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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.

Perspective: Edwin Meese III Discusses Institutional Mission Fidelity and the Advantage of Broad-Based Support

This post is a part of a recurring series titled, “Perspectives on Think Tank Ethics and Governance.”  Each Perspective post will feature highlights from a personal interview.  In this week’s post, Edwin Meese III, Ronald Reagan Distinguished Fellow Emeritus at the Heritage Foundation and former chairman of Heritage’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, comments on mission fidelity, management practices, and the advantage of a broad base of support.  The interview took place on October 25, 2012.

Mr. Meese, we were talking about having an inner discipline about being committed to the mission. [How do you] not allow the possibility of specific donations to divert you from your principles?

MEESE:  As you say, we don’t do contract work, [and] we don’t take any governmental funds from any government. We try to be very transparent in all that we do. We are clear about what our mission is, clear about what our principles are, clear about what our objectives are, clear about what our overall philosophy is.  [P]eople who desire to become members of Heritage, who desire to contribute to Heritage Foundation, understand that that they are contributing because they want to be part of and support the work we do rather than the other way around.

Everybody has a mission statement, and it’s often highly general. So how do you figure out what [the mission statement] means in the context of specific research programs?

MEESE:  Well, for one thing, we set up our primary principles of individual liberty, limited government, free market economics, strong national defense, support of what we call “traditional American values.” That [last one is] the only one that’s a little bit nebulous there, and by that we mean family and religion, we mean patriotism, we mean things like a commitment to work, individual responsibility.  Then, we have our mission: to promote a society in which freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish. We say clearly, we are nonpartisan, but we are conservative, so we are committed to a philosophy but not to a political party or any candidates.

It’s hard to resist partisan pressures when they arise. How do you do that?

MEESE:  Well, it’s not hard, because we’ve been doing it so long, and everybody who is here understands that.  But we are attentive to the issue, and we have a system within our management structure so that we provide guidance to all of our people, particularly in an election year, as to how they are to act and how they are to respond to things like questions from a political organization of any sort.  [T]he organizers must understand that we would give the same thing to their opponents.

For example, if they call, we provide briefings to candidates across the board. Now, obviously, one party is more likely to ask questions and to seek information from a conservative organization than the other party, but we do [briefings] on a nonpartisan basis. The second the thing we do is, we don’t get involved in support—Heritage itself—in support of legislation or opposition to specific legislation. We do have a 501(c)(4) organization, Heritage Action for America is a sister organization, and they they are able to lobby, but again, not to support specific candidates or anything like that.

A lot of the research that scholars at think tanks do is more applied than what’s going on in academic departments. Where do you see the position of think tanks and what they do, related to academia on one side and activists on the other?

MEESE:  I would say that that we pride ourselves on [our] information being factual, on being supported by evidence, by looking at counterarguments, and by trying to provide recommendations in terms of what policy will be. Our policy ideas, if you will, can be useful, and hopefully would be adopted by people of whatever political party, based on the overall direction of our philosophy. Our President, Ed Feulner, has said that he often hears from Democrat congressman that they look at Heritage materials—our issue briefs, for example—and they can use everything up to the final page, which has the the conclusion and the recommendations. They said they tear that page off and use the rest of it. We consider that a good thing.

Do you have any internal ethics policies or conflict of interest policies and guidelines in the organization?

MEESE:  Gosh, only on political activity. We have clear-cut rules on political activity. But we do have a management structure, so somebody from the beginning people in the organization, policy analysts who start here of as well as support people, all the way to the president, they have someone that can go to for advice and guidance on any of the, what you might call ethics issues. And likewise, we have we have reviews for factual matters, so we have a series of editorial reviews of anything coming out of here.

So, you have a quality review process, where you vet work before it’s published.

MEESE:  Sometimes we may even have more than one. Say we are doing something on national security law. We will want to make sure that it is been vetted by people who are our experts on national security as well as by our legal experts. If they were talking about something like the Law of the Sea Treaty, they would want to have it vetted by, not only their experts from the navigational standpoint, the economics standpoint, but also from the constitutional legal standpoint.

So, this process of review is to make sure that we have [good] quality in terms of accuracy, as well as of course readability and those other qualities. That is part of our regular process. [E]very Monday morning at our management meetings, where we have our our senior management and our next level of management, we have a review of all the topics that are being researched, and what you might call “major policy documents.”

If you were going to give some advice to a new, small think tank that is just getting off the ground and trying to develop best practices, what advice would you give them?

MEESE:  Well, first of all, hire good scholars. Look carefully at people’s background for, obviously, intellectual capability, as well as the other things you need, writing style and all that. Look at their background in terms of their education, and ascertain to make sure they have intellectual integrity. Those qualities you need. And then, of course, a thorough review of the policies of the organization—the things we’ve been talking about, the mission, the philosophy, and those kinds of things—hopefully before they are hired.

The next thing, of course, would be that they understand the review process, and then particularly having a process of how you handle what you might call complaints, criticisms, that sort of thing.  [L]et’s say somebody publishes paper and the next day you have EJ Dionne or someone like that criticizing the paper.  We would want to first speak to the analyst who wrote the paper and probably that person’s superior officer to see whether the criticism was in any way justified or accurate. If it isn’t, we decide what kind of rebuttal we want to have, whether we’re just going to let it go because it’s inconsequential or nobody believes that person anyway. Or, they’ve got a good point, and we go back and check our informational resources to make sure we are accurate. If we’re right, we defend the position. If somebody’s made a mistake, we correct it. In other words, we maintain absolute integrity in terms of factual matter.

How do you handle instances of empirical disagreement when they crop up within the organization? For example, if one person thinks program X tends to increase literacy, and another person can’t find that effect, how do you hammer those things out?

MEESE:  It goes to the next level of management. If we get to a total impasse, then we would figure out how to handle it. Usually it’s not so much on a factual matter as it is, like you say, an interpretation or an idea of how we are proceed from there. Sometimes, take a tough subject like immigration policy, as we have a couple years ago, where we were essentially at odds with what George W. [Bush] wanted to do, and some of the others, and we had people on both sides within the organization, several sides that case. So, what we will often do is put together a working group, and I’m often asked to head them up, or someone else fairly senior here. We would bring all people together and argue it out and ultimately either reach a consensus, which is often what we are able to do, or just have to flat make a decision.

I took a look at your annual reports, and I noticed that you seem to recognize a lot of your donors.

MEESE:  We want to recognize, particularly the major donors, but we also have 700,000 people who are members, so even what we put in our annual report is just a very small fraction of our total body of contributors.

Would you say that there are any advantages to having a very broad donor base in terms of the mission, or being able to maintain a measure of independence from any one donor?

MEESE:  Absolutely, that’s very important. The broader the base, the better, not being dependent on any one individual, or one organization, or one foundation. We are probably, of all the major research and education foundations, less dependent on corporate support than most. It’s certainly less than 6% [of annual revenues]. I’m not sure exactly, but somewhere very, very low. And that’s for a reason, because we have had situations when corporations disagree with us or want us to move in a particular direction that’s favorable towards their ideas or their products. We just don’t do that, so we deliberately keep our corporate support as a small percentage of our total support.

Perspective: Sarah Rosen Wartell on Ethics, Fundraising, and “Pay for Play”

This post is a part of a recurring series titled, “Perspectives on Think Tank Ethics and Governance.”  Each Perspective post will feature highlights from a personal interview.  In this week’s post, Sarah Rosen Wartell, President of the Urban Institute, comments on ethics, fundraising, and the reputational cost of “pay for play.”  The interview took place on January 31, 2013.

You have emphasized that there are a great diversity of organizations out there that consider themselves think tanks. It is hard to talk about what think tanks do in a general sense. How do you feel that diversity is reflected in a diverse set of ethical questions or constraints? How do different institutional models raise different kinds of ethical questions?

WARTELL:  Even “ethics” is a word that has a set of value propositions implied in it. If you are an institution [that] is crystal clear that [it has] a philosophy, [that philosophy] is embedded in the mission.  It underlies the scholars that they choose, the issues that they choose, etc. Does that work therefore raise an ethical question? Inevitably, there are choices that are made about what work to initiate, what work to publish, and when to publish it. I don’t think there’s anything unethical about an institution that says that its mission is to advance a set of values to then shape its work agenda in a way that advances those values.

Transparency seems to be the key to ethical behavior in that regard. I think the risk is where people—and no institution is without its own lenses, no people are without their own lenses—where you purport to advance fact in a highly skewed way. I do think there are ethical questions there, but I don’t think that there is a problem with a particular think tank choosing to publish work that advances their agenda and not publish work that I might want to publish that advances a different vision.

I think the bigger source of ethical dilemmas in the think tank world comes from the sources of funding. [R]emember, at its founding [the Urban Institute] had very prominent corporate support. My guess is [that] in those days, it was not particularly agenda driven. That was just sort of what companies did. These days there’s a great deal of funding for think tanks that comes from the business community, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, I hope that we can do a better job of participating in that as a source of revenue, particularly as a source of discretionary revenue that allows you to skate to where the puck is going to be. I also think that those relationships tend to create more information sharing.  If you tend to simply sit in your think tank, and you don’t engage with people in industry, you’re less likely to have [all the relevant] knowledge.  So, I think those financial relationships with corporations often bring a kind of knowledge and perspective [to] the institution that’s very positive.

But there are cases where the outcomes and agenda of an institution get driven by the funding sources. I take money from the Ford Foundation.  Is my agenda driven by the values of the Ford Foundation? Sure. The questions they choose to fund here affect our work. So why is it any different, and I think it is different, if Wells Fargo wants to fund us? In that case, it’s very important to create firewalls and have good judgment. It’s one thing to collect information and get perspective. It’s another thing to let anybody have review or approval over products, to let anybody fund particular products as opposed to an issue area or a set of activities, like conferences, where there’s branding and transparency of the involvement. I think some of the biggest dilemmas in the think tank world are really around this question of retaining your credibility as an institution who comes to independent conclusions without being driven by your sources of funding.

In my prior place of employ, [the Center for American Progress], we did have a corporate giving program. It was for general support. It was unrelated to any advice, etc. But there was a sort of constant churn, inevitably, when they didn’t like something that was coming out of another part of the institution. Some companies said, “Well, I don’t want to support you anymore.” Generally, they were spreading their money around town. That’s the way they do this. But sometimes it became uncomfortable for them, and they would withdraw support, and you had to have a value proposition that that’s not going to cause us to stop doing a body of work.

At different institutions, there are [other] perceptions.  When I hear people talk about different think tanks, they will tell you that this place or that place is more driven by [funding].  I think almost all of them believe that they have policies in place that protect them against being driven by funder’s agendas.  But, people will say disparagingly of a place that it’s a “pay to play” shop.  As a think tank manager, you really want to guard against the perception of that.  I don’t know that I think it’s always fair when it is [said], but I think it is one of the more prevalent ethical issues that think tanks face.

What makes something “pay for play?” Is it pre-publication review? Is it a commitment to reach a particular conclusion? Is it a focused financial interest in the outcome? I’d love to get a better handle on the concept.

WARTELL:  I’ll be honest: I haven’t thought that much about what makes something unacceptable. [T]here are occasional scandals around think tanks. I can remember, when we were starting [the Center for American Progress], it happened that some foreign government gave a great deal of money to, I want to say it was Heritage but don’t remember…

I think [that story concerned] Heritage. Frankly, the Malaysia-Heritage story and that story involving Abramoff are the only ones I know about. I wish I had better folk knowledge.

WARTELL:  I think maybe those were the only ones that ever came out at that level of reporting. I am sure that there are others where the tank took a hit reputationally. I mean, you can go out and hire any economic research firm, and a trade group will do it a lot of the time, to answer a question. The report has some credibility, absolutely, and certain firms bring more credibility than others do. That is just like government-contracted research. There is nothing illegitimate or unethical or anything about that.

Which goes back to my point: transparency. I think the key thing here is if you are doing work because a source of funds provides that work, and the source of funds has an interest in the outcome, [you are criticized if] you are not letting it be known that you have a source of funds.  A bunch of universities were criticized for taking oil sector money. I think there has probably been very similar criticism of universities around tobacco, but I don’t know for sure. There was a report published [by the Center for American Progress] called “Big Oil University,” and there was controversy around the report itself. It was about universities that had set up research shops that were funded with a great deal of [oil money].

Were they researching a subject about which oil companies have a stake?

WARTELL:  Clean energy, in many cases. You’re not going to be able to get resources to [do] that kind of work if you are not, in many cases, taking private sector money. So the real question is about whether [you have] the controls and processes in place, and universities have gone through this process with a great deal more rigor probably, of trying to figure out what their standards are.  Think about engineering schools, and the like. Tons of work [is] done that there is probably a commercial interest in for firms. Is that unethical? Again, I don’t think so. Transparency is hugely important. Healthcare research, pharmaceutical company support for drug research is huge. Think tanks are, I think, less far along in terms of the development of the jurisprudence, if you will, about how to think about this.

That’s where I’m hoping to help.

WARTELL:  Well, let me know what you think, because we are trying to figure out our own policies in this regard.

Perspective: Thomas Carothers on Balancing Research with Engagement in Washington, DC

This post is a part of a recurring series titled, “Perspectives on Think Tank Ethics and Governance.”  Each Perspective post will feature highlights from a personal interview.  In this week’s post, Thomas Carothers, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, comments on the Washington, DC think tank world, and on the challenge of striking an appropriate balance between research and media engagement.

Dr. Carothers, what are the best institutional practices and policies, in your view, for promoting scholarly integrity in a research environment that is oriented in part toward real changes in the world as opposed to simply academic exploration?

CAROTHERS:  Well, the think tank world, at least in Washington where I take part in it, is a complicated world. [There are] a lot of pressures to do different things, and there are issues about the goals of what it does and its methods. There is surprisingly little reflection on it, and certainly no oversight. It is a group of self-appointed actors who try to be useful, and try to do what they want to do, and not many people ever question what they do. So I’m glad that you are doing what you are doing, because I think it is good to reflect on it.

It is also constantly changing because of how political life in the United States is changing. The information revolution is changing what think tanks do as well. The first issue that you face at a think tank at a strategic level, and in terms of thinking about what you really want to do, is simply, what is your goal? Different think tanks have different approaches to that. Some have a fairly well-defined institutional political goal: “we have a set of political ideas that we would like to win out in political contests and American politics.” So, if Think Tank X has a particular conservative agenda, and says, “We think on these issues we would like to see the United States move this direction,” then that’s your goal. Other think tanks, on both the left and right in Washington, have a political conception of their role. We don’t, and neither do some other, I’d say some of the best think tanks in Washington.

We view our goal is somewhat broader than that. It is related to a set of principles which I think are not left/right, and not specific to Washington. They are principles about peaceful international cooperation and positive engagement of the United States with the world. I believe that the United States can be a partner in global affairs in trying to solve some of the biggest problems facing humanity. That doesn’t lead you to any particular political platform or particular position and political debates, because you have reference to a higher set of principles. It also means that your target is not only US policymakers, but policymakers and international institutions, other governments, citizens in different parts of the world. Where some think tanks think, “our goal is these particular congressional committees plus these executive branch people,” we have quite a wide intended audience. Most of the policy issues we work on, there is a large policy community with very different actors working on [them]. So, you choose your goal. Then, you decide, “How are we going to achieve it?”

Research, in the narrow conception of the term, is just one part of a larger, interconnected process in which you, ideally, are trying to provide some original insight. You hopefully have a kernel of insight on some particular issue, but that has to be part of a larger process of outreach or connection to the policy community. That’s hard. Policy processes are overwhelmed with people wanting to influence them. You’re one of many different actors trying to have an impact. One of the hardest things to know in a think tank is, in sort of simple terms, what percentage of your resources do you commit to the original research versus the overall process? Is research 10%? 90%? 50% of your overall resources? You can argue in different ways that you should invest very heavily in the process in order to make whatever research you do effective. Or, you can argue it the other way, that you really need to do some first rate research — original, innovative, useful – and that’s where you should put your core. That’s a continual tension.

How does Carnegie answer that question, in terms of percentage commitment of resources?

CAROTHERS:  Well, in the past, 10, 15, or 20 years ago, I would say that there was a higher percentage of our resources generally going to the research core. But as the environment became more competitive over the years, here in Washington, and actually in every policy capital, and as communications became more complex – it’s just more of a communicative world – we spend more and more on communications and processes. Now, if you have an overall budget for a project, 20 or 30% at least would be devoted to communications.  That’s continually growing, the communications side. Communications is easier and easier, in some ways.  You can reach more people. But it’s more and more expensive as you do that. Not just the hardware, all the computers and servers, but you need to have a social media coordinator, various web coordinators, a traditional media coordinator.  You need to have Congressional outreach. You need to have a lot of different people communicating what you do to different parts of the audience. So, we try hard to keep a balance between the two. We are firmly committed to continuing to do original work.

It’s tempting not to do that and just become a process organization, so one of the pressures in Washington is, “is our name in the paper all the time? Do we see our people on television?” It becomes very easy to mistake the means for the ends, and then the means become the ends. You will have a board meeting, and there is a sheet handed to the board that says we were cited in the New York Times X times in 2012. And the board members say, “that’s great. Next year, let’s do 2X,” rather than saying, “well that’s great, but are we being cited because we’re doing really important, original research, or are we just being cited a lot because we had a great media coordinator who is constantly calling reporters? How is it that you’re getting this access and why?” There is a transition to say, let’s have lots of web hits, lots of newspaper sites, lots of television appearances rather than asking the more complicated question of, “are we making a positive contribution?” Punditry, which is, in a simple sense, being an opinion maker and being out there, is a continual temptation for think tankers—to simply be pundits rather than what I would consider serious policy researchers.

Would it be fair to consider this a sort of a moral hazard for scholars? If they are professionally rewarded and recognized for being in the media a lot, is there a temptation to spend marginally less time on deep research, in order to spend marginally more time on this kind of engagement?

CAROTHERS:  I’d say it is. I guess it’s a moral hazard. On the other hand, none is not enough. In other words, if you just have a scholar who goes into his or her office and closes the door and comes out after five years with a long, complicated book that no one ever reads, it may be beautiful and deep, but it’s useless. It is a stone thrown into the ocean that just sinks to the bottom. So it isn’t as though thinking about and working on [media engagement] is bad. It’s simply a balance and being true to your mission, and not doing it for its own sake. That’s what makes it complicated, I think. There isn’t an ideal ratio or percentage.

There are some issues for which media work is quite valuable. If there is a really fierce public debate over whether we should intervene militarily in Syria or not, getting your people out to be in the key debates on the Sunday morning talk shows is probably useful in policy terms. This is an issue on which the court of public opinion is open. On other issues, being on television is just beating a dead horse, or not all that important. Television appearances in some cases can be, I think, more useful than others. It involves qualitative, case-by-case judgments about why we are putting time and energy into certain things. It’s true that there are moral hazards, but they’re not on a simple sliding scale, where we can just say, “Be careful, don’t do this. Instead do that.” That’s what makes it tricky.