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Missing Institutional Heritage

Some think tanks style themselves “universities without students,” but most are what I call “mission-driven” institutions.  A mission-driven think tank produces (ideally rigorous) public policy research.  But it is also supposed to stand for something: a particular vision of a just society.  Last week’s high-speed train wreck at the Heritage Foundation should give pause to every supposedly mission-driven think tank that has a neglected or under-defined institutional mission.

My former Harvard classmate, Jason Richwine, resigned from Heritage last Friday amid public outcry over his 2009 doctoral thesis, “IQ and Immigration Policy.”  In it, he argues that Hispanic immigrants as a group have a lower average IQ than do U.S. citizens born in the U.S., and he recommends that IQ tests be administered to prospective immigrants as one criterion for admission to the country.

Some immigration reform supporters imbibed more than a little Schadenfreude as the news cycle imploded.  Not I.  I remember Jason as a generous and genial man who refused to accept compensation in return for patiently tutoring me for an analytical methods qualifying exam in 2007.  I find Jason’s research interests disturbing and his policy recommendations wrongheaded.  But he is not an unkind person, and I feel badly for him and for his family.

I have neither time nor inclination to digest a stack of research about what Richwine calls “the construct of IQ” in order to develop an informed opinion about the quality of his empirical work.  Reports are mixed.  Tufts Professor Daniel Drezner is unimpressed, while Harvard Professor Richard Zeckhauser, who served on Richwine’s dissertation committee, calls it “careful.” (Disclosure: Zeckhauser is a former professor of mine.)

But even if Richwine’s empirical claims were well supported, I would find his policy proposal—that aspiring immigrants to the U.S. should be admitted or denied based in part on their IQ scores—philosophically objectionable for reasons that could well indicate that Richwine is a bad ideological fit for Heritage.  Responding to Slate’s Dave Weigel, Zeckhauser usefully distinguishes the empirical from the normative:

“[M]y view is that none of his advisors would have accepted his thesis had he thought that his empirical work was tilted or in error. However, Richwine was too eager to extrapolate his empirical results to inferences for policy.”

Policy recommendations necessarily depend on a combination of empirical findings and ideological commitments about the nature of a just society.  From the perspective of justice, IQ importantly differs from acquired job skills.  Job skills reflect individuals’ choices to improve their life prospects.  It is certainly, sadly, true that not everyone has an opportunity to acquire such skills—a consideration in favor of welcoming at least some low-skilled immigrants.  Nonetheless, a policy of favoring prospective immigrants who have job skills is more intuitively defensible than favoring some over others based on one narrow measure of undeveloped talent.  Richwine’s proposal reasonably offends people who believe that our laws—even our immigration laws—should not deny important life opportunities to individuals based on prejudgments about their inborn capacities.

Heritage is a mission-driven think tank—it exists to promote a specific, conservative vision of a just society, and to develop policy proposals that are consistent with that vision.  Success in this mission depends critically on hiring scholars who share Heritage’s animating values.  If Heritage is institutionally committed to a conception of equal opportunity that precludes legal discrimination on the basis of inherent characteristics rather than choices and accomplishments, then Richwine is a poor ideological fit there.

But if this is the correct story, then Heritage should not have hired Richwine in the first place.  Opportunistic firing (or even “resignation acceptance”) practices don’t somehow excuse careless hiring practices.  Indeed, both are costly to wonks and to the institutions they inhabit in multiple ways.

Most obviously, a supposedly mission-driven think tank with no clear idea about who fits under its ideological tent doesn’t really have a mission.  I don’t mean to suggest that a think tank’s mission should be narrow, or that its scholars must agree on everything.  On the contrary, a think tank that demands lockstep agreement will never retain smart scholars.  But if a think tank has a handful of truly defining commitments, those commitments should be clearly articulated lest the institution become media-driven or money-driven in lieu of advancing its mission.

Moreover, mission-driven think tanks that lack clear standards of inclusion—a category that includes nearly all of them—can be fearful places to work.  One need not dabble in the dark arts to find oneself suddenly unemployed for straying too far from an ideological reservation with invisible fences. How far is too far?  Most of the time, wonks find out only when they are handed their walking papers, asked to abandon cherished projects, or pressured to recant unacceptable statements.

Fear of incompetency can promote research excellence.  Fear of being branded a heretic often precludes it.  Most policy wonks live with too little of the former kind of fear and far too much of the latter.  I believe that many mission-driven think tanks could achieve a better balance by reforming their hiring and firing practices simultaneously, bearing in mind a few general guidelines:

Clarity about shared ideological commitments – Think tank mission statements are usually lofty-sounding but vague.  If a think tank has a set of core ideological commitments about the nature of justice and the proper role of the state, these should be specifically articulated somewhere, so that both financial supporters and scholars have clear expectations when they decide whether to invest time or money in the institution.

No mandatory empirical beliefs or policy conclusions – Insofar as a think tank holds itself out to be engaged in public policy scholarship as opposed to mere issue advocacy, it cannot be committed to predetermined findings and conclusions.  These are the results of good public policy research, not the premises.  A wonk who fears learning the “wrong” thing will fail to learn anything at all about the world, and her think tank will fail to make a meaningful new contribution to the public policy debate in which she participates.  Unhealthy, research-spoiling fear squanders scholars’ talents and supporters’ money.

Greater emphasis on empirical skills – Good empirical skills are the best preservative of truth under pressure. Public policy scholars often add value by developing new public policy proposals, an essentially interdisciplinary task that requires empirical findings, ideological commitments, a savvy awareness of the location of the Overton window, and a working knowledge of any potential legal hurdles to implementation.  Policy wonks do not necessarily need to be able to produce peer-reviewed social science research, but I’m going to go out on a limb and maintain that they should be able to understand and evaluate it if they address empirical questions in the course of their work.

Term contracts for policy scholars – I understand why mission-driven think tanks don’t grant tenure.  Although adults’ ideological commitments are usually fairly stable, they can shift over time, sometimes dramatically.  But the hasty departures that accompany media firestorms ill serve both think tanks and scholars.  I wouldn’t blame Heritage at all for concluding that Richwine’s personal views are inconsistent with Heritage’s principled ideological commitments.  Indeed, they are inconsistent with mine.  But what we saw last week was a desperate damage control effort, not a sober reevaluation of Heritage’s staffing profile. Ubiquitous at-will employment arrangements in the think tank world diminish research quality and creative thinking by fueling the debilitating kind of fear.  They also encourage a long-term pattern of scandal mongering and sometimes-feigned outrage among partisans and in the press.  Replacing at-will agreements with standard two- or three-year employment contracts could paradoxically empower think tank executives to make thoughtful personnel decisions by tying their hands until the smoke clears.

Heritage was humiliated last week because its leaders failed to make personnel decisions thoughtfully in accordance with a clear institutional vision.  Let it serve as a cautionary tale for other mission-driven think tanks.  In a world of clear—not narrow!—standards, policy scholars could determine with more confidence where their own ideological commitments make them a good fit.  In a world without them, we can expect more embarrassing departures and, I fear, more subtly compromised research.

A Shilling on the Side

Buzzfeed’s Rosie Gray reports that former Bush speechwriter Joshua Trevino secretly organized a gaggle of professional writers to opine about Malaysia.  In return, the writers received payments from public relations firms representing the government of Malaysia.  Their columns—which praised the Malaysian government or criticized its political opponents without disclosing the financial relationship between author and subject—appeared in various media outlets, including National Review Online, the Huffington Post, Ricochet, the Washington Examiner, and the San Francisco Examiner.

Some of Trevino’s recruits were affiliated with think tanks at the time, including the Heartland Institute, the American Center for Democracy, and the Manhattan Institute, where I used to hang my hat.  However, none of these writers seem to have published their public relations contract work on think tank websites (with the possible exception of this early 2011 piece by Heartland’s Ben Domenech), nor do they appear to have used their think tank affiliations in their Malaysia bylines.

Which raises the question:  When is your night job a problem?

It’s not uncommon for a policy scholar to have a second source of income.  Young and not-so-famous think tankers are often paid barely enough to cover a modest rent and the clothes they wear for television interviews.  As a novice, I had several colleagues who held second jobs, usually tending bar.  One turned out to be a budding maestro of mixology, but others were not particularly good at their off-hours gigs.  (I personally would have been a painfully incompetent bartender.)  A think tank has no reason to look askance at its bad bartenders, because the two tasks are completely unrelated.  Bad bartending doesn’t reflect on the quality of anyone’s performance as a policy wonk.

Undisclosed public relations contract work, however, does reflect poorly on the primary professional efforts of think tank scholars.  Non-disclosure of a financial relationship with the subject of a published article violates the ethical standards of both journalists and public relations professionals.  It is therefore not surprising that National Review Online, the Washington Examiner, and the Huffington Post have disavowed the Malaysia-themed PR placements, or that the Wall Street Journal has administered a spanking to the writers involved.  There is a difference between off-duty incompetence and an off-duty ethical lapse.

Of greater concern, in my view, is the nature of the lapse.  A think tanker’s failure to disclose public relations contract work as such raises the possibility that he doesn’t see any difference between his wonkish activities—policy scholarship and opinion journalism—and paid client representation.

I used to be a litigation attorney.  I see nothing inherently ethically suspect about paid client representation.  It is just a different activity than either scholarship or journalism.  An advocate for a client takes the client’s best interests as a starting point, and then he makes the strongest possible case for them.  A client-advocate must not lie, but he is also not directly in the business of seeking the truth of a matter reasonably contested.  He is a cog in a larger epistemic process that we hope enables judges and readers to glean wisdom from the public conflict of competing interests.

This is why the mere act of hiring an outstanding lawyer doesn’t cause the public to believe that a criminal defendant is innocent.  On the contrary, if you hire a really fancy lawyer, the public tends to assume that you do, indeed, have a serious legal problem.  Similarly, if you hire a fancy public relations firm, people tend to think that you have probably done something embarrassing or unpopular.  Professional advocates can and do help their clients, but no one mistakes their public advocacy for an independent, expert appraisal.

By contrast, a think tank scholar’s opinion is thought to carry some authority, because he is not being paid to advance anyone’s interests in particular.  Wonks usually apply some combination of abstract ideological principles and well-honed analytical skills to a set of facts in an effort to illuminate the key features of a potentially confusing event.  I afford a reputable think tanker’s opinion some deference in the many policy areas in which I am not an expert, because I assume that it reflects the current sincere belief of a smart person who knows the subject matter much better than I do.

At best, public relations work is an imprudent second calling for a policy scholar, who thus debases the public currency of his expertise. Secret public relations contracts are ethically problematic, because they fool readers like me into affording the arguments of paid client-advocates the benefit of the doubt that we accord to those of independently compensated experts.   Think tanks would be wise to bar their scholars from undisclosed PR moonlighting, which diminishes institutional credibility by raising questions about whether what their scholars do on the job is really so different.  Reputationally, it seems to me that once you’re in for a shilling, you’re in for a pound.

Why Conflicts of Interest Matter

Conflicts of interest matter in the think tank world, because good research is a lot like good driving. If you are like most people, you make an honest effort to avoid getting into car accidents. You look both ways at stop signs, check your blind spot before you change lanes, and drive more slowly in rain or snow. You probably don’t drive drunk, and perhaps you, like me, no longer answer the phone behind the wheel.

Still, you don’t drive as carefully as you might, and your auto insurance policy is partly to blame. “But an accident is a dangerous, inconvenient, and humiliating event regardless of insurance,” you may protest. That’s a fair point. Almost no one who buys insurance thinks: “Awesome. Now I can get into all the car wrecks I want!” Yet, this fact—that well-insured drivers are, all else equal, more likely than others to be involved in serious auto accidents—has been proven about as well as anything can be using large-scale data sets.

Economists refer to this as a “moral hazard” effect—a term that misleadingly implies that an adequate exercise of will power can always overcome it. But that isn’t entirely true when it comes to driving, because driving well isn’t a single decision that we make by deliberately reflecting on all of the reasons that we have. Instead, good driving is an accumulation of a million tiny choices, many of which are habitual or semi-conscious. We don’t fully notice how incentives affect this complex pattern of conduct because we can’t identify every distinct decision point at which they come into play. If we tried, we’d never get out of the driveway.

Incentives influence think tank research in exactly the same way.  Every step of the research process involves thousands of tiny decisions, from the formulation of Boolean searches, to the choice of some variable’s functional form, to the book you didn’t finish because someone asked you to join them for lunch. No matter how conscientiously think tank scholars strive to do excellent research, a conflict of interest makes it likely that, in myriad tiny ways, they are doing their jobs less well. As my former colleague, Tim Lee, once wrote, “Getting the right answer is hard, and you are just less likely to do it if you have a huge financial incentive not to.”

It doesn’t follow that no conflicted research should be done, any more than the moral hazard effects of auto insurance make it the case that we shouldn’t carry any auto insurance. I carry generous auto insurance because I think that avoiding financial ruin and being able to fully compensate others for any mistakes I make behind the wheel are more important, all things considered, than a slight, subconscious reduction in my driving quality. I just believe that think tanks ought to apply that same kind of cost-benefit scrutiny to their policies concerning conflicts of interest.

When I ask think tank executives how they insulate their scholars from incentives that could undermine good research practices, they mention their “bully pulpit” strategy, their think tank’s “value proposition,” or their scholars’ “inner discipline.” Most think tank executives work admirably hard to establish a culture of honesty and excellence. In my experience, and to their credit, think tank executives and scholars usually do “the right thing” when they are faced with a clear moral dilemma. Good cultural values can make light work of the decisions that we actually notice and think about.

But culture alone isn’t enough, because conflicts of interest can subtly bias research in ways that scholars aren’t fully aware of and therefore can’t fully overcome. How can think tanks nudge their scholars in the direction of excellence? It seems to me that think tanks should steer clear of funding arrangements that create conflicts of interest if alternative arrangements are possible, and that they should establish personnel policies that protect the careers of scholars who generate disappointing answers to empirical questions. That few think tanks have established clear policies on such subjects suggests to me that they rely too exclusively on individual integrity, when they should also pay attention to the power of incentives to promote, or undermine, good research practices.

What is “Pay for Play?”

No think tank wants to be known as a “pay for play” organization, but the concept is rather like “pornography.”  People think they know “pay for play” when they see it, but its necessary and sufficient conditions remain obscure.  That’s too bad, because think tanks have a lively interest in determining exactly what “pay for play” ought to mean.  You can’t make policies about something unless you can define it.

Perhaps it is easier to say what “pay for play” is not.  The aspersion can’t simply refer to an earmarked donation from a benefactor with a passionate ideological conviction.  Think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and the Cato Institute attract support from individuals who want to advance a particular conception of a just society, and such donors often have a favorite issue.  I used to work on education policy at Cato.  I never fundraised, but I sensed that my work was easy to support because libertarian philanthropists tend to care deeply about school reform.  Research support is not ethically suspect just because a supporter, unsurprisingly, considers the research important.

Nor is a contract between a think tank and a funder “pay for play” just because the think tank specifically agrees to answer that funder’s research question.  Such deals are usually called “contract research.”  The Urban Institute and the Rand Corporation do a lot of contract research for both public and private clients, and they receive nary a sideways glance for it.

Lack of timely disclosure is a common element of financial relationships that give rise to the occasional think tank scandal.  But all by itself, lack of disclosure seems insufficient to make a funding relationship an example of “pay for play.”  Most obviously, very small donations don’t seem to require disclosure.  The Heritage Foundation reports that it has “hundreds of thousands” of individual members, making it “the most broadly supported think tank in America.”  Heritage’s 2011 annual report lists hundreds, but certainly not hundreds of thousands, of supporters.  It doesn’t seem like a problem that the think tank does not disclose the identity of every small contributor.

Whether think tanks ought to disclose very large contributions is a more debatable question.  But even very large contributions can’t be characterized as “pay for play” if they are truly unconditional.  A posthumous gift of $1 million, conveyed anonymously by an executor to a lucky think tank, would probably be as welcome as the discovery of a buried treasure underneath the auditorium.

The term “pay for play” suggests that some sort of quid pro quo is involved—that the supporter is getting something out of the relationship besides the warm feeling of a good deed done.  The question is: what exactly is that something else?

What characteristics must a funding relationship have in order to count as “pay for play” in the think tank world?  Make your suggestions in the comments.