David Frum recently left the American Enterprise Institute, leaving troubling questions in his wake. Paul Krugman suggested he was a victim of AEI’s determination to brook no dissent from the Republican line on health care legislation. Charles Murray insisted this was balderdash, claiming that the organization remains committed to intellectual freedom. He thinks it is more likely that Frum’s departure was a result of his disappointing performance as a team player – for example, his failure to contribute regularly to the AEI blog. Frum, for his part, has been mostly mum.
While we find this controversy intriguing in its own right (gossip… inside hardball… what could be better?), we think it misses some broader points in the way the market for think tank services is evolving. Over the last two decades, the top-drawer policy shops (AEI and Brookings) are more dependent on proactive fund-raising – and, by no coincidence, are more amenable to playing partisan games and keener to be in the public eye.
These changes have, in turn, altered the role of the policy wonks who inhabit the space. First, there is much greater pressure to be visible; occupation of elite real estate like the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal is seen as critical to raising money. And while the think tanks still do a lot of quasi-academic research, they are more inclined to hire pundits with great rolodexes (make that great Outlook contacts).
Note, too, that to stay in the limelight, think tanks are adjusting their time horizons. Tomorrow’s issues matter less than today’s. Accordingly, publication in refereed technical journals – especially the ones that make no effort to be journalist-friendly – counts less for promotion and status.
Finally, the market for think tank services seems to be fragmenting: success lies in greater specialization along the liberal-conservative spectrum. That means the full-service policy palaces are less inclined to hire pundits and scholars of varying ideological persuasion. Of course, many think tanks are born specialized; but the pressures to define their missions in narrower ideological terms have also impacted the two venerable biggies.
The big question, of course, is whether money and media are undermining the think tanks’ contributions to public policy discourse. We’re not thrilled with the trend, but neither are we especially alarmed. The barriers to entry to the think-tank business are relatively low and falling. And in this increasingly competitive marketplace for ideas, the reality that cash and interest-group politics loom larger is partly offset by the growing potential for useful policy insights to reach lawmakers and the public.