Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Think Tank Quickies (#319)

  • Lydia Dennett of POGO: Foreign influence laws (i.e., FARA) may apply to think tank activity.
  • Government-backed think tank warns of potential "financial panic" in China, a leaked report revealed.
  • Did alleged Russian agent Maria Butina, who attending American University, attend think tank events in Washington, DC?
  • Brookings scholar Jung Pak, a former CIA analyst, buys $2.2 million home in Chevy Chase.
  • Center for International Policy (CIP) launches Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative.
  • Some science journals (and think tanks?) that claim to peer review papers do not do so.
  • Computer algorithms can test the dodginess of published reports?
  • Slate: Conservative think tanker accidentally argues that single-payer could save Americans $2 trillion.
  • RAND Corp. develops IT solutions to enable the transition to unassigned office space. 
  • Largest inauguration in think tank history (via WiiSE)?

Monday, July 30, 2018

More Brevity Needed in Think Tank Papers?

Think Tank Watch has read countless think tank papers over 100 pages long and would be happy to do so never again.  Should think tank reports be shorter?  Here is more from the Wall Street Journal about published economic papers being too long:

A backlash is building against inflation—the kind showing up in economics journals.
The average length of a published economics paper has more than tripled over the past four decades, and some academics are sick of wading through them. At this year’s American Economics Association conference, Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor David Autor compared a 94-page working paper about the minimum wage to “being bludgeoned to death with a Nerf bat” and started a Twitter hashtag, #ThePaperIsTooDamnedLong.
“It was a very good paper,” Mr. Autor said in a later interview, but it set him off because it represented the “logorrhea of our current state of scholarship.”
Let’s get to the point: Economists want economists to talk less. The AEA announced last year it would launch a journal dedicated to publishing only concise papers, at least by economists’ standards—nothing longer than 6,000 words, or about 15 double-spaced pages. 
Between 1970 and 2017, the average length of papers published in five top-ranked economics journals swelled from 16 pages to 50 pages, according to an analysis by University of California, Berkeley economists Stefano DellaVigna and David Card. 

Here is a previous Think Tank Watch post entitled "Does Anyone Actually Read Think Tank Reports?"

Here is Stephanie Evergreen on why no one is readying your report.

Tom Hashemi says that a forthcoming study will show that the average length of a think tank report in the UK and US is 42.5 pages.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

H.R. McMaster Returns to Hoover Institution

Here is more from the Wall Street Journal:

H.R. McMaster, pushed out in April as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, is joining Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where he hopes to develop bipartisan national security ideas.
Mr. McMaster, who struggled to retain influence in the fractious White House, said, as a senior fellow, he hopes his work can influence national security policy as the U.S. works to combat rising threats from rivals such as Russia and China.
While working at Hoover, Mr. McMaster said he also is planning to write a book. But those looking for a tell-all tale of West Wing intrigue are likely to be disappointed. Mr. McMaster said he plans to write a substantive book about national security.
Mr. McMaster first worked at Hoover in 2002 as a national security affairs fellow and then served as a visiting fellow from 2003 to 2017. He will now become the Fouad and Michelle Ajami Senior Fellow, a post commemorating the Middle East scholar who was friends with Mr. McMaster.

It was already expected that McMaster would return to think tank land.  Here is a Think Tank Watch post about conservatives attacking McMaster for his previous think tank work.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

US Think Tank Facilitated Russian Spy Meeting with Gov't Officials?

Here is more from Reuters:

Maria Butina, accused in the United States of spying for Russia, had wider high-level contacts in Washington than previously known, taking part in 2015 meetings between a visiting Russian official and two senior U.S. officials.
The meetings, disclosed by several people familiar with the sessions and a report prepared by a Washington think tank that arranged them, involved Stanley Fischer, then Federal Reserve vice chairman, and Nathan Sheets, then Treasury undersecretary for international affairs.
Butina traveled to the United States in April 2015 with Alexander Torshin, then the Russian Central Bank deputy governor, and they took part in separate meetings with Fischer and Sheets to discuss U.S.-Russian economic relations during Democratic former President Barack Obama’s administration. 
The meetings with Fischer and Sheets were arranged by the Center for the National Interest, a Washington foreign policy think tank that is supportive of efforts to improve U.S.-Russia relations. Paul Saunders, its executive director, in December 2016 urged then President-elect Donald Trump to ease tensions with Russia. In articles in its magazine, The National Interest, members of the think tank have also warned of the costs to the United States of confronting Russia or getting involved in Eurasian conflicts.
The meetings were documented in a Center for the National Interest report seen by Reuters that outlined its Russia-related activities from 2013 to 2015. The report described the meetings as helping bring together “leading figures from the financial institutions of the United States and Russia.”
Saunders, the think tank’s executive director, said Torshin spoke at an April 2015 event about the Russian banking system and Butina attended as Torshin’s interpreter. Saunders said people at the organization cannot recall details of Torshin’s presentation. 

Here is a previous Think Tank Watch piece about the Center for the National Interest (CNI) hosting Donald Trump.

Here is a ProPublica piece entitled "Why Russian Spies Really Like American Universities."

Update from Politico on July 26: Spotted at the Center for the National Interest’s annual Distinguished Service Award Dinner honoring Secretary of Defense James Mattis last night at the Four Seasons Hotel: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), Ret. Gen. Charles Boyd, Dimitri Simes, Paul Saunders, Dov Zakheim, Drew Gruff, Grover Norquist, Samah Norquist David Norquist, Suhail Khan, Jacob Heilbrunn and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

Center for American Progress Action Fund's (CAPAF) ThinkProgress first reported on Butina nearly two years ago.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Think Tank Quickies (#318)

  • Evaluating increases in think tank executive compensation, by Ignacio Delcavoli.
  • What does a think tank have to do with your life? (via Rich Larsen, President of Utah-based Sutherland Inst.)
  • Think tanks stress importance of college completion.
  • Russia's Sputnik: DC think tank experts paid to play by companies, foreign states (interviewing Max Blumenthal).
  • Iowa county to hold public "think tanks."
  • John Bolton's new NSC chief of staff worked at Center for Security Policy.
  • "My mom just asked me if working at a think tank means I get a thinking cap.  'Does it have a propellor on top?'"
  • Are you single, taken, or a think tank?
  • Cato scholar: "There oughta be a German word for when cable news covers a complex area of policy wonkery but interviews a person who clearly has no knowledge of the subject and just Googled it before the hit." 
  • Dinesh D'Souza, formerly a fellow at AEI and Hoover, pardoned by President Trump.

Friday, July 6, 2018

How Heritage Stocked Trump's Government

Here are our favorite excerpts from a New York Times Magazine piece by Jonathan Mahler about how the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation has staffed the Trump Administration:

On staffing the Trump Administration:
The Trump team may not have been prepared to staff the government, but the Heritage Foundation was. In the summer of 2014, a year before Trump even declared his candidacy, the right-wing think tank had started assembling a 3,000-name searchable database of trusted movement conservatives from around the country who were eager to serve in a post-Obama government. The initiative was called the Project to Restore America, a dog-whistle appeal to the so-called silent majority that foreshadowed Trump’s own campaign slogan.

On Trump and Heritage being an unlikely match:
In some ways, Trump and Heritage were an unlikely match. Trump had no personal connection to the think tank and had fared poorly on a “Presidential Platform Review” from its sister lobbying shop, Heritage Action for America, which essentially concluded that he wasn’t even a conservative.

On helping each other:
And yet Heritage and Trump were uniquely positioned to help each other. Much like Trump’s, Heritage’s constituency is equal parts donor class and populist base. Its $80 million annual budget depends on six-figure donations from rich Republicans like Rebekah Mercer, whose family foundation has reportedly given Heritage $500,000 a year since 2013. But it also relies on a network of 500,000 small donors, Heritage “members” whom it bombards with millions of pieces of direct mail every year. The Heritage Foundation is a marketing company, a branding agency — it sells its own Heritage neckties, embroidered with miniature versions of its Liberty Bell logo — and a policy shop rolled into one. But above all, Heritage is a networking group.

On victory for Heritage:
Today it is clear that for all the chaos and churn of the current administration, Heritage has achieved a huge strategic victory. Those who worked on the project estimate that hundreds of the people the think tank put forward landed jobs, in just about every government agency. Heritage’s recommendations included some of the most prominent members of Trump’s cabinet: Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos (whose in-laws endowed Heritage’s Richard and Helen DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society), Mick Mulvaney, Rick Perry, Jeff Sessions and many more. Dozens of Heritage employees and alumni also joined the Trump administration — at last count 66 of them, according to Heritage, with two more still awaiting Senate confirmation. It is a kind of critical mass that Heritage had been working toward for nearly a half-century.

On the five ideologies of Heritage:
[Heritage co-founded Ed] Feulner packaged his fledgling think tank’s ideology into five basic principles: free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional values and a strong national defense. 

Heritage avoids never-Trump:
In March 2016, the Republican establishment stepped up its effort to stop Trump. More than 100 Republican national-security experts signed an open letter publicly committing to fight his election, calling him a “racketeer” and denouncing his dishonesty and “admiration for foreign dictators.” A number of the signatories were fellows of conservative think tanks; none were affiliated with Heritage at the time. Heritage treated Trump as it would any other candidate, giving his campaign staff more than a dozen briefings and sending them off with decks of cards bearing Heritage policy proposals and market-tested “power phrases.”

On what Heritage staffers ate during election night:
On election night, Heritage turned its first floor over to a viewing party with an open bar, chicken wings and red, white and blue cupcakes.

On Heritage staffing the Trump Administration:
Heritage helped place countless others, from staff assistants to cabinet secretaries. In some cases, DeMint intervened directly, calling Pence to argue for Mick Mulvaney, a former congressman whose political career DeMint helped start years earlier in South Carolina. Mulvaney is now the director of the Office of Management and Budget, and as this article went to press, he was serving out the remaining time in a stint as the acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau...

On current Heritage-Trump relations:
The president and his favorite think tank continue to draw closer. Administration officials speak regularly at Heritage and give frequent interviews to The Daily Signal. In April, Pruitt and Attorney General Jeff Sessions were both scheduled to speak at a Heritage donor conference in Palm Beach, Fla. (Sessions, under fire from the president because of the Russia investigation, dropped out.)

On the Trump-Heritage revolving door:
Churn is a central feature of this administration, even for its unofficial staffing agency. Paul Winfree, a Heritage economist who helped draft Trump’s first budget, is back at the think tank. So are Stephen Moore, who worked on the Trump tax cuts; David Kreutzer, who played a key role in dissolving a White House working group that was studying the monetary costs associated with climate-warming carbon dioxide; and Hans von Spakovsky, who helped run the now-defunct voter-fraud commission...

Here is a recent Think Tank Watch piece about big changes that have taken place recently at the Heritage Foundation.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Dark Cloud Lingers Over Think Tank New America

The Washingtonian's Rachel Cohen has a new piece entitled "A Think Tank's Troubles" about huge problems at New America.  Here are some of Think Tank Watch's favorite excerpts:

On New America President/CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter's thinking about think tank funding:
According to a recording of the meeting, she [Anne-Marie Slaughter] said that while she recognized that the standard in journalism was never to show sources what you were writing, New America’s “norm can’t be that. We’re an organization that develops relationships with funders. And you know, these are not just black boxes; they’re people. Google is a person, the Ford Foundation—these are people. . . . And particularly when they give you money, which is really a nice thing . . . basic courtesy I think requires—if you know something really bad, you say, ‘Here’s a heads-up.’ ”

On New America's past and present:
Founded at the height of the Nasdaq boom, New America was meant to be an antidote to other Washington think tanks—a young, nimble provocateur that would dispense with convention and birth fresh ideas. Nearly two decades later, the organization, which now employs more than 250 people, is casting about for relevance in a hyper-partisan era, according to interviews with more than three dozen current and former staffers, many of whom wanted anonymity for fear of retribution in the tight-knit DC policymaking community. In a way, it’s a symbol of an entire Washington industry—policymaking—that’s under pressure to fund itself without making ideological or ethical sacrifices. If the Open Markets episode became a public-relations debacle, it also alienated a swath of the organization and exposed how much New America has outgrown its earliest ambitions.

On a shift in New America funding:
After 2009, however, the think tank began landing US government contracts, including millions of dollars’ worth of work from the State Department and the US Agency for International Development to help develop covert wireless networks for dissidents in Iran, Syria, Libya, and Cuba. Given that the organization had long prided itself on not being another Beltway bandit feeding off federal agencies, this shift disturbed some who worried that it signaled mission drift.  “I think government dollars automatically change the character of an institution,” says the Atlantic’s Steve Clemons, one of New America’s first employees. “I was opposed completely, entirely, 9,000 percent. It dumbs down institutions, whether people want to believe it does or not.”

On funding tension at the think tank:
Fix the Debt was an enormous publicity generator for New America and was among its biggest moneymakers. The majority of its funders, though, were Republicans, including Wall Street tycoon Pete Peterson. And that caused liberals in the organization to blanch at its association with the right. Board member Bernard Schwartz, a major liberal donor who backed both the economic-growth program and nearly all of the fellows program, became so uncomfortable that he cut ties with the think tank. Eventually, Fix the Debt and its parent program parted ways with New America, too.

On New America's new office:
One of Slaughter’s first orders of business was moving New America from its modest downtown headquarters to a building a block from the White House. The space had all the amenities of a DC power player: a wrap-around roof deck with views of the Mall, trendy teal accents, and sleek design. The upgrade of 20,000 square feet raised some eyebrows internally, but Slaughter stressed that the extra space was essential. “It embodies who we are and where we want to go and inspires us to get there,” she declared.

On criticizing donors:
Five months into Slaughter’s tenure, a New America policy analyst published a blog post criticizing a partnership between Comcast and an online-education website. Despite objections from New America program directors, according to an e-mail, Slaughter allowed a senior VP at Comcast to write a defensive and self-congratulatory response in the think tank’s weekly newsletter.  Employees would get another portrait the next year when a New America fellow named Steve LeVine was reporting an exposé on Sakti3, a battery company. Its CEO called Slaughter to broach the idea of funding New America but also voiced concerns about LeVine’s reporting. Afterward, Slaughter went to LeVine’s editor to relay the CEO’s objections. As word of the conversation spread, staff felt that a line had been crossed. Slaughter apologized to LeVine for interfering with the story.

On Slaughter's political alliances:
Slaughter’s political alliances also became news, in silly as well as serious ways. In 2015, four months after Donald Trump decided to run for President, Slaughter and a colleague met Ivanka Trump at an event in DC. After chatting, Trump asked the women for their shoe sizes so she could send each a pair of boots from her fashion line. They obliged, and when the boots showed up in the mail, Slaughter and her colleague took them home.  A year later, just before the election, WikiLeaks released e-mails revealing that Slaughter had been collaborating informally with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The e-mail traffic showed Slaughter trying to persuade New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that the uproar around Clinton’s private e-mail use was overblown and that “everyone” Slaughter knew at State also used private e-mail.  As it was, stories were circulating that their boss was gunning for a post in a Clinton White House and grooming their think tank for Hillary’s presidency. Since Slaughter took over, more than a dozen former Obama administration appointees have joined the ranks. A couple, including Cecilia Muñoz, Obama’s top domestic-policy adviser, are among New America’s VPs.

On New America's annual retreats:
Phil Longman, who worked at New America for 18 years until last summer when he departed with Lynn, says you could see the organization watering down its unorthodox brand through its annual retreats. They used to be “freeform” gatherings attended by staff and board members, “punctuated by highly competitive rounds of touch football and also a fair amount of drinking,” he says. “But starting about ten years ago, these fellows retreats gave way to highly formal, scripted sessions in which fellows, if they were allowed to talk at all, were asked to put on dog-and-pony shows for would-be donors. The most original and iconoclastic thinkers were generally left off the program because, well, their ideas were ‘unfundable.’ Eventually, if you weren’t ‘fundable,’ you were gone.”

On New America's financial woes:
In particular, some worried about the organization’s financial footing.  For one thing, New America had beefed up its administrative teams, adding staff in fundraising and other areas and expanding the organization’s central bureaucracy, a turnaround from its lean beginnings. The number of staffers earning more than $100,000 in reportable compensation jumped from 29 in 2014 to 49 by 2016, according to tax filings. Slaughter earned $535,000 in 2015, her salary increasing 27 percent a year later to $677,000. (The president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank with comparable revenues, took home $242,000 in 2016.)  There was also the cost of the upscale new DC headquarters. According to financial audits, New America reported rent expenses of $1.3 million in 2014, the last full year it was in its old building, while rent expenses for the new space amounted to $3.3 million in 2016.  Program directors were being asked to hand over more money toward fixed costs. “The culture has really shifted in major ways over the last five years, from a place where the center supports the programs to one where the programs support the center,” says Sascha Meinrath, a former New America vice president who led its tech-policy program from 2008 to 2014.  According to internal budget documents, as the organization laid out its 2017 budget, it was seeing red. Revenues had been jumping, from $14 million in 2008 to $38 million by 2016, according to its public tax filings. But so had expenses. Going into 2017, New America was privately forecasting that expenses would badly exceed revenue, leading to a projected drop of $11 million in net assets. Not helping matters was that the organization has no endowment.

On a think tank book launch:
Slaughter also pointed to a forthcoming book by one of its then fellows, Franklin Foer. World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech argues that Silicon Valley poses a threat to civil society.  The invocation took Foer by surprise. A few months earlier, as he’d been preparing for the book’s release, he’d sensed the think tank was backing away from it. First, he says, the organization informed him that his New York book event would no longer be primarily hosted by New America and that the viewpoints represented on the panel would need to be “balanced.” Foer had attended many other New America book events and knew “balance” was not a typical requirement for what are mainly celebratory events for fellows. Still, he agreed to the conditions. “But after the fact,” he says, “I learned that the development officer, Meredith [Hanley], had a meeting where she freaked out about the prospect of my book causing blowback for New America from Google and was putting pressure on the fellows program to try to somehow dampen their association with it.”
On hiring a management consultant:
That month, the think tank’s board hired a management consultant named Jon Huggett to interview nearly 40 people affiliated with the organization. He found that most employees he spoke to felt confident about the organization’s intellectual independence and that Lynn’s departure wasn’t seen as due to funder pressure. “Barry behaved rationally, for himself,” said one. In the end, Slaughter retained the backing of the board—one of its co-chairs at the time suggested in a letter to staff that Lynn had used New America as a scapegoat to advance his own interests.

On the future of New America:
Some still feel anxious about the think tank’s finances and future. The organization has had four CFOs in the past five years, and there was an abrupt leadership shake-up on the board last November. While New America has had continued success raising restricted funds for program-specific initiatives, like most nonprofits it has a harder time raising unrestricted dollars. In 2016, an internal committee was tasked with reviewing the organization’s finances, out of recognition, they said, that winning more program grants does not necessarily leave enough money to cover the organization’s fixed costs. Their recommendations to the board included growing more policy programs as well as increasing New America’s corporate-donor pipeline by 30 to 40 prospects annually. (In 2017, 8 percent of funding came from big business.) While the committee noted that the organization was staying afloat thus far by increasing board support and netting big gifts, this was “not a long-term strategy.”

Here is a previous Think Tank Watch post documenting all the happenings and reaction related to New America's Google incident.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Atlantic Council to Hold Russia Event to Counterbalance Trump-Putin Meeting

The Washington, DC-based think tank Atlantic Council, which heavily supports US-Europe ties and NATO, is working furiously to counter what is sees as the threat from Russia.

Here is more from Axios

On the same day that President Trump is in Helsinki to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, legislators from Western nations will be in Washington for a meeting, sponsored by the Atlantic Council, to discuss the Russian threat and the challenges posed by social media and disinformation.
The state of play: "Pulling at the Strings: The Kremlin’s Interference in Elections," will feature Sens. Mark Warner and Marco Rubio, with members of parliament from the U.K., Canada, Eastern Europe and elsewhere.
  • Warner, who approached the Atlantic Council with the idea, wants to send a message to Russia (and also to social media companies) that the West is unified in standing against the threat posed by Russian disinformation and interference. 
  • The conference will begin with a private roundtable for members of Congress and members of parliament; followed by a press conference with Warner, Rubio, and members of parliament; then a fireside chat with the senators; and will conclude with a public panel discussion.

The Trump-Putin summit is scheduled for July 16 in Helsinki, Finland.

Among other things, Atlantic Council is working with Facebook to fight election disinformation.