Thursday, July 30, 2009

Thoughts on the rise of think tanks

Matthew Crawford's recent book Shop Class as Soul Craft has received a good deal of attention (see here, here, here, and elsewhere). Crawford, moving from a Chicago political philosophy PhD to an unfortunate stint at a think tank, now writes in critique of knowledge work that fails to account for the place of the intellect in manual work. From what I've seen of reviews, his book is a helpful reminder to a cultural fixation on certain sorts of expertise. What I'm interested in for this post, however, is think tanks, what their usefulness is, their future, and concerns about them.

Crawford's story (which he goes into in a little more detail in the last link provided above) includes employment at the George C. Marshall Institute, a DC think tank on science and public policy. Crawford characterizes his work at the Institute as very "dumbed down", he also spoke of a common tendency to "reason backward, from desired conclusion to suitable premise." In the interview linked above, he described his job of abstracting scientific papers at a fast pace and with little oversight or concern for accuracy.

Hopefully it goes without saying that all think tanks are not the same, and that the failings of any particular one should not be projected on any others. But ambiguities remain, and they are worth pursuing. The other day I was discussing Daniel's work (he is a research associate at the Urban Institute) with a friend, and the question came up from him of what, exactly, think tanks do. Considering how influential they are on public policy, this is an important question for people to ask. Considering their rising influence in the world of "knowledge work", it is also an important question for me, from the university, to ask.

My sense is that think tanks are one of the most significant recent developments in American intellectual culture, and that we should note their rise with some amount of seriousness. In the same way that the modern German research institute swept the educational world and the post-WWII funding of research in the U.S. changed higher education dramatically, think tanks are now changing the way that we think about thinking, more decidedly in the public sphere and arguably with more extensive implications (for better and worse).

One good tendency in think tank culture is the emphasis on what might be called "interdisciplinarity", to carry over some of the categories of traditional schooling. The Marshall Institute where Crawford worked considered scientific, public policy, and military problems, presumably pooling resources and experts in all of these fields to work alongside one another and get things done. At UI where Daniel works, the general focus is on economics and social policy, but this focus is indeed quite general. Daniel has worked on everything from foster care to employment training.

This structure is similar to the (admittedly, a little wacky) op-ed that Mark Taylor wrote in the NYT earlier this year on restructuring American higher education. One suggestion he offered was to "abolish permanent departments" and work research around timely problems... he brings up the idea of a "Water program" to consider water as a resource and a theoretical problem from a number of angles. At the University of Chicago, a similar approach can be found in the Committee on Social Thought, which is highly interdisciplinary the way that many think tanks are (in fact, Crawford was a postdoctoral fellow at the Committee before his work at the Marshall Institute).

What I see as a possible danger of the new think tank culture is its very ties to multiple sources of expertise and influence. The military-industrial complex that has surfaced more prominently in the public imagination because of outcries against the Bush administration is reflected in the government-think tank complex (PNAC and AEI are commonly cited), where partisan influences determine expert recommendations, which determine policy decisions. Again, these political motivations are certainly not present in all think tanks. Karen Kwiatkowski, for instance, is a prominent critic of this trend, but I think that her arguments (at least from what I've seen in the documentary Why We Fight) can tend to be a little broad-brushed.

In the end, what is good about think tanks may also be bad about them. This is the case in any sort of institution. In the attempt to maintain legitimacy, influence and power are wielded both to the furtherance of knowledge, and sometimes to the political captivity of it. What I appreciate about think tanks is their nimble nature, their ability to adjust and appropriate the questions of today in an agile manner. They are, however, dependent upon sources of funding and the usual struggles for public relevance, and these can easily lead to a disintegration into partisanship or superficial research.

Think Tanks: The Lay of the Land

This is a very interesting post by Evan. I've heard a lot of good stuff about "Shop Class as Soul Craft", and I'm particularly interested in the role think tanks play in society - not just because I work at one, but because I have to interact with and react with other "think tanks" on a daily basis. Some of these interactions are positive, and some less so.

I think a lot about think tanks can be predicted based on how they're financed. In my policy think tank world, financing primarily comes from donations/endowments, private foundations, and the government. The "safest," most objective think tanks are actually those that rely largely on government funding. A lot of people may find this ironic, but it makes sense. Power in Washington shifts quite regularly, and despite the bad rap they get, the ubiquitous "bureaucracy" that manages these contracts is quite non-partisan and focused on very specific problems, which requires very specific research. Often the subject matter itself is dictated by political forces (i.e. - "home ownership" research replaced "low income housing tax credit" research during the Clinton-Bush transition), but the conclusions are not affected by changing political winds. Government contracts undergo a great deal of scrutiny - significantly more than grants from private foundations. If either the agency or the think tank involved in a contract were guilty of bias, it wouldn't take long at all for their competitors to identify that bias. These contracts also often require external panels and working groups to review the products before release to the public. Panels are usually composed of people from universities and other think tanks, and they also won't countenance a product that isn't objective.

Think tanks that operate using endowments and donations are ironically the least objective. These are organizations like the libertarian Cato, liberal Economic Policy Institute, or conservative Heritage Foundation. It's not that they produce bad analysis. They are simply more normative publications, and I feel that they regularly leave out important counter-arguments or findings. These sorts of "think tanks" are usually easy to identify because they regularly use ideological language (libertarian, "progressive", and conservative, respectively for those examples), and challenge or "call out" individual politicians. I think these groups are best thought of as advocacy groups that do research, rather than true research institutions.

A middle ground is funding by private foundations. Private foundations lie on a spectrum of ideological intensity. Usually, a think tank that is recognized as being objective isn't going to be budged by the ideological imperatives of a private foundation they get money from - and I'd say almost all of these types of grants give researchers final editorial sign off on content and conclusions.

The unfortunate thing is that the less objective a funding source is, the more interesting it is for researchers (because it usually means a freer hand). The government decides what questions get answered when they sign a contract with a think tank. Private institutes accept unsolicited proposals from think tanks, which provides somewhat greater freedom. Endowments provide complete freedom for researchers to pursue the questions they're interested in. So it's a mixed bag. I think a combination of these three funding sources is the best way to ensure that a think tank is objective, nimble, and can target research questions that are the most interesting to answer.

Think tanks have a range of missions. Some are pure government contractors - very objective, very focused and concrete, and very non-partisan. Others, like Urban, have a general goal of "understanding policies that support low income families", but because of their substantial government contracting, they approach these questions in a more or less non-partisan way. The final group, which I described above, are really just advocacy groups that publish research reports. They often employ smart people and put out interesting stuff - but I put about as much stock in them as I do other purely advocacy groups.

What's rarest is a think tank that blends practical and abstract/empirical and theoretical research the way a university department would, with considerable independence from government contract work, nevertheless maintaining a strong reputation for objectivity. That's a very hard balance to strike, and there are only a few that I think can do it. The Brookings Institution is one. The Council on Foreign Relations and the American Enterprise Institute are others (although AEI has a much clearer ideological bent than Brookings or CFR, but I don't think they "assume their own conclusions" the way Cato, EPI, or Heritage seem to). So is the Woodrow Wilson Center (although the Wilson Center does rely on government money, my understanding is that it is direct Congressional funding, not more constraining research contracts with executive agencies). Eventually I'd love to work at one of these types of organizations - essentially a university environment without the teaching or tenure, and strong connections to policymakers without being mere contractors. The Urban Institute comes quite close to this atmosphere, so I'm satisfied. But it's still somewhat of a Brookings Institution/government contractor hybrid.

Think tanks are very important for policy-makers. Universities are simply too insular and overburdened with teaching and academic research to be the sole source of policy research. But it's very important to understand what differentiates different policy shops. Heritage is no Abt Associates, and neither of these companies are comparable to Brookings. You just have to understand the lay of the land before you believe everything you read.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Non-Reactionary Case for States Rights

I recently finished reading Magnificent Failure, a book about the 1967 Maryland Constitutional Convention, which was chaired by my great-grandfather, H. Vernon Eney. The proposed constitution (which lost the ratification vote) had a variety of objectives, including stream-lining government, cleaning up the unwieldy incumbent document, reforming districting rules, and empowering the state government to meet the needs of an urbanizing and modernizing Maryland. Chairman Eney spoke often about the need for stronger state government in the face of the problems of urbanization and an expanding federal government. The report of the commission that was organized to study the need for a new constitution (which Eney also chaired) stated:

The most immediate threat to the welfare of the citizens of Maryland in the present age arises not from excessive power in their state government, but from a lack of power which prevents their state government from acting effectively... it must be recognized that... oppression can result as much from governmental
inaction, as it can from governmental action.
The commission (and later, the convention) position was that the growth of federal power was in part achieved by default, and attributable to the unwillingness of the states to use their inherent powers to meet the needs of their citizens. My personal view (and one that is very nearly expressed by Richard Homan, a Washington Post reporter who wrote about the convention at the time), is that this non-reactionary expression of states' rights - probably most forcefully held by Eney, of all the delegates - was doomed to failure given the charged climate of the late 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 - only weeks before the constitution would be voted on by Marylanders. Baltimore was one of many cities ravaged by looting and riots, following the news. Governor Spiro Agnew received national attention for calling out the National Guard to suppress the riot, and brow-beating leaders in the black community for not taking a stronger stand against the violence. This position catapulted Agnew onto the presidential ticket with Richard Nixon in the next election. In this charged environment, the idea of "states' rights" pushed by convention delegates was unfairly maligned as a neo-Confederate expression of white privilege. Juanita Jackson Mitchell, the president of the Maryland NAACP and a delegate to the convention, singled Eney out for criticism on this matter.

Since 1968, the very term "states' rights" has been presumed to be reactionary and even "code" for racism. Ronald Reagan famously declared his support for "states' rights" at the Neshoba County fair in 1980, which many critics have identified as a thinly veiled sympathy for segregation. While I don't have time to address the Reagan incident here, I will say that I think the idea that "states' rights" is code for racism is lazy analysis and deeply flawed. It's very easy to cut corners by arguing that something you don't have evidence for is some sort of secret code, which by definition there is no evidence for. This reaction against the very idea of "states' rights" has prevented the states from maturing and reforming themselves into institutions that can support and serve their citizens, forcing the federal government to step in and provide solutions.

I was finishing this history of the Maryland Constitutional Convention at the same time that the health reform debate in Washington really began to pick up steam. It made me think of two things; first, the success of the 1996 welfare reform beyond anybody's expectations, and second, the rush to a national health reform despite promising developments in certain states.

In 1996, with Newt Gingrich's Republicans in ascendancy, the Clinton administration angered many liberals by instituting a welfare reform that would cut benefits and tighten eligibility requirements generally, but provide the states with enormous latitude for implementing these and other reforms in the spirit of Brandeis's conception of the states as "laboratories of democracy". Policy analysts have thoroughly gleaned lessons from the success stories, and these lessons have subsequently been adopted in other states. Welfare rolls were reduced tremendously by the reform, and welfare is now able to target the families that need the most support. In contrast, most health reform plans we hear today are proposals for change at the federal level. This is occurring despite the fact that some of the most promising reforms (for example, by Mitt Romney, a Republican governor of Massachusetts) are already being implemented at the state level. Instead of betting on the best federal solution, why don't we learn the lesson that Clinton taught liberal Democrats in the 1990s: forcing the states to take responsibility for reform does not preclude reform - and if any reform must occur at the federal level, experimenting with various approaches at the state level can provide valuable insights before we bet the farm on a single solution.

I'm not terrified of an active federal government, like many are. And there are real problems with health care that may merit government intervention. But we need to look back to the Clinton administration and consider the possibility that there is a role for wider states rights in this reform process.

"States' rights" should not have a negative connotation in this country. For a lot of people, I don't think it does. But for some of the most reform-minded people, the idea of state power is still highly suspect. Historically speaking, I suppose I understand that impulse. But I still don't think it's right. The Maryland Constitution of 1968 was not eventually ratified, but its attempt to empower the state of Maryland to solve the problems of Maryland shouldn't be lost on us. Perhaps I'm biased because of my admiration for H. Vernon Eney, but I think we can still derive lessons from his relatively conservative, card-carrying Democratic, thoroughly reformist approach to states' rights today.

States as agents of reform

Just as much as there can be a knee-jerk opposition to states' rights as code for racism or as naive attachment to outmoded political ideas, there can be a knee-jerk support of states' rights, and for some of the same reasons. Often the reasonable basis for strengthening the role of state governments is ignored for the sake of ideological assumptions about what the states of America united were meant to entail. Daniel lays some good practical groundwork for a strong states' rights position 1) not based upon a sacrosanct theory of states, 2) not set in opposition to a federal strawman, and further, 3) specifically articulated with reference to the federal government as a cooperative partner of state concerns.

I think Daniel makes a strong case. I don't know if he's arguing for "states' rights" so much as for "state-level action", but I suppose the point is much the same. It has been some time since we thought of ourselves as the United States rather than the United States, and an ignorance of that legacy probably shuts our eyes to some helpful solutions for today's problems.

Unfortunately, I'm not in a position to comment too extensively on all of this, as I'm a product of the sensibility that fails to emphasize state-level governance and rights. Daniel not only grew up in Virginia with me, but he remained to attend a state university there, and continues to live as a Virginian. I, on the other hand, have picked up and moved to Illinois where my family had no previous roots, and I've attended two private universities during my time here. I think his rootedness in the Virginian situation has benefited him with a greater perspective on life at the state-level.

The concept of state-oriented and managed solutions is foreign to many people for the same sorts of reasons as it is foreign to me. Ralph Nader is paradigmatic of this sort of focus on the federal level in how he has run continuously in presidential elections over the past 12 years on a reform agenda and with no apparent interest in state-level work; he is in many ways the antithesis of our great-grandfather's reform work in Maryland. The impulse to centralize isn't wrong in itself any more than a state's rights are self-evidently right. We are of course dealing in the realm of the possible and the practical, and not trying to establish an inviolable order here.

But that's exactly the point. If the laboratories of democracy are still appropriate sources of reform work, then we should be assisting them as much as is reasonably possible to do so. It's a shame that segregation issues have given states' rights a bad name, because the obstructionist goals of these state partisans stands in direct contrast with the theoretical purpose of a system of states like our own. Rights are claimed, in the Dixecrat case, to push against the arc of justice rather than to explore avenues for its progress. But advocating progressive state action is not a call for fifty American fiefdoms- it's an attempt to work from the strengths of regional priorities and local knowledge with the wider national good as an assumed end, as well as a recognition that one's state is a responsibility in itself.