For the maybe six of you out there still doubting that the political and chattering classes clustering in Washington – with all too few exceptions – add up to a gigantic operation aimed at screwing everyday Americans, please read the New York Times’ expose on foreign government contributions to major think tanks.
The crucial questions and issues raised by the article about American politics and governance are almost endless. But here are a few of the biggest:
First, the piece demonstrates that the capitol’s think tank community is even more, and perhaps more dangerously and insidiously, corrupt than even many cynics recognized. As numerous analyses have shown, since the late-1980s in particular, these institutions have come a long way from their origins as useful sources of reasonably scholarly and reliable expertise for policymakers on all manner of public issues. Now the standard operating procedure is to function as a covert mouthpiece for a certain political viewpoint and group of related donors – both for a newer generation of “activist tanks” (like the Heritage Foundation) and their more (seemingly) dispassionate predecessors (like the Brookings Institution).
As I have argued before Congress and other audiences, the real danger to sound, democratic governance posed by think tanks now is not their shift to lobbying for their patrons. It’s how this lobbying usually continues to be garbed in the raiment of neutral, truth-seeking scholarship. I call the phenomenon “idea laundering.”
Analyses like mine have focused on how businesses and other private sector special interests use think tank findings to portray their own parochial agendas as nothing more than objectively superior policy choices being offered by politically disinterested academics and other supposed experts. The Times‘ contribution has been to show that this idea laundering is now performed for think tanks like Brookings and the Center for Strategic and International Studies for foreign governments – including Japan and China. That’s far worse, especially because it enables countries whose interests may be sharply at odds with America’s own to influence the U.S. government secretly – and often without even U.S. officials knowing it.
The Times article quotes numerous specialists who contend that think tanks receiving funding from foreign governments should be required to register as foreign lobbyists with the Justice Department bureau that tracks that agency. I strongly agree.
At the same time, much more disclosure is imperative, and by other institutions. For example, whenever journalists (including at the Times) quote the views of or information provided by these think tanks’ staff, which they do in spades, reporters should make sure to tell readers and viewers about their employers’ foreign government and other special interest funding. Ditto for all the op-ed articles and on-the-air commentaries from think tank specialists. Congress needs to be similarly vigilant.
Indeed, the Times piece inevitably makes you wonder why think tank staff should be relied on so heavily by the media and Congress in the first place. Not that the tanks have nothing genuinely useful to offer. But their dubious funding practices strongly indicate that it’s time to start using many more genuine scholars, from universities. (I know – they get lots of corporate and foreign funding, too. But my hunch is that they’re somewhat more independent.) Indeed, it will be especially interesting to see whether the Times recognizes the full implications of its findings, and takes the lead in shining a brighter light on the think tank sources it uses and curbing their appearances in its pages and on its website.
Finally, the information in the Times article about the Japanese government’s donations to think tanks is especially interesting on two counts. First, much of this funding seems geared toward helping to push through Congress the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a huge proposed trade deal that could seriously damage the U.S. economy at the expense of Japan’s and of offshoring U.S. multinational companies.
Second, when policy analyst Pat Choate first reported systematically about Japan’s massive influence-buying efforts in America, many critics dismissed his book Agents of Influence as quasi-xenophobic or even racist “Japan-bashing” (including this brief, dismissive review from the Council on Foreign Relations – a think tank!). The Times’ think tank expose just adds to the copious evidence that Choate’s harsher critics owe him a major apology.