Think Tank

Common History.
Think tanks do have some common history and a few common features. According to the “World Directory of Think Tanks” a unique resource compiled in Japan — the oldest continuously operating think tank is the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, founded in 1831 in Britain by the Duke of Wellington. The Russell Sage Foundation — focused on the social sciences — and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace — dedicated to global issues — arose in the early 20th century from two of America’s industrial fortunes. The Washington-based Brookings Institution is the oldest independent think tank in the United States. It dates back to 1916 and has tackled policy issues ranging from health care to public housing to arms control.

None of these traditional groups called itself a ‘think tank” when it was founded. The term was first applied in the 1940s to a group that became the RAND Corp., still the most widely recognized name among think tanks. RAND was the brainchild of H.H. “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. Arnold was concerned that the wartime concentration of talent from the military, government, industry and the universities would dissipate in peacetime, leaving the country unprepared for future challenges.

“Scientific planning must be years in advance of the actual research and develop-ment work,” Arnold wrote to the secretary of war. RAND’s first report in 1946 lived up to that demand for forward-looking analysis. More than a decade before Sputnik, the report was titled “Preliminary Design of an Experimental World- Circling Spaceship.” RAND depended heavily on Air Force and other Pentagon contracts in its early decades, but since 1948, it has operated as a private, nonprofit organization.

The quality of being linked to — but separate from —agencies and leaders of government is RAND’s most influential innovation on think tanks that came later. University scholars tend to concern themselves with the development of theory and with other forms of “basic research,” which may or may not lead to practical innovations. Government officials, for their part, tend to be consumed by the crises of the moment. Think tanks fill the gap. They deal with real-world problems but, ideally, they help prevent crises by anticipating opportunities and threats that may not be visible to those consumed by the day-to-day responsibilities of government.

The majority of U.S. think tanks are, like RAND, set up as nonprofit organizations, similar to charities and churches. This status allows them to accept tax-deductible donations and avoid paying taxes them-selves. In return, nonprofit think tanks must operate in the public interest. All reports and other products must be publicly available, with the exception of classified material prepared for government agencies. They can put policy proposals into circulation but cannot engage in any partisan political activity or support specific pieces of legislation. They can accept money from corporations and business interests but not in exchange for any work that is exclusive to the donor — which is why private companies looking for analyses of their own business prospects usually turn to for-profit consulting firms.

Roles and Revenues. Beyond these few legal similarities, think tanks diverge widely, beginning with their informal roles. Large think tanks, for example, often serve as “retirement homes” for former high ranking government officials, providing places where VIPs can hold court and stay in the game in exchange for helping the organization attract large donations. Especially in Washington, think tanks also serve as “waiting rooms” for people who still aspire to public office but whose political party is currently out of power. And think tanks certainly act as “back rooms” for some elected officials, providing advice and research that extends the capacity of a politician’s own paid staff.

Washington possesses the highest concentration of think tanks. However, growing regional diversity and the prospect of launching a hot new policy idea in one of America’s 50 state “laboratories” has led to extensive think-tank activity throughout the country. For example, the so-called “welfare-to-work” reforms eventually adopted as federal policy by the Clinton administration — which eliminate cash entitlements in favor of efforts to move people into paying jobs — began as state-level experiments.

Think tanks helped to design the experiments and to spread the word about many successful results.

A tiny number of think tanks have annual revenues in the tens of millions of dollars and staffs of hundreds, but the averages are much smaller. Fax machines, at first, and now the Internet have allowed. even two- or three-person groups of thinkers to spread their ideas to wide audiences with relatively small investments.

Ideological Vehicles .
As technology encouraged the proliferation of think tanks in the 1980s and 1990s, another significant change occurred. Rather than attempt-ing to carry out purely objective analyses, increasing numbers of think tanks claimed distinct ideological perspectives — more often conservative. At the state level, think tanks basing their recommendations on free markets, individual responsibility and traditional values emerged at three times the rate of liberal think tanks through the mid-1990s.

The Internet and even some academic articles on public policy are full of dark ramblings about right-wing think tanks, suggesting that they are part of a well- funded conspiracy. But the truth is much simpler. Looking at university faculties and the mainstream media in the late 20th century, conservatives saw themselves as hopelessly out-manned in the battle of ideas and doubted they would be allowed to join the ranks of existing organizations in large numbers. They seized upon think tanks as an alternative.

Washington’s Heritage Foundation set the standard for conservatives trying to use think tanks to regain influence on public policy. Founded in 1973, Heritage did three things exceptionally well. First, it mobilized conservative donors from throughout the United States, including Joe Coors of the Colorado brewing family, who contributed millions from his personal fortune while recruiting many other supporters. Second, rather than firing off its ideas randomly, Heritage concentrated its influence on Congress, where the impact of some decisions lasts for generations. Finally, Heritage communicated its recommendations in crisp articles and briefing papers rather than in weighty books that few people would read.

By 1985, according to The New Republic — a liberal magazine — Heritage had become “the most important think tank in the nation’s capital.” Arming the Reagan administration and conservatives in Congress with proposals, challenging court rulings, and using the media to build grassroots support for its ideas, Heritage took on that “fifth estate” role that either cheered or angered the people watching its progress — depending on their own ideological persuasions, of course.

Products of Freedom. Success has many imitators, so it is no coincidence that the Heritage model has been widely imitated — increasingly by liberal as well as conservative groups with all manner of particular agendas. A geographic and/or an issue-based niche that attracts donors, strong relationships with policymakers and an aggressive communications strategy are now the core elements of almost every new think tank’s “business plan.”

Large, university-style research organizations existed in a handful of other countries even before RAND, but the modern think tank is a quintessentially American creature. Think tanks are the products of freedom. They depend on free expression and the free market, and like most products of freedom — think of U.S. churches — they are prolific, contentious and highly diverse.

It is encouraging that the think-tank model — so tied to freedom — has been successfully exported to many parts of the world in recent years, especially after the collapse of communism. U.S. foundations such as Pew Charitable Trusts and the German Marshall Fund of the United States invested millions in seeding new think tanks in post-communist Europe and supporting their scholars.

Some of the most heartening stories about the impact of think tanks now come from places where they did not exist 20 years ago. For example, Ivan Krastev, the 40- year -old chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Bulgaria, credits think tanks in his country and elsewhere in Eastern Europe with preserving core principles of the free market and democracy during the difficult years of transition away from one-party rule.

“In contrast to the intellectuals, who have pandered to popular public opinion and have never managed to overcome their hostility toward government, think tanks have made conscious efforts to influence new legislation and government decisions,” Krastev writes. “In Central and Eastern Europe, ideas matter.”

Looking ahead, think tanks will remain a fixture of public life in most places where “ideas matter.” But these organizations are not without their difficulties and their fierce critics. If the rules of competition hold, for example, then the think-tank “market” could see some consolidation in the coming years . In the United States, the large number of conservative think tanks must compete not only with each other but also with political candidates, advocacy groups and charities for the same pooi of dollars. Not all of them will survive.

Private corporations, meanwhile, are becoming more interest-driven in their support of public-policy research. Rather than endowing a range of groups as a general contribution to the public good, companies tend to support think tanks with a track record of work that matches their own policy positions . Such funding decisions are hardly surprising, but they expose some think tanks to the criticism that their work is a form of intellectual prostitution.

“Money spent on think tanks helps to buy respect for the self-interested positions of private companies,” writes David Callahan in The Washington Monthly. “In public policy debates, scholarly experts and data-filled reports can legitimize certain viewpoints far more effectively than lobbyists.”

The vast majority of people who become passionate enough about public policy to study it and explain it for a living are not about to cook the intellectual books or sacrifice their integrity on behalf of a donor. Still, consumers of think-tank reports and recommendations are always wise to understand the financial backing of groups that supply them with information.

For public policy, in the end, the best defense against excessive influence of one group is intellectual competition of another group. In today’s battle of ideas, if yours are losing, send in the tanks.

Gary L. Geipel is a speechwriter for a Fortune 500

corporation and a senior associate of the National-

Institute for Public Policy, a think tank focused on

                                                U.S. national security.


Real-world examples of how think tanks compete on the battlefield of ideas.

Enlarging NATO

The decision to enlarge the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include several Eastern European countries — once members of the opposing Warsaw Pact — probably would have happened much later, if at all, were it not for the work of think tanks. RAND experts carried out research on the ground in Eastern Europe, crafted several options for Europe’s post-Cold War security structure and analyzed the tradeoffs behind various options for the United States and its allies. In its even- handed way, RAND took no position on enlargement. Its staff, in fact, was deeply divided on the issue. But RAND’S pro-enlargement case, argued in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill by Ronald D. Asmus in particular, carried the day in Washington. (Asmus later became a deputy assistant secretary of state and helped to implement the enlargement decision.) Numerous other think tanks joined the fray as newspapers and public forums on both sides of the Atlantic debated NATO enlargement.

Boosting the Consumer’s Role in Health Care

Casual observers of the Galen Institute could be forgiven for believing it has a staff of dozens. In health-policy conferences around the United States and in a constant stream of reports and commentaries, Galen argues that quality will be improved, costs lowered and access increased in health care if the responsibility of consumers and doctors for health-care decisions is increased. In fact, two people carry almost the entire load. Grace-Marie Turner, a former news reporter and political press secretary, founded Galen in 1995. Greg Scandlen hails from the insurance industry and other think tanks and industry associations. Together, they played a major role in putting the idea of health savings accounts (HSAs) on the policy map. Coupled with a high-deductible insurance policy, HSA5 allow individuals, employees or employers to put aside tax-free money for future health expenses.

Providing a Free-Market Toolbox for State-Level Reformers

No better example of a free-market think tank living by free-market principles may exist than The Heartland Institute. Now 20 years old, Heartland is the product of a late-night brainstorming session among a group of libertarians in Chicago. They believed the time was right for a think tank that focused on states rather than on Washington . Joseph Bast was a part-time University of Chicago student working as a janitor when he was pressed into service as Heartland’s director. Within seven years, Heartland opened franchises in five other cities. Competition from home grown think tanks in other states eventually weakened the franchise model, and Heartland re-tooled for the Internet age.

Today, its “PolicyBot” database of more than 12,000 policy documents provides one-of-a-kind service to state legislators, harvesting the best think-tank studies from around the country. “We decided to treat the nation’s 7,500 state legislators as our customers to be served and satisfied, not opponents to be criticized or lectured to,” writes Bast, still Heartland’s president.


Royal United Services Institute.

Russell Sage Foundation.

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Brookings Institute.

The Heritage Foundation.

Centre for Liberal Studies.


The American Legion Magazine

January 2005. (Pgs. 22-26)



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