Politics and Public Opinion

How to Think About Think Tanks

Yesterday’s parting of ways between David Frum and the American Enterprise Institute triggered a blogger firestorm. Attracting by far the most attention is an item on Bruce Bartlett’s blog:

Since, he is no longer affiliated with AEI, I feel free to say publicly something he told me in private a few months ago. He asked if I had noticed any comments by AEI ‘scholars’ on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do.

The blogger Conor Friedersdorf queried AEI scholars directly about whether they had been squelched or guided in their research and publishing. Although he offered anonymity, the result has been a flood of responses, all of which say in one way or another that they have always been free to say whatever they want to say.

In the meantime, however, there is something astonishing about the response to Bartlett’s blog item, namely, the simple fact that many normally sensible and well-informed people have accepted it at face value. Typical is this entry from Joe Klein’s Time Magazine blog. From across the pond at the Guardian, we have Michael Tomasky, who is fully prepared to assume that what Bartlett says is true unless and until Frum himself says it is untrue.

Here is where the true mystery lies, or rather two mysteries. The first mystery is rather prosaic. Bartlett said he didn’t see anything from AEI scholars on healthcare reform and that Frum confirmed the absence of AEI views. Forget about the unfathomable puzzle of how Bartlett could avoid seeing AEI work on healthcare—which has appeared often in outlets like the Wall Street Journal, which Bartlett could avoid only in a most perverse manner—or the puzzle of how Frum could avoid seeing that same material and more, even if he has spent as little time at AEI as seems to be the case. How could media mavens like Klein, who has frequently written on healthcare reform in the past year, completely miss the scores or hundreds of ways in which—to no avail, alas—we health policy scholars have written, conferenced, blogged, and media-pundited on the downsides of Obamacare?

The second mystery is deeper. How could Klein and others so completely misconceive the basic workings of top-tier think tanks? That tier, in which I modestly include AEI, also includes Brookings, where I spent a year in the mid-1990s and where I have long-time friends. The basic strategy at these outfits is to hire strong scholars and fellows (the distinction is unimportant) whose basic orientation, typically revealed through an extensive track record, is roughly consistent with that of the institution’s management. Upon completion of the recruitment process, the institution provides support including research assistance and a complex panoply of publishing, conferences, media relations, and of course, fundraising—and then it simply unleashes those scholars upon the intellectual and policy-making firmament. At that point, the scholars’ instincts and proclivities pretty much take over. The institution really has no other choice. If you peruse the resumes of the scholars at AEI and Brookings, for example, or Google those scholars, it is apparent that trying to tell these people what to say would almost always be hopeless. They are too opinionated, too independent-thinking, too arrogant in many cases (let’s be frank), to permit anything other than yet more proof of the impossibility of herding cats. Constraints come in the form of budgets—you can’t get another research assistant or a $20,000 data set without some special pleading—but that is generally an almost evanescent barrier to opinionating. It is hard to believe that the smart bloggers and writers at Time and elsewhere have failed to learn this basic point about think-tanking, but that seems to be the case.

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