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February 27, 2007

The Problem With Brookings

The Pew Charitable Trust is about to offer $2.2 million to forge some sort of consensus position on social mobility in America. Consensus because, as The WSJ explains, "the funding will go to scholars at the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation, which have a conservative bent, and the Brookings Institution and Urban Institute, which are more liberal."

Sigh. This bespeaks a certain political naivete on Pew's part. It is certainly true that Brookings and Urban are more liberal than AEI and Heritage, but they are not proportionately liberal. Brookings -- which hosts a large number of right wing scholars and former members of Republican administrations -- is a centrist, establishment think tank, while Urban is just a few ticks to the left of it. AEI and Heritage, conversely, are hard right, movement conservative organizations. That's fine: There's a place for that, and it doesn't make their research wrong. But Brookings and Urban are not their analogues. A wiser study would have tapped the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress.

This is, come to think of it, a fairly serious weakness for the left. Because establishment-oriented institutions such as Brookings or The New York Times are associated with a historical brand of moderate liberalism, they're often allowed to substitute as liberal institutions even as they determinedly hew to a fair-minded, moderate, even non-ideological approach. So if Brookings scholars are quoted in the media, that balances out having an AEI source mentioned. Of course, the Brookings scholar in question could be Bill Frenzel, former Republican Representative from Minnesota and a member of Bush's Social Security Commission, or Susan Collins, a member of George H.W Bush's Council of Economic Advisors.

That's not to degrade the quality of either individual's research or character, they're just not liberals. But the institution that employs them -- and advertises their presence and affiliation in their "Guide to Experts" -- is allowed to stand-in for a genuinely liberal institution. Meanwhile, no similar categorization errors befoul the right. When someone wants to donate or draw from a conservative institution, they don't find a collection of Clintonites or studious moderates. They get serious conservatives, as they should. And so, what you're going to have in this search for consensus is $2.2 million and a fair amount of media attention apportioning to conservatives and centrists, all the better to end with a center-right consensus position. That's not, on the surface, what Pew is pursuing. But it's what they, and we, will get.

February 27, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

They might reach a better consensus if they just handed out the 2.2 million to random people in the street and asked their opinion. Not to say that think tanks tend to a bias... okay, think tanks tend to a bias and modern media is always looking for an easy story with clean cut speakers who will do the news outlets job for them.

Posted by: Hawise | Feb 27, 2007 11:35:55 AM

I can kind of see this issue being taken up with Brookings, as it is almost self-styled Centrist and they occasionally hire Republicans. But to be fair, A: The republicans they do employ are hardly movement types & B: It's hardly a secret that 9 out of 10 Brookings people pull the lever for the Democrats.

But the Urban Institute is very much a progressive organization, not to mention the one with the most progressive hiring policy when it comes to Sex of any comparable organizations. I'd even say that the Urban Institute is more progressive than CAP.

What both Brookings & The Urban Insitute have going for them is that they do serious scholarship & are well respected. CAP is also respected, but it's at least as much a liberal stratgy & partisan advocacy outlet as a think tank, and I hear their studies are usually rehashes of the work the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities puts out. EPI, god bless them, (and your boss) are basically a propaganda arm of the AFL-CIO.

Of course that's not to say Heritage & AEI should be confused with serious work rather than sophistic hackery, but there is no real serious scholarship on the right. And though you may have friends over there, if Daniel Davies is to be believed, Cato is the absolute worst hackish think tank ever.

Instead of trying to find a consensus across the Left-Right spectrum (Does anyone think Heritage & EPI would forge consensus on anything sans the color of the sky?) they should have just given money to a bunch of organizations of different stripes, RAND, Brookings, CBPP, Heritage, CAP, Urban. And see what they come up with on their own. and then form a multi-lateral consensus.

Posted by: DRR | Feb 27, 2007 11:51:28 AM

"A wiser study would have tapped the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for American Progress."

Which experts from CAP/EPI are exactly comparable to Sawhill/Burtless who have done tremendous research on income mobility over the last several decades?

Posted by: hederman | Feb 27, 2007 12:04:44 PM

Just to buttress Ezra's excellent point, compare the composition of the boards of each institution. Places like Brookings, the Urban Institute (contra DRR), and RAND have more than a token share of Republicans and CEOs. The boards of Heritage, AEI, and Cato, in contrast, are filled with nothing but like-minded ideologues. They don't even pretend otherwise. The only small consolation with this particular project is that it appears to be entirely focused on synthesizing and making sense of research as opposed to drawing policy conclusions. Let's hope, anyway. --Greg

Posted by: anrig | Feb 27, 2007 12:10:28 PM

Arggghhh.

Posted by: Matt Stoller | Feb 27, 2007 12:11:27 PM

I'll put The State of Working America (Bernstein/Michel/Allegretto) against anything published by any think tank in town.

Posted by: Ezra | Feb 27, 2007 12:37:20 PM

While it's certainly true that, on average, Urban is more progressive, and probably to the left of Brookings on some issues, it's also the case that two or three of Urban's senior fellows (which there aren't many of) actually came from AEI. Moreover, Gene Stuerle, one of the most-cited Urban tax policy scholars, was a deputy Assistant Sec. for the Treasury under Reagan.

Posted by: anon | Feb 27, 2007 12:47:23 PM

I'd have to see more evidence to suppose Pew is being naive here. This money will presumably go to specific scholars at some point, and I imagine the understanding is that at the "more liberal" think tanks it will go to liberal scholars. I can't see the article, but just on what you give as evidence I don't see the naivete or the ignorance of the nature of the think tanks you impute to Pew.

I don't know the think tanks as well, but DRR's and hederman's points seem relevant. Brookings seems to get more scholarly stuff out than EPI.

On the broader issue of the relative ideological purity of the think tanks of the Right and Left, there is a significant difference, but I think most people are well aware of that. (And there are the outliers on the Right too, such as Bruce Fein, who occasionally shows up on talk shows to represent the conservative view on a topic and ends up supporting the liberal one.)

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 27, 2007 12:50:44 PM

This is totally unsurprising. Liberals routinely and repeatedly "sister souljah" their extremes, while Republicans refuse to denounce them.

It's totally not surprising that the mainstream media thinks Brookings is the liberal counterbalance to Heritage, and EPI is seen as loopy and unreliable.

In a world where liberal politicians routinely denounce Michael Moore for making documentaries but the Republican party refuses to condemn College Republicans for a “Fun With Guns,” day when they invite young Republicans to fire BB guns or paint balls at cardboard cutouts of Democratic leaders, is this really the least bit surprising?

What remains shocking is that the Democrats are STILL too stupid to understand that condemning people more left-leaning than they are has not, in fact, bought the party mainstream credibility but has only moved the tenor of public debate to a point where we're LEGALIZING TORTURE.

Posted by: anonymous | Feb 27, 2007 12:57:45 PM

Anonymous, I think you're greatly exaggerating. Republicans do denounce their extremes, and liberals don't routinely denounce Michael Moore. The mainstream media doesn't think Brookings is the liberal counterbalance to Heritage in the sense that they're similar but opposite, only that Brookings includes the needed counterbalance. EPI isn't seen as loopy and unreliable. Its focus is seen as more narrow, and as more specifically ideologically oriented.

The reference to legalizing torture is quite a stretch.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 27, 2007 1:28:54 PM

errr... The foundation was established by J. Howard Pew to "acquaint the American people" with "the evils of bureaucracy," "the values of the free market," and "the paralyzing effects of government controls on lives and activities of people," to "inform our people of the struggle, persecution, hardship, sacrifice and death by which freedom of the individual was won."

tell me why exactly they shouldn't be giving money to a right-wing think-tank?

Posted by: Chris | Feb 27, 2007 1:45:54 PM

In related news, the Chew Charitable Trust is giving $2.2 million to the Wolfe Foundation and the Lupine Enterprise Institute to forge some sort of consensus position on sheep herding in America

Posted by: rea | Feb 27, 2007 2:05:53 PM

Who wants a consensus opinion anyway? Lay you 90% it will be bullshit, because Heritage and co. won't sign off on standard stats, so they'll wind up with something like "lifetime consumption" instead of income or wealth

This will understate inequality compared to the current standardly used studies. That's why it's being done.

Posted by: Ian Welsh | Feb 27, 2007 2:16:11 PM

Republicans do denounce their extremes...

Really, some examples, please? Perhaps an official Republican spokesperson going after James Dobson? Or Grover Norquist? Or Rush Limbaugh? Or Ann Coulter? Or Michelle Malkin? Or who, exactly? Or the Conservative Citizens Council? Because those people are all extremists.

Or are you only counting the KKK and Aryan Nation as the extremes? See, that's how this works: the importing of extremist ideas into the mainstream by the complicity and silence of their more respectable fellows. But I wouldn't expect better analysis from you, Sanpete. You're always johnny-on-the-spot with the apologia for the Republicans.

Posted by: paperwight | Feb 27, 2007 2:26:14 PM

Paper, as usual you only see what you want to see. When Pat Robertson called for the assassination of Chavez he was roundly criticized by Republicans. When some claimed that September 11th was punishment for homosexuality or other things God supposedly doesn't like the speakers were condemned on the Right. This is hardly unique. You'd rather be blind to all shades between black and white than see the deficiencies of your political prejudices and paranoia.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 27, 2007 2:49:51 PM

"When some claimed that September 11th was punishment for homosexuality or other things God supposedly doesn't like the speakers were condemned on the Right."

I missed the legions of righties condemning D'Souza--do you have any links?

Posted by: rea | Feb 27, 2007 4:33:04 PM

Not talking about D'Souza. I'm talking about Falwell and the like. D'Souza's theory is about what offends Muslims, not what offends God.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 27, 2007 4:52:57 PM

I've been lurking around this interesting discussion, not wanting to jump in because I've been an EPI'er for a decade and a half, so I've got major skin in the game.

Unsurpisingly, I agree with Ezra, including the parts about the high level of skill and integrity of some of the researchers at Urban and Brookings.

I would say, using lots of shorthand in the interest of time and space, that our work is generally at the same level of rigor. Where we differ is interpretation and political analysis.

I'm not the one to make this case, but the commenters above who disparage our work are wrong. In the last 15 years, I've co-written eight versions of State of Working American, each one about 500 pages of tables, figures and analysis. My colleagues and I have written tons of other books and papers, all a mouseclick away. It's a friggin' huge paper trail.

DRR et al, show me one table, one figure in all that output, that's 'loopy' or wrong or cooked in such a way to carry water for some group. One table or figure, out of literally 1000s!!! If you can't find one that fits that description, find one wherein you even disagree with the methods, one where you think we crunched the numbers in a less than rigorous way, or tilted the data in a biased manner to make our case.

(PS: I could probably find one myself from early versions that could be improved upon, but that's different.)

Perhaps you'll find one or two--I doubt it, but such comments betray a lack of familiarity with and appreciation our work. Sorry if I seem thin skinned about this, but we're talking 15 years of analysis, dismissed by someone who clearly isn't paying attention.

In terms of interpretation/analysis, we differ from Brookings/Urban. We clearly view the trends that we identify in a political economy framework, where bargaining power, class, the role of institutions (like the labor movement), political access and clout, matter a lot, and we don't hesitate to make these connections.

Again, I know I'm too close to all this to be objective, but what the hell is wrong with that??!!

Posted by: Jared Bernstein | Feb 27, 2007 10:15:46 PM

Jared, DRR didn't say anything about EPI being loopy. He called it a propaganda arm for labor. You might take issue with whatever negative connotations you think attach to "propaganda," but don't take more offense than necessary. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 27, 2007 10:53:22 PM

I missed the legions of righties condemning D'Souza--do you have any links?

You should try looking first (Google is a good site) before flaunting your ignorance. Here's one such link: http://www.newcriterion.com/archives/25/03/sjohnson/

Here's another: http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=ZDI1NTZkNzJjNGQ5YWZhOGQzMDcwN2U4Mzc0NWUyYTg=

Here's another: http://www.nysun.com/article/47948

Posted by: John Doe | Feb 28, 2007 11:19:57 AM

Brookings used to be recognized as essentially conservative, back when "conservative" did not mean "trying to completely overthrow our system of government."

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