If you haven’t already, take a look at the series The New York Times is running on corporate capture of DC’s think tank’s. I flag it not only because it’s an important, very deep-dive look at an important topic but also because it was a topic I focused a great deal of time on before I started and then just after I started TPM when I was still a full-time reporter. My interest was first piqued by what a close friend of mind called ‘deep lobbying.’
We talk a lot about corporate lobbyists. And their influence is certainly something that at least needs to be made transparent, as our current laws largely do. But having a former Senator stop by the office and chat you up about his latest client simply pales in comparison to ‘deep lobbying’. Having a report produced by a prestigious think tank which supports a policy premise behind your business priority is just infinitely more effective—and in many respects, cheaper—than what we normally call lobbying. And think tanks are usually 501c3 non-profits. So there’s little transparency about where their money comes from.
Brookings is the focus of the Times first piece. But Brookings was actually a late adopter of the practice. It started in other operations with a much more mercenary approach to fund-raising. And then the older and more prestigious organizations followed.
When I was reporting on this I was simply stunned and the kinds of things I found. For instance, the conservative think tank AEI had a China studies program which was pretty hawkish on China and very pro-Taiwan. Not terribly surprising given the ideological constellation in the country. But what I found was that the funding for the Asia Studies program came from a line item in the Tawainese Foreign Ministry’s budget. Really. Believe me, this involved a series of highly awkward middle of the night (time difference) phone calls to various foreign ministry officials. And this was only the start of it.
Again, I’m not saying that formal lobbying isn’t an issue. But a lot of money that goes for this kind of lobbying ends up being dumb money. The think tanks are where a lot of most sophisticated work happens.
Now, it’s not all black and white. Some corporations have interests in underwriting legitimate research that also aligns with their goals. And there are protectionist think tanks and trade liberalization think tanks. So to some extent, the money just goes to the policy rather than changes. But still, the essence of the practice speaks for itself. It’s probably also worth noting that there are comparable processes at play at major research universities, though much less mercenary in focus.
What is probably worth thinking about, beyond seeing the dirty laundry aired, is what’s happened to the disinterested money? Foundations that are generally interested in funding research more or less for its own sake or the ways that the government itself used to underwrite think tank type work, often with in-house government think tanks of various sorts. It’s not to defend anyone. But money and having scholars who do it costs money. Where does it come from? Where else can it come from? And if corporations are the only ones ready to do the underwriting that speaks to a deeper problem that goes beyond the culture of influence.