulting firms avoid disclosing possible conflicts of interest between their for-profit activities and their other roles in think tanks and policy boards." 
  • "A successful for-profit consultancy is far more lucrative than a think tank fellowship."
  • "Only a fool goes into foreign affairs for the money."

Corporations and think tanks
  • "Defense contractors have a long track record of aiding hawkish analysts at think tanks by placing them on their corporate boards.  Jack Keane's primary affiliation in his writings is as chairman of the board of the Institute for the Study of War; his presence on the board of General Dynamics comes up less frequently.  Roger Zakheim used his visiting fellowship at AEI to push for greater military spending at the same time that he worked as a lobbyist for the defense firm BAE Systems.  CSIS has approximately seventy affiliated experts who also do private-sector consulting."
  • "The financial sector has been equally active in leveraging support of think tanks research.  Hedge funds have used intermediaries to fund think tank analysts that advocate for their policy references."

Foreign governments and US think tanks
  • "In 2014 alone the Atlantic Council disclosed receiving financial support from 25 different foreign governments."
  • "The government of Qatar was the principal backer of the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy."
  • "Even think tanks that expressly forbid receiving funds from foreign governments, such as CFR, do accept funds from foreign state-owned enterprises and foundations."
  • "A Chinese construction firm with close ties to the Chinese government sponsored a new institute at CSIS for 'geostrategy.'"
  • "The percentage of cash donations from foreign governments to Brookings nearly doubled between 2005 and 2014."

Wealthy individuals funding think tanks
  • "Conservative funders like Sheldon Adelson, Paul Singer, and Bernard Marcus have plowed significant sums into conservative think tanks like the Manhattan Institute or the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies."
  • "At the same time, more liberal institutions, such as the Truman National Security Project, have sought the support of funders like George Soros and Tom Steyer." 

Reading the entire book is highly recommended in order to get further insights into the ever-changing think tank world and world of ideas.