The Decline of the Think Tank

For my first post, I wrote about faulty information in amicus curiae briefs submitted to the Supreme Court. I would like to write about a tangentially related topic: bias in think tanks. It’s tangentially related because there is a different identifiable cause in this source of (potentially) faulty information in a government process: the purchase of influence, particularly by foreign institutions.

Think tanks are policy analysis organizations: they consist of policy experts (people who generally have degrees in public policy) who analyze bills and policy before, during, and after passage. They also craft policy suggestions to achieve a certain goal. Some prominent examples of think tanks include the Brookings Institution, the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Council on Foreign Relations.

The story of think tanks has a happy beginning but quite a tragic ending (so far at least). Think tanks were founded in the progressive era to provide non-biased information to the American public as well as politicians on the wide variety of issues that Congress debated. Simply put, no one had the time to be well-informed on every issue debated at a given time and politicians and citizens alike needed non-biased information to help them make opinions and decisions. This was a positive force for democracy; politicians were now more accountable to a more-informed public. Additionally, the think tanks were founded by wealthy individuals who were the sole donors to the organization so that the research and analysis conducted by the think tank would be independent from any financial or political interest.

The latter half of the 20th Century, however, saw the beginning of the decline of the think tank as a respectable institution. The American Enterprise Institute, a half-think tank, half-corporate lobby combination, was founded in 1943 by businessmen who staunchly opposed the New Deal and governmental involvement in economy and industry. 1973 saw the creation of the Heritage Foundation which combined a corporate interest and a Republican agenda. Think tanks continued to expand greatly in the 1980s and competed for influence. To compete with the more prominent think tanks, newer ones sought outside funding which in turn handed corporations a say in the think tanks’ research and positions. Think tanks with a distinct focus began to appear, which further incentivized corporations to donate to influence the debate happening in their industry’s policy realm.

Before the problem becomes more severe, let me briefly describe the impact that corporate lobbying of think tanks has on American policymaking (I might be letting a bit of my bias show here): think about the recent Citizens United court decision. If you are unfamiliar, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are free from government restriction on campaign contributions; essentially, companies can donate unlimited sums of money to political candidates. If you don’t see an immediate problem, think again: political representation is essentially controlled by corporate interest, not by the the people a representative would, well, represent. Congressmen don’t have to be accountable to the public, much less their constituents, they only have to be accountable to the corporations that are donating money to their campaign. This means they can ignore their constituents’ demands if they are at odds with their backing corporations’ interests. This might seem like the biggest problem in the world until you realize that the corporate involvement in this instance is only limited electing people into office; there’s no guarantee that the candidate will push for their bill. In fact, companies can’t reach out to every candidate in the House, Senate, state governments, executive branch, etc. There simply isn’t enough money. In the world of corporate-controlled think tanks, not only are politicians controlled by corporations because of election concerns, the corporations are their politicians’ information source. This is essentially a monopolization of the political process, something which should be alarming to anyone concerned about the democratic fate of this country. And, since this information is read by the citizens and congressmen alike, these think tanks have a much wider impact. But we can all find some solace in the fact that at least those corporations are American and in the end American interests are being represented (albeit potentially a minority of Americans). This brings me to today’s problem: international funding sources.

An article I recently read in the New Republic describes the problem of foreign contributions today. There are many, many examples of foreign donations but the one that stuck with me took place in the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). For the last twenty years or so, the CSIS has been receiving donations from various Japanese institutions, such as Toyota and JETRO, a part of the government that controls trade. And the problem with these donations is that, like any other country, when Japan gives, Japan expects something in return. My favorite quote on this matter is attributed to Edward Lincoln, an expert on Japan and the economy and a professor at New York University who was at the time working at the Brookings Institution: “The first thing [the Japanese] ask when they give money is what do we get.” In this case, that’s a policy recommendation that favors Japan’s economy.

And here’s why this is a bigger problem than American companies donating: when an American company donates to a think tank and influences the recommendations produced by the think tank, the expressed opinion is still American in a sense. The opinion may not be shared by a majority of Americans but it is held by Americans and likely wasn’t influenced by non-American sources of information. When foreign sources of funding pervade the think tank policy analysis process, the once-objective, or at least once-American source of analysis for American policy is now controlled by foreign sources that seek to skew American opinions and policymaking in favor of their country. This is exactly the reason why Andrew Carnegie and Robert Brookings founded their respective think tanks with their own money: to separate the policy research from the funding. Outside sources of funding, particularly foreign sources of funding, compromise the think tank process which was originally a way for citizens and policymakers alike to receive objective information about policy and issues that would shape opinions in a non-biased way.

For additional reading, this New York Times article (which the National Review article was about) provides statistics about the rise of international funding of think tanks in America.

UPDATE – SEPTEMBER 18, 2014

The House of Representatives has proposed a bipartisan agreement to force think tanks testifying on Capitol Hill to disclose all foreign sources of funding. As a testament to the power of journalism, the bill was drafted as a response to the New York Times article mentioned at the end of the original post. Jackie Speier (D-CA), who drafted the legislation, said that lawmakers have a right to know who finances the research they so heavily depend upon to formulate policy. This demand depicts the integral role think tanks play in the political process.

The bill, I believe, is an excellent idea. It doesn’t directly harm the think tanks in any way, that is, it doesn’t inhibit their policy analysis. It opens the public’s and government’s eyes to a major problem that plagues the policy-making process.

Think about the bill in economic terms: the bill informs the public and congress that the supply of a product (political information from think tanks and/or lobbyists with foreign funding) is tainted in some way (foreign funding) and the quality of the product is bad. Demand for the market remains the same, but the supplier of the product changes, or shifts, to think tanks that provide a better, more reliable product.

This is a new twist on the debate between transparency and effective policy. While normally the debate centers over whether the government has a right to withhold information from the public if the information would have an effect on policy, those cases involve information from the government. In this case, information goes from a public source to the government in the event of a testimonial in Congress. Posting on the internet is distinct from testimonial; it isn’t a government-established source of information with credibility. When think tanks send members to testify in Congress, they should be transparent, especially when the information is publicly available.

There is precedence to this: The Truth in Testimony rule requires witnesses before the house to disclose whether the federal government has provided financial support to the organization the witness works for. If we require a check for US government influence, why are we not checking other countries’ influence?

Facts came from this self-lauding New York Times article.

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