Think Tanks: What Are They Good For

Think tanks, what are they good for?  This was the theme of the discussion I attended at Wilson Center yesterday (January 27).  Their title was a bit longer than mine above, “Why Think Tanks Matter to Policy Makers and the Public in the US: Research with Rigor, Relevance and Reach.”   Jane Harman, Director, President and CEO, introduced the program and then turned it over to James McGann, Director, Tank and Civil Societies Program, University of Pennsylvania, Editor, Global Go To Index.   The event featured a panel of think tank representative to explain how they work and what they do.

McGann explained the birth of the think tank global index and its evolution since 2006.   He said that he just saw a need and filled it.  At first the index was just in alphabetical order, but the think tanks and customers found that unsatisfying.  People like ratings.  It gives the impression of some sort of competition and implies that think tanks are accountable and can improve their position.  Some of this is true, McGann said, but with such a diversity of think tanks and myriad missions, reducing them to a ranking is not entirely appropriate.  Rankings, nevertheless, will persist driven by popular demand and because it gets lots of people interested in involved.  4,677 journalists, policy makers, think tanks and public and private donors from 143 countries participated in this year’s ranking process and there are now 47,000 individuals that follow the annual ranking process.   It is the Oscars for think tanks. The main use of the index, however, remains that it lists and briefly describes think tanks.  Last year’s edition of the Global Go To Think Tank Index Report was downloaded over 175,000 times.  He didn’t give figures on how many just search or refer online.

I have written in other places about what think tanks should do and here will just report some of the comments.   In general, as they talked about the marketplace of ideas, I thought about how apt the analogy with other markets.  It is easy to criticize individual think tanks or scholars, since they are often wrong in details but rarely in doubt.  But as in market, the individual is not the most useful focus of attention.  Rather it is the relationship and flow of information among them that makes a difference.   It is hard to determine where an idea originates since ideas mutate and recombine when passing through various minds (the “virus” theory of ideas) and people addressing similar situations often come up with similar ideas independently.    This is like the market in that ordinary people like us can ride the wave w/o having to know the details of the debates.  Put another way, we get to eat the sausage w/o having to watch it being made.  It is like buying an index fund to represent the stock market.   Anyway, back to my story.

The panel included:  Heather Conley, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, and Director, Europe Program;  Ivo Daalder, President, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, former US Permanent Representative to NATO;  Ted Gayer, Vice President of Economic Studies, Brookings Institution;  Spencer Overton, President, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies;  Erika Poethig, Institute Fellow and Director of Urban Policy Initiatives, Urban Institute;  and Kenneth Weinstein, President and Chief Executive Officer, Hudson Institute.

Heather Conley started off.  She said that think tanks are important because they contribute ideas to policy makers.   Drawing on her own experience at State (DAS in the Bureau for European and Eurasian Affairs) she averred that people actually in government are too busy with the urgent aspect of their jobs to come up with new ideas.  It is time pressure, not lack of desire or intelligence, but no matter the cause, ideas almost always have to come from the outside.   I didn’t get the exact quote, but it went something like, bureaucracies take old ideas and complicate them with process.

Ivo Daalder was next.   He said it is hard to explain what think tanks do because much of it is thinking and meeting which produces nothing you can see.  His kids, he said, “Don’t know what I do and when they think they do know they disagree.”  This sums up the world of think tanks, and probably applies to most of us at State too.  He also referred to think tanks as participants and creators in the marketplace of ideas and added the important roles think tanks play as conveners and educators.  We may ridicule the endless conferences in Washington and elsewhere, but this is where people meet and hash through ideas.   If we did not have them, we would have to invent them.

Mr. Daalder represents the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and he commented on the challenge to be heard faced non-Washington-based think tanks.   Outside the beltway ideas are important, but it is hard to get them into the discussion.  One strategy is to discuss topics perhaps more appropriate outside the capital.   A specialty of the Chicago Council is international connections beyond the central governments.   For example, much political and economic decision-making goes on in large cities and there are increasing connections at the subnational level.  States have their own sort of foreign policies and agreements and cities are members of leagues and commissions.  Washington is a bit narcissistic and may not pay sufficient attention to these connections.

Kenneth Weinstein explained the importance of think tanks in term of framing questions as much as supplying information.   “The answers you get depend on the questions you ask,” he said.  He went on to characterize the think tank environment as a dynamic mix of competition and cooperation.   Think tanks are often vying for the finite attention of decision-makers and competing for the limited pecuniary largess of donors, funders and foundations.

It is not a zero-sum game, however.   Think tanks often cooperation and benefit from the complementary strengths of others. Sometimes this complementary nature is political.  It is good to pair mostly liberal think tanks with mostly conservative ones, giving them greater credibility and presumably creating synergy and greater useful truth from their dynamic tension.  Brookings has been working with AEI for a long time, for example.
I start to feel a little sorry for panel members who come later in the lineup, as all the good lines and ideas are taken.  You can only repeat “marketplace of ideas” or “convener of conferences” so many times before it gets a little old.   Besides the marketplace of ideas meme, everyone agreed on the importance of relationships.   Successful think tanks devote considerable time and energy to cultivating officials and leaders.   You may have the most wonderful and sublime research, but if it does not get into the right hands, it may go nowhere.

Spencer Overton, President, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, took us in a little different direction, since his think tank has a mission a little different from the others.   The Joint Center is more of an advocacy group than the other think tanks earlier discussed.   It was founded in 1970 to help and advise black political leaders at all levels.   Although most black elected leaders tend to be Democrats, the Joint Center is non-partisan.  For example, Mr. Overton mentioned a recent study that found little diversity among Senate staffers.   They reported no significant difference between Democrats and Republicans; in fact they found that Democrats did a little worse.

After appropriate genuflection before the marketplace of ideas idol, Ted Gayer from Brookings talked about where think tanks like his could have specific impact.   He said, for example, they can study the impact and effect of regulations.   It is easy to talk about the benefits if you don’t consider the null hypothesis, i.e. would you achieve similar or greater benefits by doing nothing.  It is hard to assess counterfactuals, but think tanks can at least make the attempt that most proponents of programs prefer to avoid.

(NB – I didn’t get a chance to ask and nobody brought it up, but an exciting new area of inquiry is policy issues is the “random controlled trial” (RCT).  These are revealing information about the results or lack of them in very popular programs by taking into account the null hypothesis in ways previously ignored.)

Erika Poethig from urban institute has the misfortune of coming last and there was little left to say that could be said in a few minutes, so she mostly talked about Urban Institute.   It was founded in 1968 to “understand the problems facing America’s cities and assess the programs of the War on Poverty.”

There was time for only one question from the audience and that provoked a discussion about how to package products.  Mr. Weinstein lamented that the day of the think tank book is over; you really cannot get people to sit down and read a long exposition on policy.   Besides that, the research takes too long. By the time the book comes out it is often overtaken by events.   Everyone agreed that they are going with shorter pieces that can be produced and read quicker.  Mr. Gayer spoke to the need to reach wider audiences who may not even read the few page reports.   There is increasing reliance on blogs and even twitter.  The blog need not be inferior to the book, although it often is.   The key to judgment is to know the author.   W/o peer review, there is a kind of crowd review.  People will comment and critique and some of those discussions can be useful.  Twitter is great for the one liner, but almost nothing a think tank does can be summed up in 140 characters.  Twitter is good as a sign post to something more.

There was a brief reception after the talk, but participants disperse quickly.  McGann and his acolytes had to catch the train back to Philadelphia.   They praised Washington’s snow removal success.  Evidently it was worse in Philadelphia.

Dillwyn, VA

I went down to Dillwyn, VA to inspect Virginia Tree Farm of the Year. It was a wonderful operation that I will write about later. The drive down is beautiful, along US 29 and 15.
Dillwyn has its own railroad, called Buckingham Branch Railroad. It was founded in 1988 and is a family owned freight rail company. I didn’t know such things existed anymore. Who knew you could open your own railroad these days?

It carries mainly heavy commodities like wood and forest products. Buckingham County is a major Virginia wood basket. It also carries locally mined kyanite. I didn’t know what kyanite was until today. It is a mineral used in porcelain products, electrical insulators & abrasives. Lots of little things make the world work.

Gentleman of Leisure

Ben Franklin “retired” at the age of forty-two and became a Gentleman of Leisure. It was the start of the most productive and interesting time of his life. I don’t pretend to equal him, but his is a useful example as I transition to from worker to Gentleman of Leisure. I am coming to terms with what that means.
First, let me admit that it is a good thing, but then assert that it is not as easy as just not working. When you work, somebody decides priorities for you. A gentleman of leisure must do it for himself. A Gentleman of Leisure does not just sit around drinking beer and watching TV. That is an activity actually more suited to the working man who needs to unwind. The Gentleman of Leisure engages in useful and productive activities that are uplifting for him but which usually require significant commitment and effort. Life needs purposes. If the job does not provide them or there is no job, you need to supply them yourself. It is hard work. So GoL does not mean you just rest. It means you work hard toward goals you set yourself.
The FS prepared me to be a Gentleman of Leisure. It often goes in the other direction. Diplomacy is one of the preferred activities of Gentleman of Leisure. I recall once asked what I would do if I won the lottery and became fabulously wealthy. After some consideration, I answered that I would do pretty much the same things I did in the FS. I just would not have to do reporting or expense vouchers; I would not do VIP visits and I would never again fly tourist class. W/o those lottery winnings, I cannot do many of the things. For example, I cannot sponsor scholarships or organize speaking tours. But I can keep much of the personal lifestyle. A big part of being an FSO is the “homework” or reading and studying on the broad areas of your responsibly. This is still something anybody can do with the gift of time to do it. We complain that we never have enough time to do this work and I will do more of it as a Gentleman of Leisure than I did as an FSO. Another thing that I can do is travel with purpose. This means studying and observing more than the sights or the restaurants. It often means also attending symposia and lectures. This option is open to anybody who has the time and money to travel and it will be among of my Gentleman of Leisure activities.
We will continue to live around Washington, at least for the next five years, and Washington is one of the best places in the world to be a Gentleman of Leisure. There are so many things to do that are free. You can start with the world’s greatest museum complex. Smithsonian, its museums, gardens and cultural spaces, are all free. It would be beyond the means of even the richest Gentleman of Leisure to create what any citizen can have for nothing. There are also the myriad lectures and think tank presentations. These are often better than free; they often feature free meals and handouts. You can get a decent general education just by living in Washington and paying attention.
My main volunteer activities relate to environment and forestry and there is plenty to do in environment and energy. Since 2005, I have been on the board of the Virginia Tree Farm System, which gives me access to interesting people and events in forestry and wildlife. I feel bad that I have not always given them the attention they deserve and was often out of the country and did not attend meetings. As a Gentleman of Leisure, I can attend more of the meetings & conferences and better prepare for them. Of course, in addition to being a Gentleman of Leisure I am also involved in the related enterprise of Gentleman Farmer, or at least Gentleman Forester.
My twenty year goal is to maintain my healthy forests in general but specifically to work with longleaf pine regeneration, build and maintains an uneven aged stand of pine-oak-grassland (as covered much of southern Virginia in 1607) and build a pond with surrounding wetland. Much of this is ready to go. I already have five acres of longleaf that are now taller than I am. We are planting another ten acres next month. I have identified around ten acres of 30-year-old pine and hardwood to transform into the oak-pine savannah. And I know where I want the pond; I just have to get someone to do the digging and preparation.
My picture is something like what I envision for my open woodland. It is from a forest-farm near mine, so I know it is possible. It is good wildlife habitat and very pretty.
Of course, maybe I will find some useful work that pays me some money. There are some good WAE jobs available. That could be perfect, discrete, episodic but interesting and useful. I favor money and would like to have more of it, and remunerative work can be a big part of defining the good life, but as a Gentleman of Leisure I can choose the work that advances other goals.
I am working through lots of ideas for my career transition. I am a little ahead of schedule, in fact, because I was planning to flee the workplace scene in March, but the State Department, in its wisdom, delayed my last promotion until … I am not sure when but after March. So I will go instead in August. It may seem foolish, since it has little material effect, but I want to have the final rank, so that I can truthfully say that I left when they still officially wanted me to stay. I was not cast out, which was always my fear and maybe even my expectation.
Anyway, I am looking forward to becoming a full time Gentleman of Leisure. It has been my part time job for a long time now and I think I already have most skills necessary to make a go of it and can develop those I lack.