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Perspective: David Boaz on Partisanship, Intellectual Engagement, and Taking the Long View

This post is a part of a recurring series titled, “Perspectives on Think Tank Ethics and Governance.”  Each Perspective post will feature lightly edited highlights from a personal interview.  In this week’s post, David Boaz, the executive vice president of the Cato Institute, comments on partisanship, intellectual engagement, and the importance of long-term thinking.  I worked as a policy analyst at the Cato Institute between 2002 and 2006, and I remained an unpaid “adjunct scholar” there until 2012.  The interview took place on October 26, 2012.

Mr. Boaz, the Cato Institute has a reputation that is probably unique in Washington for its degree of commitment to the principle of nonpartisanship. Can you tell me a little bit about the institution’s history with respect to this idea of nonpartisanship?

BOAZ: Well I think our nonpartisanship stems mostly from the fact that we don’t like either one of the major parties. I have to be careful saying “we.” There are a lot of people here [at the Cato Institute], and I am sure some of them have partisan views. But I think the founders, those of us who’ve been here for a long time, the Board of Directors, we tend to be pretty skeptical of both major parties and therefore it’s easy to avoid partisanship.

I think that from any think tank the work should be judged as the work, and it doesn’t matter if you know somebody worked in the Clinton administration or the Bush administration, you should still be able to judge their work. Is it properly sourced? Do the numbers add up? Is it addressing the real problems or dodging the tough issues? All those things can be judged, I think, without knowing [analyst's identities]. We could publish studies blind, like SAT applications or orchestra auditions, and then we wouldn’t be distracted by who is the author or what’s his real point.

But, we do know that when you come into a discussion, if you’re hired to represent a business, a union, a political party or any other specific interest group, then it is difficult to remain independent. So being independent of both parties—feeling yourself independent of both parties, feeling internally that that’s not an issue for you, that you don’t have to worry about whether your work it’s going to be helpful to or approved by leaders of any political party—I think that’s important.

And obviously, where you get your money is significant, if the money is coming from partisan sources. That doesn’t mean just that somebody is a Democrat or somebody is Republican.  Most Americans are either Democrats or Republicans, and according to a lot of polls, even if they say they are independents, they are really pretty much Democrats or Republicans. But there is a difference between people who vote one way or another and those who possibly set up organizations with the intention of advancing a particular party’s interest.

A lot of folks who promote the idea of being in a partisan coalition argue that it is the only way you can really influence what happens in Washington, DC. How do you push back against arguments like that?

Well, if you’re trying to change people’s ideas, and surely over the long term that’s what intellectuals want to do—they want to persuade more people that their own ideas are right, whether that idea is something narrow on education policy or something broad, like Marxism or libertarianism—you can’t be just in one coalition and talk only to the people in that group. And I know it’s easy for people to do that. I do think that our current media environment, particularly social media, make it really easy to play to the crowd. You’ll get a lot more “likes” and “retweets” if you say something that a body of people who are following you will already agree with.

On the other hand, I think you’re more likely to change people’s minds if you make arguments without fear or favor, and if you make them in a way that is accessible to people of all political views. This is one argument for always showing your work, showing your data. One of the arguments against making religiously-based claims in public policy is, well, it’s kind of like a black box: if I don’t start out believing the same thing you do about religion, there’s no reason for me to agree with your conclusion.

On the other hand, if you take a concept that you came to on the basis of your faith, but you demonstrate with data, reason, or other kinds of generally accessible arguments, that the policy conclusion you’re getting to seems to have good results to people who don’t necessarily share your faith, then you’ve made stronger argument. So, I think if you want to change people’s minds, then you don’t want to only talk to people who already agree with you.

It sounds to me like you are making a comparison here between a short time horizon and a long time horizon. Do you think that think tanks need to be focused more on the longer term?

That is certainly part of it, you’re right. If your time horizon is the next election, then you are going to think about policies that work there. It’s also true, I suppose, that if your time horizon is short, you think about policies that are politically feasible within the current Congress or the current administration. If you think about the long term, then yes, I think you’re less likely to be swayed by partisan concerns, and being less swayed by partisan concerns allows you to think long term.

If you are interested in changing the intellectual dialogue over the long term, then you don’t want to be caught up in immediate partisan or electoral concerns. I would argue that changing the intellectual dialogue over the long term will, in the end, change the political dialogue.  And it will presumably change policy, if in fact you succeed in changing people’s ideas. But it is a long-term process.

Debasing the Currency of Criticism

Public policy research is often methodologically mediocre.  You might think, therefore, that more methodological criticism would help!  Unfortunately, I don’t think it will be that simple. Technical critique is too often an emergency escape hatch for tired ideologues reluctant to litigate serious challenges to their principled commitments.  Paradoxically, research quality may suffer as a result.  A drained swamp lowers all boats.

Nearly every activity, including research, can be evaluated according to two types of standards: internal and external.  Internal standards define the activity engaged in, while external standards evaluate that activity in light of the purpose it serves, the values it reflects, or its likely practical effects.  For simple activities, internal standards are less controversial than external standards.  We can usually more-or-less agree about what some activity involves in order to determine whether someone is or isn’t engaged in it.  External standards are often controversial because they reflect disputed moral, political, or aesthetic values.

“Speech,” for example, is the activity of verbally expressing ideas using language.  This is an internal standard for speech, and there are various ways in which our efforts to speak may fall short of meeting it.  An infant who cries for a bottle expresses herself verbally, but because she does not know how to articulate words, her cries fail to qualify as “speech.”  If you have laryngitis, you may form words, but if no sounds result, you, too, are failing to speak.  If my mouth is numb following a dental procedure, I may emit sounds but have difficulty forming words.  You might say that I am “speaking badly” if my mumbling efforts are partially understandable.  In the context of an internal standard, “bad” speech lies on a continuum between what is inarguably speech and what fails to be speech at all.

But there is another, completely different way in which speech can be “bad.”  Speech is often called “bad” if it is spiteful or inaccurate.  Speech can also be bad in the sense that it promotes harmful behaviors or unjust policies.  These are all external standards for speech.  To raise the question of whether or not some particular speech is bad by some external standard is to raise philosophical questions about the validity and importance of that external standard as well as empirical questions about how the speech in question measures up.  Speech can be very, very bad by an external standard while being good by the internal standards of speech.  It makes perfect sense to say that Mussolini gave “bad speeches,” while at the same time conceding that he “spoke very well.”

Research of all types can be evaluated by both internal and external standards.  Ideological commitments are external standards for the wonkish activity of public policy research.  They should therefore function as figurative book-ends: as a basis for evaluating the worthiness of a particular research question, and as a basis for recommendations in light of a research result.  In between, a wonk must adhere to the internal methodological standards applicable to public policy research in order to do her job well.

Because research is a complicated activity, its internal standards are disputed among experts and poorly understood by the public.  Most public policy research combines ideologically-charged subject matter with contestable methodological choices.  The result is a grave moral hazard:  critics with fundamentally ideological complaints can till once more the exhausted soil of first principles…or, they can apply their efforts to the more pliant field of methodological critique!

Denying the validity of inconvenient research frees advocates from the challenging task of accommodating inconvenient facts.  As Economist blogger Will Wilkinson explains, this rhetorical strategy is the chattering class’ current Nash equilibrium:

Perhaps it’s wishful on my part to think, as I do, that most economically literate observers really do understand that raising the minimum wage will screw up the prospects of a fair number of poor young workers.  Those who favour raising the minimum wage anyway just think that, all things considered, that’s a price we ought to be willing to pay. But they can’t say that, just as second-amendment enthusiasts can’t say that an occasional grim harvest of kindergartners is a price we ought to be willing to pay for the freedom to own guns.

Charges of ineptitude have become so pervasive that the research signal gets lost in the media noise.  Every study bearing on a controversial issue, if it is reported on at all, will be criticized by ideological hostiles as a failure.  The resulting foxhole solidarity discourages wonks from calling out fellow travelers’ weakest work.  Methodological criticisms are roughly equally effective regardless of their merit, because few journalists, pols, and voters can evaluate their strength, and even fewer actually will.

Knowledgeable wonks and writers should identify genuinely weak research, but we should be equally ready to praise methodologically sound work even when its findings and prescriptions are unwelcome.  When ostensible technical fault-finding is actually sublimated ideological frustration, it threatens to reduce research quality at think tanks by debasing the value of technical criticism.  Good research is expensive and difficult to produce, while the bad stuff is relatively cheap and easy.  If no one signals the objective difference, bad research will inevitably crowd out the good.  Perhaps a consortium devoted to recognizing the best research at each participating think tank could begin to realign incentives towards producing high-quality work.

Ideology, Partisanship, and Scholarship

Think tanks are often ideological and sometimes partisan, but critics who deploy these charges interchangeably miss a distinction that makes a difference.  “Once seen as non-ideological ‘universities without students,’ the American think tank has, in many cases, become a partisan stalking horse,” Pacific Standard’s Emily Badger complained.  On the relationship between partisanship and ideology, she averred:  ”Those two terms…have become increasingly synonymous in modern politics.”  But while partisanship and ideology can each create conflicts of interest for think tank scholars, the two pressures are distinct, and they often conflict with each other.  Only by separating one from the other can we think carefully about how to insulate think tank research from influences that will diminish its quality.

When we refer to a person’s “ideology,” we are usually talking about a stable set of somewhat general (but not maximally general) moral and political principles. So understood, ideological principles serve as normative guideposts for, well, nearly everyone who ventures opinions about public policy. Indeed, even some fully-fledged political philosophers see value in these commitments. John Rawls called them “considered convictions,” and he believed that they play a legitimate role in philosophical deliberation. Elected representatives, opinion journalists, policy wonks at explicitly ideological institutions, grass roots advocates, and family members who discuss current events over the dinner table invoke their ideological commitments as a sort of magnetic north when they explore public policy ideas.

Studies suggest that adults have fairly stable ideologies, but they can evolve over time.  Some people experience a dramatic ideological conversion once or twice in their lives, either spurred by philosophical or religious study or as a result of coming to grips with facts about the world that cast doubt on the validity of their formerly-held principles.

Academics, traditional reporters, nonpartisan government analysts, and other political participants with highly technocratic orientations sometimes purport to eschew “ideology.” But as The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf recently pointed out, technocrats need ideologies, too! Ideology is what analysts consult in order to decide which research questions are socially important and which are unworthy of exploration. As former Cato Institute research fellow Will Wilkinson explained:

There’s no avoiding the fact that, if you’re doing anything with policy at all, you’re trying to achieve some goal. If you think that the goal is one that’s worth having, you have to have some rational justification for why that’s the end that we ought to be aiming at.

Even those whose research agendas are set by others—lowly research assistants, OMB economists, and Iranian nuclear scientists come to mind—must at least assure themselves that their analytical skills are not furthering some evil purpose. To answer the question, “Is my job morally acceptable, or must I quit?” a researcher must consult her ideology. When academics undertake projects for the purpose of “advancing the science” of their discipline by refining its methods, they must ask and answer the same question.

“Partisanship” is a different thing. Political partisanship has to do with being a team player in a coalition that seeks electoral victory. To be “partisan,” therefore, is to speak and act for the purpose of advancing the electoral prospects of one’s party. Ideological convictions frequently determine the political party with which a person chooses to make common cause. This is a always choice of lesser evil, though, because ideologies can be as unique as snowflakes, while political parties are coalitions. A religious conservative does not share an ideology with a libertarian, nor does a labor democrat share an ideology with a deep ecologist.

Inevitably, the demands of partisanship will conflict with the demands of ideology. In 2003, for example, small government conservatives at the Heritage Foundation had to decide whether or not they would support President George W. Bush’s creation of Medicare Part D—a huge and unfunded new federal entitlement program. In that case, the think tank’s ideological commitments rather impressively prevailed over the pressures of partisanship. On the other hand, Heritage’s Obama-era about-face on the ideological acceptability of individual health insurance mandates raised questions about whether partisanship does not sometimes masquerade as ideological purity.

Both ideology and partisanship can create conflicts of interest when a public policy scholar hopes, for partisan or ideological reasons, that her analysis will have a particular outcome. Suppose that an analyst at Think Tank A is ideologically committed to a principle of noninterference with the internal conflicts of foreign nations. She may examine the effect of interventionist policies on the federal budget in the hope that her findings will persuade people concerned about the deficit to support a less interventionist foreign policy. If she discovers that foreign policy has little or no effect on the deficit, she will be disappointed.  Similarly, a partisan may hope to vindicate the education reforms of a particular president during re-election season. If he discovers that the reforms actually did not benefit students, he will be disappointed by his findings as well.

This kind of conflict does not bedevil wonks alone. Traditional academics also hope that their research will reflect favorably on their ideological or partisan commitments. Princeton political scientist Martin Gilens, whose personal views are liberal, recently published a book in which he reports that George W. Bush’s policies reflected the preferences of poor and working class voters far more accurately than did those of Presidents Clinton or Johnson.  Gilens jokingly described his surprise and chagrin:

Certainly for Bush 43—George W. Bush—I would not have expected high levels of responsiveness to anybody except maybe the most affluent.  Like a good political scientist, when I found these results, I said there must be some mistake in the coding.  I did everything I could, you know, to make them go away.  But they were very persistent.

Ideology is not wholly dispensable for public policy scholars, regardless of where they work. Therefore, ideological conflicts of interest cannot always be sidestepped.  Because good research is a lot like good driving, such conflicts may negatively impact research quality despite a scholar’s honest best efforts.  Ideological conflicts should therefore be acknowledged and carefully managed by both scholars and institutions in a way that protects research quality.  At explicitly ideologically committed institutions, I believe that this challenge is among the biggest challenges in think tank ethics.

A scholar’s partisan allegiances, if any, have no necessary role to play in her research process. This is not to say that a passionate partisan is capable of entirely ignoring the partisan implications of her research, but it seems like an unambiguously worthy goal. Indeed, nearly all U.S. think tanks make public claims of nonpartisanship. These commitments are encouraged by the tax code, but when and where they are taken seriously, they promote good research practices by minimizing an unnecessary source of bias. Indeed, it seems to me that nonpartisanship is especially valuable to think tanks with ideological missions. It is challenging, but I believe possible, to maintain good research standards in an ideologically committed institution. Partisanship simultaneously undermines both organizational goals.