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What Do “Think Tanks” Think About?

April 29th, 2010 · No Comments · Corporations and Industry, Economics, Lobbying, Politics

Washington D.C. seems to be “ground zero” for think tanks. A think tank is made up of a group of real and imagined “experts” who gather together for coffee and bloviation. For the most part they seem to consider little more than the amount of tax dollars that can be saved for large corporations.

Despite the fact that there are something in the neighborhood of 1,000 think tanks in Washington, D.C., very little useful scientifically valuable, even politically valuable, information comes from these organizations. Their science is done either to justify some point about the value of some industrial product that has been attacked for its detrimental effects on society or dispelling ideas about legislation that would either improve living conditions or forestall some disaster. The Right Wing thinks tanks have been set up to promote industry.

In 1970, concerned with the anti-government attitudes among students, largely the result of a resistance to the unclear motives for a long-standing war in Viet Nam, the Conservatives in the Republican Party became nervous. The war had proceeded for a long time, with many deaths and serious wounds, many deaths among the opposition forces including huge numbers of civilians. Some Americans, particularly many at the universities began to believe that we were involving our soldiers in what had become basically a civil war.

Justice Lewis Powell of the Supreme Court suggested that students in particular but Americans in general should learn more about the way the American government works, in particular the economy and its relationship to government. As a reaction to this, some very wealthy, and…as it turned out…very reactionary industry leaders began to fund “think tanks,” institutions where business and economic issues could be studied, discussed and documented.

The result was the formation of The Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute. Earlier organizations such as The American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institute were also revitalized. The Heartland Institute, in Illinois, working on behalf of the tobacco industry and the Pacific Research Institute in California, articles from which against health care reform have appeared on AOL.com, are a couple of Right Wing think tanks outside Washington, D.C.

It should be pointed out that organizations like Heartland, although they are non-profit, are basically funded by an intra-net of similarly funded institutions. In Heartland’s case it was the tobacco industry. They have done joint programs with people like the National Association of Tobacco Outlets, attempting to change public opinion on tobacco.

Of course, most of these Right Wing think tanks are generally interchangeable in their political outreach. A Heartland may work for the petroleum industry on something like drilling in national parks if another institute in Washington is either too visible or feeling the heat from Congress on its work for some other client.

There are a number of Democratic think tanks also, like the Center for American Progress, the Progressive Policy Institute, and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Most of the Democratic think tanks are very often merely responsive to Republican policy initiatives that favor large corporations and some very wealthy individuals.

To give you an idea of the kinds of money being spent, the Brookings Institution, a generally centrist, but occasionally left-leaning organization has funding of about $36 million annually. Not bad…until you see what the Republicans can come up with. (And many Democrats don’t consider Brookings a leftist group at all.)

The Heritage Foundation can claim an operating budget of about $30 million, but
American Enterprise Institute spends $16 million; Hudson has $7 million and Cato $15 million.

Democrats do have a few others, like the Economic Policy Institute, mostly on economic issues, spends $5 million, and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, mentioned before has an approximate $8 million budget.

These aren’t considered lobbying groups. But with their total budgets in the range of $370 million, it is quite evident that there is considerable legislation advocacy involved, simply from the numbers and knowing who funds these groups and why.

What kinds of things do they research? Pure biology? Constitutional history? International relations? Here’s an actual example, a pretty quick read.

On the American Enterprise Institute blog on April 29, 2010, a guy by the name of Jay Richards, a PhD. from Princeton in Philosophy and Theology, who wrote a book entitled, “Money, Greed and God: Why Capitalism is the Solution and Not the Problem.” See where this is going? (And this is mild.) He quotes from a book by a substantial economist from Columbia, Edmund Phelps, the 2006 Nobel Laureate.

The topic that Richards was undoubtedly licensed to write was about income distribution. And that is about…taxes. Why it is so dastardly, according to AEI, to raise taxes on the rich and tax corporations at all. Remember, this is the point that they want to prove “scientifically,” and who better to front it than a Nobel Laureate?

“The prevailing view on the left, which derives from John Rawls’ philosophy of fairness, concedes that inequalities of income are tolerable, on the condition that they benefit the lowest-paid workers.”

So “income inequalities” that abuse the poor little Paris Hilton’s of the world are OK with you and me as long as the lowest paid workers benefit. Ok, well, one would guess so. If Paris can’t buy a new pair of $1,000 shoes this week because some poor schlemiel has to pay the rent and buy some food, then…yeah…most Liberals would probably go along with that.

Phelps continues: “The positions are not so different: By Rawls’ criteria it is justifiable for Bill Gates to command $100 billion in assets, provided that every one of those billions was gained in such a way that the poorest in society are marginally better off as a result. One hears few voices on the left remonstrating with Bill Gates about his wealth, precisely because the general perception is that everyone is better off as a result of inexpensive personal computers.”

There are several points here. Using a man who has created a company that created 30,000 highly technical jobs and who made 10,000 of them into millionaires may not be the best example. And, it is also good to recall that Gates a.) does not make computers and b.) sells relatively expensive software with an almost exclusive monopoly on that business.

Few people “remonstrate” with Bill Gates about his wealth for a couple of very good reasons. Bill Gates, unlike a lot of petty, greedy, think-tank soothsayers is all about the job, making great software. He did it and he wanted to put it on every computer. He almost got away with it, but some other people pointed out that he wasn’t being fair. He thought his stuff was the best (it was and is) and he just thought…why not…and why not ours? He’s still not happy about it. See, it’s not an economic issue with him. Does he need money? He’s been giving it away as fast as he can.

He still doesn’t like the fact that the government came down hard on him because he thought, still thinks, he has the best product, it is best for people to have it…so logically…why can’t he put it on all computers? That’s how he made eighty gazillion dollars. Making the best product.

The other reasons that people don’t remonstrate with Gates are as follows: he is one of the dot-com era guys still going who has set the bar pretty high for taking care of his employees, the millionaires, etc. And he authorized his father to join Howard Buffett and the Rockefellers and others in making it plain that the inheritance tax is something that people should take care of before death. After death, his thought is that whatever he has not given away…to his kids…to charity (something like $40 billion in his case) the government should tax after the deductions which are something like $10 million.

So Paris Hilton, if she got $30 million from Grandpa would take home about $23 million. Bill Gates and a bunch of non-greedy people think that’s enough. Use the taxes to fund more wars, corporate welfare, and congressional earmarks (like the $275 million that Republican Congressman Bill Thomas laid on his southern California constituents (….probably government contracts) when he retired. Or, God forbid, we could pay down some of the Social Security that has been borrowed since 1984.

So, back to AEI. This article is about redistribution of wealth. That is the big issue now, treading very softly, because people are out of work and those going back to work are going back at lower rates and only part time. So AEI will look for as many Edmund Phelpses as they can find to make their point. Do we, they are going to ask very gently, (using theologians no less) want to redistribute income through tax changes?

Richards says he will write more on it. We already get the idea…if redistribution of wealth is felt to be moral on the right and the left, then it is only about how you do it. What do you want to bet that the next article will explain why the poor should only be “marginally better off?”

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