The Sacking of Troy

Well not really, but it makes for a good headline.  My old sometimes pal Tevi Troy, lately of the Hudson Institute, recently took to the pages of the jaunty National Affairs journal with an especially jaunty article entitled “Devaluing the Think Tank,” in which he wonders whether the independent research institutes like the Heritage Foundation, my AEI, and the Center for American Progress on the left, have tilted the balance of their effort from actual thinking to “marketing.”  It was a thoughtful piece, but also problematic in some ways, as I expressed in the hand grenade I lobbed into the Hudson Institute panel discussion about this on Thursday.  My comments in this 95-minute video start at about the 1:24 mark if you want to watch.  But here’s a cleaned-up rendering of what I said in response:

Tevi, this may be a little awkward, since, having taken after your brother a few years ago, I risk starting a family feud by taking after you.  But I do want to launch a missile at you. . .

It seems to me there are two problems here with the premise of your argument that think tanks are being “devalued,” and with the premise of this panel, “Are Think Tanks Becoming Too Political?”  There is an empirical problem, and a theoretical problem.  The empirical problem would start here: we live in a time when everything is becoming more politicized.  This week it is school lunches in North Carolina.  Last week it was – a Super Bowl car commercial for God’s sake.  Not the first one, by the way, that has been subject to political controversy.

My hypothesis is that if we could do a rigorous, quantitative analysis of the “politicization of society,” I wouldn’t be surprised to find that think tanks have actually lagged other trends in politicization.  We don’t have the data to do that, and we can’t get it in a way that would be reasonably accepted, so we have to go to the theoretical problem.

So two quotes, one the high, and one the low.  A slight paraphrase, but Churchill once wrote that “The distinction between politics and policy diminishes as the point of view is raised; true politics and policy are one.”  This distinction between politics and policy is one that I think is unsustainable.  And the proof of that would be the low quote, from, I think, Mayor LaGuardia, who is credited with saying that there’s no Republican way to pave a road, and no Democratic way to pave a road.  Except that there is a Republican and Democratic way to pave a road today.

So, for example, the Heritage Foundation could produce a policy study that says, “Look how much money you will save the taxpayer if you privatize road construction and maintenance.”  And the Center for American Progress can produce a policy study saying, “No, that’s penny-wise and pound foolish; there are good reasons for keeping road work in the public sector, having to do with accountability and quality control.”  In both cases you can be cynical and say Heritage is just carrying water for the Associated General Contractors, or that CAP is backstopping public employee unions.  That’s easy to do.  The harder thing is to take the ideas seriously, and note that these ideas stand on their own, as perfectly serious and plausible points of view.

So this gets us then to the marketing problem.  In the old days when you had this argument, it would take a month to play out five rounds of the back and forth between CAP and Heritage, mostly in the form of letters to the editor of The New Republic and the Washington Post.   And it would all be rather genteel.  Today we can have 15 rounds by lunchtime [because of the internet and the 24 hour news cycle].

So here’s my challenge: Is this a bad thing?  Take for example the issue in the news this week: all the TV networks are talking about high gasoline prices.  Do we really want to have a world where the news media and the people talking about this issue take their talking points and information just from the American Petroleum Institute and the Sierra Club, and the politicians on Capitol Hill, or shouldn’t we as think tanks be right smack in the middle of that in a timely way, every day?  It seems to me that that’s not a bad thing.  And so this is a long-winded way of saying, “What’s the problem here?  I don’t actually see one.”

Tevi responded gamely, noting that my abuse of the Troy family had been duly noted around their holiday family table, but you’ll have to watch the video to see.