Lose an Election, Gain a Think Tank

Over at National Affairs, Tevi Troy reviews the evolution–and, he believes, devaluation–of America’s think tanks. He leads off by noting how many think tanks have shifted toward political combat and rapid response and away from non-partisan research:

One of the most peculiar, and least understood, features of the Washington policy process is the extraordinary dependence of policymakers on the work of think tanks. Most Americans — even most of those who follow politics closely — would probably struggle to name a think tank or to explain precisely what a think tank does [DM: This is true; even close friends and family often wonder what I do.]. Yet over the past half-century, think tanks have come to play a central role in policy development — and even in the surrounding political combat.

Over that period, however, the balance between those two functions — policy development and political combat — has been steadily shifting. And with that shift, the work of Washington think tanks has undergone a transformation. Today, while most think tanks continue to serve as homes for some academic-style scholarship regarding public policy, many have also come to play more active (if informal) roles in politics. Some serve as governments-in-waiting for the party out of power, providing professional perches for former officials who hope to be back in office when their party next takes control of the White House or Congress. Some serve as training grounds for young activists. Some serve as unofficial public-relations and rapid-response teams for one of the political parties — providing instant critiques of the opposition’s ideas and public arguments in defense of favored policies.

Some new think tanks have even been created as direct responses to particular, narrow political exigencies. As each party has drawn lessons from various electoral failures over recent decades, their conclusions have frequently pointed to the need for new think tanks (often modeled on counterparts on the opposite side of the political aisle).

He summarizes this trend as “lose an election, gain a think tank”. Looking ahead, he then notes:

As they become more political, however, think tanks — especially the newer and more advocacy-oriented institutions founded in the past decade or so — risk becoming both more conventional and less valuable. At a moment when we have too much noise in politics and too few constructive ideas, these institutions may simply become part of the intellectual echo chamber of our politics, rather than providing alternative sources of policy analysis and intellectual innovation. Given these concerns, it is worth reflecting on the evolution of the Washington think tank and its consequences for the nation.

Needless to say, I hope–and intend–that there remains a place for policy research separate from the political noise.

In addition to recounting the origins and activities of many prominent think tanks, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, the Center for American Progress, and the Heritage Foundation, Tevi offers some interesting facts about the industry, including the rising number of think tanks (1,800 today versus 45 after the Second World War) and the declining share of Ph.D.s on think tank staffs (13% of scholars in think tanks founded since 1980 vs. 53% in those founded before 1960).

The entire essay is well worth your time if you are interested in the evolving role of think tanks in policy discussions.

P.S. Tevi’s article make no mention of my research center, the Tax Policy Center, or my employer, the Urban Institute.

10 thoughts on “Lose an Election, Gain a Think Tank”

  1. ” noting how many think tanks have shifted toward political combat and rapid response and away from non-partisan research…”

    How true. That raises the question, though, as to what “non-partisan” really means. Almost all “think tanks” qualify as non-profit organizations under section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code, including the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution which are joint venturers in the Tax Policy Center. Section 501(c), and the regulations and authorities thereunder *require* them to be “non-partisan” as a condition for that status. Nevertheless, while most “think tanks” *claim to be* non-partisan, but the media typically describe thse think tanks not only as “non-partisan”, but also “left-leaning”, “conservative”, etc. So, what gives? What, exactly, makes a think tank “non-partisan” in the true sense of the word rather than in the legalistic sense of the tax code?

    It has been my observation that think tanks have indeed shifted toward “political combat” and that this trend has been accelerated and exacerbated by the recent phenomenon of think tank blogging. As a result of blogging, many think tanks who claim to be “non-partisan” tolerate and even sponsor blog entries by individual think tank employees who clearly are *very* partisan.

    Mr. Marron, my subjective judgement of your entries here and contributions your at the Tax Policy Center (and elsewhere) is that you deserve the label of “non-partisan”. Not that the TPC is the exception, but I cannot say the same for many of your colleagues at the same organization. How can we distinguish the nonpartisanship of an organization such as the TPC and many other “non-partisan” think tanks from the very partisan contributions of individual members? Are the partisan posts of these members reviewed and edited to conform to a “non-partisanship” standard?

    You recently made a call for contributions to the TPC via that website. Why should I, or anyone else, make a presumably tax deductible contribution to a “think tank” which satisfies the “non-partisan” test of the tax code (that is to say it has never been (successfully), challenged, but fails it in many other respects to be “non-partisan, unless my intent to actually to make a political contribution? This is particularly so since I have failed after diligent search to be able to access any separate IRS Forms 990 or separate accounting for the TPC, to which you have requested contributions.

    At the end of the day, the whole idea of “non-partisanship” has become a grand fiction. It is time that we simply admit this is the case, or that the task of sorting out who is partisan and who is not is completely hopeless, and end once and for all the not-for-profit status and the tax advantages that goes along with it that almost all “think tanks” are currently given. This would not only help reduce our budget deficit, but it would also end the senseless subsidization of what you very accurately call an “industry”.

  2. . . . “but the media typically describe these think tanks not only as “non-partisan”, but also “left-leaning”, “conservative”, etc. So, what gives?”

    In my opinion, this is a “media” problem. The media just cannot abide a discussion without characterizing the participants in battle mode. These labels are easy to use, difficult to quantify, and increasingly relative. For example, if an organization’s work includes the evaluation of government programs or public policies, that organization probably can be viewed as believing government can be (or should be) an institutional partner in the solutions to problems those programs or policies seek to address. In today’s hyper-partisan world that immediately gets branded as “left-leaning.” But it doesn’t mean organizations such at the Urban Institute or the Tax Policy Center shouldn’t continue to conduct research and let the research chips fall where they may or that you shouldn’t value this aspiration with tax free contributions. There are very few organizations currently granted (501)(c) status (including service providers, foundations, and religious institutions) which could pass a strict “nonpartisan” test as you describe it. A discussion about ending tax advantages for ALL these groups would be more intellectually honest. I’m not yet ready to go there.

  3. Mr. Palansky,

    Your comment suggests that you believe the TPC actually *is* (or *are*) non-partisan because they “conduct research and let the research fall where they may”. Let’s leave the TPC and the Urban Institute aside for now, but your comment suggests that there is a standard for non-partisanship (the one you used). You’ve also stated that you doubt very few 501(c) organizations “could pass a strict “nonpartisan” test *as you describe it*. If, by *you*, you mean *me*, I’m not aware that I’ve articulated any standard. You say the world is “hyper-partisan” and I agree; I suspect most others would, too. In essence, it seems to me you are saying that most 501(c) organizations *are* partisan in some sense (with the possible exception of your former employer and the TPC), but it is a “media problem” to sort that out. Or, perhaps you mean that the media should stop trying and not use adjective labels at all?

    A review of many so-called “non-partisan think tanks” reveals they often use such labels *to describe themselves* because advancing a particular ideological perspective is part of their charter! If it is not up to the media to sort this out, who should? And, in a sense, are not these think tanks themselves now part of the “media” (follow link to original article).

    As far as ending the tax advantages (or even *some* of the many tax advantages) these groups enjoy, I agree that it would be “intellectually honest” to end them across the board, and that is precisely what I propose. This has as much to do with pragmatism as intellectual honesty for, I think you agree, it is very difficult to sort the partisan actors from the non-partisan or even bi-partisan ones. Most importantly, it should not be part of the job of the IRS to do so. I’m very interested to know why you are not “ready to go there yet”. Surely, these organizations, to the exent they are doing non-partisan work in the public interest, could continue to do that work without the significant tax subsidies we now give them. If their work is truly valuable, contributions will continue to flow regardless of the lack of a tax subsidy. If you are inclined to view this from the perspective of an economist, perhaps you could explain to me why economists generally believe “subsidies” to be economically inefficient (say for ethanol producers) but are willing to look the other way when those subsidies are handed out to “think tanks” and other parts of the “not-for-profit” “industry” that coincidentally employ them in large numbers.

    1. Thanks for the followup posts. BTW, I like the acronym of your name. Think tanks seeking to maximize their fundraising potential with certain groups are very anxious to characterize themselves, but not the Urban Institute or the Tax Policy Center. I’m very willing to revisit all these tax subsidies, but only if they include all foundations, religious organizations, and service providers. Alas, some of these deserve publicly induced incentives . . . but we will all disagree on which ones. That’s the only reason why I’m not willing to go there yet. I think religious organizations are the last to deserve such treatment, but I acknowledge this is a minority position. Also, BTW, my name is Planansky not Palansky.

      1. Sorry for mispelling your name. As far as the “acronym” is concerned—this would result, I think, in “VD”. Whether this was intentional or not, I take no offense and actually consider it a pretty funny rejoinder.

      2. As to the acronym . . . I actually thought you were using the name of a fictional character in Vladimir Nabokov’s novels . . . which is an acronym of his own name. I would never have stooped to “VD.” So no offense meant . . . at all. Just curiosity about the name.

      3. Mr. Planansky,

        I think that you are confusing acronyms with anagrams. It has happened before. The acronym would indeed be VD, as in, for example, that tune “VD got to Idi”. Assuming Vivian Darkbloom is indeed an anagram, the link to VN would, of course, be the most obvious choice. By my reckoning, though, there would be 77,558,759 other possible combinations of those letters. I will grant you this: Somewhere in forward or reverse space-time that old trickster VN must be having a hearty chuckle.

      4. A humbling error on my part. There is no doubt serious chuckling going on, presently and in the past.

  4. Mr. Palansky,

    Further to my prior post, I just ran across the following account given by Howard Gleckman of the TPC earlier this year:

    Six Think Tanks Tackle the Budget Deficit

    “The groups represented views from the political right (the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute), the left, (the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress), and the middle (the Bipartisan Policy Center). The sixth group, the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, was chosen to represent the views of young people. The Tax Policy Center served as a “scorekeeper” for the tax proposals, but the plans themselves are the work of the individual think tanks and not TPC.”

    http://taxvox.taxpolicycenter.org/2011/05/25/six-think-tanks-tackle-the-budget-deficit/

    You wrote:

    “In my opinion, this is a “media” problem. The media just cannot abide a discussion without characterizing the participants in battle mode. These labels are easy to use, difficult to quantify, and increasingly relative.”Perhaps, and while Mr. Gleckman’s labels might not be incorrect, I think this demostrates that either the TPC is part of the “media” or they are part of the “problem” as you have expressed it.

  5. I believe the “media” is definitely part of the problem, but I don’t believe we need to fix it. Like the “invisible hand” of a free economy it will likely fix itself. Just look at the viewership of the different networks and how they have changed over the years. My worry is the government will find a way to get involved. In time, freedom will allow/enable the best products or information to prevail and the bad to fail. We just need to let it work.

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