«The Industry of Ideas»: Measuring the Impact of Think Tanks
Investigating money in politics is a little like studying dark matter: we have to make inferences about what we can’t detect from the behavior of things that we can see. While the “visible” universe of money in politics—mandatory disclosure of campaign contributions, some types of election spending, and lobbying—is sizeable in its own right, it represents only a fraction of the money spent on influencing government. Ken Silverstein’s recent e-book Pay to Play Think Tanks: Institutional Corruption and the Industry of Ideas (PDF) delves into the invisible world, demonstrating that influencers have plenty of other, less transparent tactics at their disposal.
Think tanks are not usually mentioned alongside super PACs and lobbying firms, but Silverstein argues that they are increasingly willing to help interest groups convert money into political power. Silverstein chronicles several of the most egregious cases: lobbyists who use their positions at think tanks to advance their clients’ interests, prestigious think tanks (including the Brookings Institution) that openly advertise their readiness to draw up custom research agendas for major donors, and “strategic partnerships” through which think tanks lend an aura of civic-mindedness to corporate donors, to name just a few. In the most egregious cases Silverstein cites, think tanks have even done complete about-faces on policy in apparent attempts to please clients, as when the Heritage Foundation went from criticizing the Malaysian government to touting it as a beacon of democracy once “Malaysian business interests” hired a consulting firm founded by Heritage’s president.
Though Silverstein overstates his case when he claims that “the core policy options and alliances that shape American politics are simply dictated by the flow of cash”—for one thing, his own reporting shows that partisan and ideological loyalties often guide think tanks’ research and outreach—he makes a strong argument that think tanks are part of the money-in-politics complex (as have organizations, such as Transparify, that study think tank finances more systematically). How should we go about examining the role and importance of such diverse and opaque players in the influence game?… MORE