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Freelance journalist and author John B. Judis is a long-time professional friend. He’s also a pioneer in the study of think tanks and how they’ve added to the corruption of America’s policy-making process, especially in Washington, D.C., where so many of them are headquartered and concentrate their efforts.

So it’s with a double dose of regret that I write this dual-purpose post – which will aim to explain why he’s recently done me a not-trivial injustice in describing me and my relationship with the think tank complex, and in the process contributed to the mis-impression that all organizations that seek to influence policy are alike in their basics.

The problem was created last week in John’s otherwise insightful New Republic article on the uproar kicked up by the news last month that the New America Foundation think tank fired a prominent researcher (and his entire team at a particular program) because their work had begun threatened to antagonize a major donor to the Foundation – Google. You can read my take on this super-revealing incident here.

Because his work on the subject has been so important, I was initially pleased to see John cover the controversy, and even more pleased that he decided to quote me. Unfortunately, he mysteriously decided to use the passage (from that above RealityChek post) in a decidedly and unjustly unflattering way. As John wrote:

“The controversy over New America…has prompted hand-wringing among Washington’s policy community, but some of it seems self-serving. ‘Slowly, and not so surely, the American media is waking up to the pervasiveness of corporate corruption of the nation’s think tank complex,’ wrote Alan Tonelson, who did research for decades at the Business and Industrial Council, which got much of its funds from Roger Milliken and Milliken & Co.”

I don’t think I’m being overly sensitive in believing that this paragraph insinuates that I’m a hypocrite. That is, I’d belonged to that Think Tank World for decades, and now that it’s becoming fashionable, have decided to bite the hand that fed me.

What John didn’t seem to realize is that the work for my former long-time employer that he refers to was done for a business group, not a think tank. As a result, whereas I’ve criticized think tanks for their lack of transparency regarding their (corporate) funders, and accused them of “idea laundering” (that is, issuing materials that push the special interest agendas of their funders while garbing them in quasi-academic raiment), the U.S. Business and Industry Council (USBIC) can’t fairly be accused of this practice even it had been a think tank because its orientation has always been obvious from its name.

Unlike the case with the Brookings Institution or the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Heritage Foundation or the Carnegie Endowment or the Peterson Institute, when a policymaker or journalist received some information from USBIC, it couldn’t have been clearer that it represented a particular perspective, rather than the work of some disinterested scholar esconced in a ivory tower.

Of course, we tried to be as accurate as possible – both because we were confident enough in the substance behind our viewpoints that we felt no need to exaggerate or soft-pedal or leave out context when such tactics might have strengthened our case, and because those who depart from the conventional wisdom nearly always receive greater and harsher scrutiny than those who stay comfortably inside it.

Moreover, we spent countless hours trying to publicize exactly who we were – an association of smaller manufacturers who had largely rejected an offshoring business model and sought to oppose its nurturing by government trade policies. The reason? We wanted to make sure that our audiences knew that not all businesses or manufacturers favored such policies.

In addition, because the organization wasn’t a household name, whenever we identified ourselves as authors of an article written for an outside publication, we included a brief description of USBIC – something on the order of “an association of small, mainly family-owned, domestically focused manufacturers.” The same went for whenever we were interviewed for an article or broadcast segment. And if we’d been given more space, we’d have been happy to go into more detail.

Now, to be completely accurate, I was employed by the Council’s think tank wing – which we called the USBIC Educational Foundation. And that doesn’t look like a terribly transparent name at first glance. But only at first glance, since even the most casual research effort will reveal the connection. 

Moreover, as with the Council, when the Foundation marketed materials and speakers (like me), it was made completely clear that the very purpose was to represent the views of this distinctive group of manufacturers. In other words, that was the point. I only wish we had been more successful in debunking the stereotype of all industrial companies as footloose multinationals that roamed the world in search of the lowest labor and other costs, heedless or uncaring about the impact on the domestic U.S. economy.

Much the same holds for the organization I worked for previously – the Economic Strategy Institute (ESI). Although the name was less transparent than USBIC’s, from the very start, founder Clyde V. Prestowitz, Jr. strove tirelessly to publicize ESI’s corporate backers, and for a reason very similar to USBIC’s – he wanted to inform policymakers and journalists that not all industries and companies that dissented from an orthodox free trade line were “losers” that were simply seeking government protection from superior competitors. Nothing made that point more clearly that noting that many of ESI’s supporters (like Intel and Motorola) were leaders in the world’s most advanced industries.

Indeed, John might have mentioned that I wound up leaving ESI after a few years precisely because these donors changed their tune on trade issues for various reasons – and unfortunately, the Institute for the most part changed with them, along with venturing into new areas. I was fortunate to find a more like-minded group in the form of USBIC precisely because the Standard Operating Procedure of the donor community have always ensured that organizations analyzing these international economic issues in unconventional ways would be few and far between.

As a result, the tale above should also make embarrassingly obvious that if an author like John wanted to use a policy analyst as an example of opportunistic tut-tutting about the system that long supported him and his family, I was anything but that guy. In that vein (as is clear from the above link), John might have mentioned that I have written about the practice of idea-laundering for more than ten years.

So I hope that John keeps training his eye on the think tank world and the troubling role it plays in the national policy and political worlds. I just hope that his next offerings make their points more carefully and precisely.