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I don’t think much of the writings of Washington Post blogger and Tufts University political scientist Daniel Drezner – mainly because he thinks he and other supposed establishment-worshiping experts are God’s gift to humanity and that populist voters and politicians are just too dumb to be grateful. And he doesn’t seem to think much of mine, either. Nonetheless, Drezner performed a genuine public service in the Post on Sunday and deserves considerable credit: He spotlighted a major trend that’s been shaping the national policy community and thoughtfully explained many of the pluses and minuses.

In an article for the paper’s Outlook section, Drezner described how for-profit consultancies – many run out of major global banks and other finance institutions – are starting to move onto the policy analysis and advice-giving turf once dominated by non-profit institutions known as think tanks. And given the prominent role played by think tanks – including Mainstream Media’s widespread and overly credulous use of their staff as policy experts – this is definitely a big deal.

As I’ve repeatedly written, although they turn out a great volume of worthwhile work, as I see it, think tanks’ role on net has been corrupting. The reason: Their main mission has become what I call “idea laundering.” But let’s begin at the beginning.

When they first emerged, many think tanks benefited from endowments created by deceased founders. As a result, their staffs had a legitimate (though not indisputable) claim to be dispassionate, academicky specialists whose only aim was promoting the public interest, and who were determined to seek the truth regardless of how political parties or special interests were affected. The Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (where I once worked) were prime examples.

More recently, however, growing numbers of think tanks have been established that have depended on ongoing fund-raising, and that, as a result, haven’t enjoyed the financial independence of that previous generation. Further, those less well heeled institutes whose donors had been relatively hands-off often found that their funders were becoming much more hands-on. In fact, the donors’ increasing interest in finding new opportunities to influence politicians and bureaucrats beyond traditional lobbying also convinced a new breed of outright policy entrepreneurs to create new think tanks that all-but-explicitly sought to promote particular ideologies or approaches to policy – and sometimes a specific measure or group of measures.

And as these think-tanks-for-hire sprang up, their more established, less political counterparts seemed to start worrying more and more about their endowments and preserving them, and started to pressure their staffers to become increasingly responsible for funding themselves. (For the definitive history of this entire depressing degeneration, and especially the appearance of “advocacy tanks,” see John J. Judis’ excellent The Paradox of American Democracy.)

The bottom line has been that proliferation of that “idea laundering” I referred to. The nation’s capital in particular is now filled with organizations whose overriding purpose is disguising arguments and material aimed at advancing donors’ agendas in the garb of objective scholarship. That’s why so many of these organizations give themselves names intended to conjure up images of ivory towers (“institution,” “institute,” “foundation,” “studies”). And that’s why they call so many of their specialists “scholars” and “fellows.”

So in one strange way, the rise of for-profit policy research and advising organizations should be healthy for our democracy. For unless they give themselves deceptive names (and Drezner’s piece shows that some have – e.g., “The Legatum Institute”), they’ll be less capable of pulling off the idea-laundering scam. At least if consumers of their output are reasonably vigilant.

Nevertheless, as Drezner points out, the for-profit tanks suffer their own transparency problems. In addition to conscious biases (mainly, shilling for clients whose identities aren’t disclosed), for example, they can bring to their work unwitting biases that aren’t easy to detect, either (e.g., neglecting parts of the world of little interest to big business).

So if you think it’s already been tough enough distinguishing truth from spin and outright falsehoods, make doubly sure your baloney meters are in top form. The advent of for-policy research and analysis organizations means that, going forward, you could need them more than ever.

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