While there are think tanks (and individual projects at think tanks) that lose money researching and promoting relatively unpopular and under-financed ideas, I find the following from here more often to be true:
"Modern think tanks are nonprofit, tax-exempt, political idea factories where donations can be as big as the donor's checkbook and are seldom publicized," notes Tom Brazaitis, writing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Technology companies give to think tanks that promote open access to the internet. Wall Street firms donate to think tanks that espouse private investment of retirement funds." So much money now flows in, that the top 20 conservative think tanks now spend more money than all of the "soft money" contributions to the Republican party.All think tanks are really doing is providing products -- ideas and policies -- that their supporters demand. What's wrong, I repeat, with putting your money where your mouth is, or, as these things go, paying someone else to speak for you?
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Think tanks are like universities in some ways -- filled with clever, resourceful, ambitious people who care about ideas (and ideologies), but, again,
A think tank's resident experts carry titles such as "senior fellow" or "adjunct scholar," but this does not necessarily mean that they possess an academic degree in their area of claimed expertise. Outside funding can corrupt the integrity of academic institutions. The same corrupting influences affect think tanks, only more so.
Think tanks are like universities minus the students and minus the systems of peer review and other mechanisms that academia uses to promote diversity of thought. Real academics are expected to conduct their research first and draw their conclusions second, but this process is often reversed at most policy-driven think tanks.
I will say that it is absolutely possible for people to become experts on subjects they do not necessarily have academic degrees in -- and that's something all of my post-academic readers might keep in mind as they pursue other careers. You can have an active mind. You can think deep thoughts. You can even earn your living by thinking and writing. And you can do all this within the context of a "normal," nonacademic job that pays the bills - and more, if you are smart enough and driven enough. And there are certainly people here, people I work with every day and respect, who understand the subjects and policy issues they write about in great depth even though they don't have academic credentials affirming their expertise.
But there are also people, like the one I refer to in this little angry post (whom I fortunately don't have to interact with regularly) who are where they are, doing what they are doing, because of their politics rather than any sort of in-depth knowledge of the issues underlying the policies they promote. Unlike the high complexity, low profile issues my office generally deals with (although tracing the money even here leads to very unsurprising conclusions), some issues are grossly distorted, misrepresented, and oversimplified. People with strong ideological motives but little true expertise are easy targets and willing collaborators -- spokesbots, if you will -- for well-funded special interests.
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I'd be lying if I said there weren't also bipartisan collaborations and compromises that don't necessarily always please every donor. Libertarians and progressive environmentalists? Yes, such coalitions exist and differing parties are able to work well together. Both groups receive funding from so-called special interests and occasionally do find common ground. But the question I leave readers with is this: Are all special interests equal? Are the "interests" of conservation groups or green industries that fund environmentalist think tanks -- whose "interests" at least in part are a greener world -- the same as the profit-driven "interests" of, say, a major insurance or oil company that funds a libertarian think tank?