Based on the reception to another New York Times piece about how money and power pass through Washington think tanks, everybody wants to believe that he’s losing the argument because of the other guy’s Evil, Nefarious Money. That might be true, but any particular big contribution or purported pay-for-play scheme doesn’t prove it.
First of all, consider: Congressmen, senior officials in any administration, and high-ranking bureaucrats at cabinet agencies almost never read think tank papers. Back in my think tank days I used to take masochistic glee in reports like this one, indicating that almost a third of World Bank reports were not even downloaded once, and only 13 percent were downloaded 250 times or more. It’s sad and telling that the vaunted Ideas Industry in Washington seems uninterested in its own product.
Much of the story regarding think tanks gets the causal arrow backward. There’s a lot of bleating about “pay-for-play” work: that is, work that is produced for the purpose of substantiating a predetermined conclusion. A Brookings official in the Times piece defended Brookings’ work by waxing philosophic:
“Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to the greatest generation, in the post-World War II era of philanthropy, where they said, gosh, ‘Here is $1 million; spend it how you wish.’”
It might be nice, in the same sense that it might be nice to go back to the greatest generation and shoot hoops with Wally Cleaver and Eddie Haskell, except that was a fictional TV show and history is complicated.
There was never a time where there was a plurality of the research money simply floating in a chamber, waiting to be taken by scholars with the brightest minds and the soundest methods. People with money tend to give it to causes they believe in or causes that benefit them.
This gets more complicated because most wealthy people believe that causes that benefit them are also socially valuable. One of the examples in the Times piece centers on Bryan McGrath and the Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower. Bryan is a nice guy who happens to have dangerous policy views that hold the prospect of squandering hundreds of billions of dollars in pursuit of policies that might start World War III. But he’s sincere in those beliefs.
He also, I believe, has a family and a mortgage and would like to be well compensated for his research. Accordingly, it would be negligent of him not to seek out top dollar to fund research that will advance his views. And his views tend to overlap with the interests of certain defense contractors.
For people who think that ideas matter more than I do, the better question is which ideas are being heard, and how much? The answer involves dealing with the subject of what research gets produced. To ask what research gets produced begs the question who would pay to produce a particular sort of research. Ideas that can’t find support die.
So where there’s a constellation of wealthy and powerful interests on one side of a policy issue and no interests on the other side, there’s an imbalance. For example, as my former colleague Ben Friedman once wrote in an underappreciated article,
In current national security politics, there is debate, but all the interests are on one side. Both parties see political reward in preaching danger. The massive U.S. national security establishment relies on a sense of threat to stay in business. On the other side, as former defense secretary Les Aspin once wrote, there is no other side.
And where there is no other side, one shouldn’t be surprised to see the one team on the field win. In a 2004 article about Iraq War dissenters, Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot dismissed the foreign policy department at Cato as “four or five people in a phone booth.” Those odds make the little guys tougher and smarter–and maybe even right sometimes–but they also make it tough for the little guys to win.
Instead of fretting about this scholar or that think tank getting a grant for a project, the bigger question to think about is the broader constellation of interests funding research on a particular issue. Imagine: If Koch Industries existed but not the broad array of environmental groups–or vice versa–environmental policy would look a lot different than it does now.