This is where Bartlett starts to call the end.
It’s one thing to promise a donor some research that would be produced and distributed much faster than could be done by a university professor, the traditional producers of serious policy research—but it was quite another to promise the sort of immediate impact on legislation that a congressman or senator could offer. The result was even more pressure on think tanks to work with congressional offices and coordinate their activities. Now every Washington think tank has congressional liaisons on their staff.
There’s lots more good stuff here, about Hill offices coming to rely on think tanks, Heritage’s new explicitly political arm (Bartlett doesn’t mention it, but the liberal Center for American Progress has made a similar move), and pressure on think tankers to avoid criticism of their political allies.
No need to point that out to David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter who lost his job at AEI last month after criticizing the GOP’s strategy on healthcare—a nice reminder of that earlier conservative dissatisfaction with AEI that led to the creation of Heritage.
And it’s hard to overstate how central think thanks have become to Washington, and the press. Just look at this National Journal story, based on a Brookings study:
The five largest banks have a stranglehold on trading in credit default swaps, a type of security that was at the center of the financial crisis, and those banks will be able to foil congressional reform plans unless the government takes antitrust action, according to a new report.
Doesn’t that sound like the kind of gravity usually reserved for a final report from some sort of government-appointed special commission?
Mark Thoma, a University of Oregon economics professor and blogger, weighed in strongly on Bartlett’s side of the think tank argument, lamenting the damage done to economics by the “blurring of lines between academic research and think tank research—some of which is simply not honest—that has made it appear that there are divisions within the profession that simply do not exist, or that there is stronger support for some ideas than actually exists.”
But Thoma also pointed the finger at the press:
The main problem, I think, is the he said - she said presentation of academic work in the media alongside the papers that think tanks put out as though there is an equivalence (or a similarly structured debate on, say, CNN). Much of the think tank work (but not all) is junk and no such equivalence exists, but the work is often given equal footing in the press. One of the reasons I started this blog was the frustration of hearing what economists “believe” (e.g. “tax cuts pay for themselves”), when those beliefs were anything but widely held. But you wouldn’t know that reading the paper or watching the news.
One consequence of Heritage’s breakthrough in developing short, readable, time-sensitive policy analyses is that they were just as useful to the media as they were on Capitol Hill. Reporters had the same need for predigested studies written in plain English, as opposed to the sorts of books written in academese that were the stock-in-trade of traditional think tanks like Brookings.
Conservatives also realized that putting out a study saying the exact opposite of a liberal study was sufficient to muddy the water and prevent a reporter from drawing a clear conclusion from the liberal study. It didn’t matter that the liberal study was done by a preeminent scholar in the field and the conservative study was done by a glorified intern. All that mattered is that they came to opposite conclusions, thus leading to on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand stories that everyone hates but the media won’t stop writing.
Bartlett’s analysis of think tanks past and present is an important one, and shows that there’s plenty more to be written about these Washington institutions. In the meantime, it’s a good idea for the press to pause a sec, and give those studies and reports a second thought before diving in the tank.