In answer to my plea for a distinction between real and fake “think tanks” , Max Sawicky points out that there are competent people doing good work for advocacy groups, and accuses me of confusing centrism with objectivity.
Of course Max is right that not all product coming out of advocacy groups is tainted: Doug Besharov does terrific work at AEI, even though John Lott is also allowed to hang his hat there. But AEI didn’t hire Besharov as the best welfare thinker around — though he may be precisely that — but as the best conservative welfare thinker around. If Besharov became an advocate of massive income redistribution, he’d have to find another place to work, because advocating massive income redistribution is not what AEI does.
That’s the distinction I was trying to make. A real think tank such as RAND or the Urban Institute, just like a university, would be delighted to have a scholar of Besharov’s quality around, no matter what conclusions he reached. A phony think tank will tolerate a real scholar, but only if his conclusions fit the organization’s preconceptions.
Centrism has nothing to do with it. The Progressive Policy Institute, the DLC’s “research” arm, is about as “centrist” as it could be, and puts out some stuff I agree with, but no one should confuse it with a genuine research enterprise. (They’ve even been kind enough to publish some of my work, but I wouldn’t expect them to publish something I wrote that didn’t fit the PPI “line.”) George Mason University is a center of conservative thought, but no professor there is going to get fired for expressing inappropriately liberal ideas.
Max is right that “everyone has an ideology.” But not everyone gives preference to ideology over analysis when the two clash. No one succeeds in being perfectly objective. But there’s a difference between trying and not trying.
There’s nothing wrong with having advocacy organizations, and if some of them decide to sponsor real research, so much the better. I merely want newspapers to distinguish between groups that start with questions and groups that start with answers.