Think tanks have an immeasurable effect on public and private policy; they impact our everyday lives by influencing wars, economy, culture, even our faith. Why immeasurable? Because most people don’t know what think tanks are. Or that they even exist.

So what is a Think Tank
? How would you explain it to a 10-year old? Here are some attempts:

“It’s a group of independent people sitting inside an air-conditioned room (the tank), pushing Lego bricks over a world map, in order to appear smart.”

“It’s like a shark tank, but instead of sharks you have guys in pinstripe suits playing Monopoly with real buildings, cities, or countries.”

“It’s like a secret playroom, where kids come up with ideas for new toys that other kids can use against their enemies.”

The Power To Abuse

Think tanks are notoriously difficult to decipher, because while they often have significant impact on public policy – they are also pretty much sealed off from public scrutiny.

What’s more alarming is that think tanks in the United States and Canada enjoy tax-exempt status. This means donors get a tax write-off by sponsoring a think tank to produce “independently researched” data that not only matches their agenda but can also be used to lobby public policy.

Let’s go through that in slow motion. Yes, that’s three (3) birds with one stone, folks: (1) tax write-off; (2) cooked research to fit your (private or corporate) needs; (3) and tailored ammo for lobbying purposes. All this under the guise of “objective,” “professional” research that is executed “independently” by prestigious highbrow individuals.

This is not to say think tanks are always bad, it’s only to say they have the DNA to be bad.

Just how thin the veil of deceit can be is demonstrated by a recent legal case by the Koch Brothers (the Koch Industries oil magnates and Tea Party backers who fund research to e.g. dispute global warming) against Cato Institute (a Washington based think tank).

In the lawsuit, the brothers attempt to wrestle majority control of Cato Institute from a recently deceased shareholder (the Koch’s already own 50% of Cato). Typically shareholders cannot own nonprofits, but because of legal maneuvering through a Kansas incorporated entity, Cato has managed to avoid IRS claws since 1974.

In the 2011 Global Think Tank Index, Cato is listed as the sixth most influential think tank in the U.S., with a $24m annual budget, ranked third in Economic Policy influence and ranked second in Social Policy influence in United States.

Cato Institute’s president Ed Crane has accused Charles Koch of a “hostile takeover attempt” that would support Kochs’ “partisan agenda.” Meanwhile Charles Koch has released a statement that his intent is to advance “individual liberty, limited government, free markets, and peace.”

Confused? Welcome to the matrix of think tank tales. A matrix that is growing rapidly.

A Mushrooming Influence

According to Government Research Service  there were eight think tanks in U.S. in 1910, 98 in 1960, and 1,106 in 2006. Today, there are more than 6,500 think tanks in the world ,working in diverse fields such as social policy, politics, military, economics, technology, and culture.

Undeniably a lot of these think tanks are doing good work in public and private sectors – pooling talented brains to solve difficult issues that the government typically won’t touch and advocating solutions to pressing global or national concerns. But you don’t need Holmesian deduction to figure out that some of the biggest and most influential shark tanks are designed to support the interests of only a handful of powerful individuals, under the auspices of humanitarian mission statements.

It’s hard find out what the shark had for breakfast, unless you’re allowed to dissect it.

Instead what we can observe is how think tanks spread their tales through mainstream media, and how benevolent their mission statements appear relative to the private interests of their donors.

According to FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), the 25 most-cited think tanks receive about 14,790 citations in U.S. media in 2007.

Lately, progressive and left-leaning think tanks have gained ground, simply because they’re being positioned as more centrist, which gets them more airtime. It’s all about creating a sufficiently positive image in the public eye to optimize funding sources.

The Good, The Bad…

RAND Corporation, for instance, has taken significant steps to become more centrist and detached from its original 1946 mission statement. Although Douglas Aircraft Company founded the think tank to “offer research and analysis to U.S. armed forces” (hmm, isn’t there risk for cognitive bias for  a defense contractor here?), today they also consult on child policy, civil and criminal justice, education, health, national security, energy, environment, population studies, science, social welfare, terrorism, arts policy and transportation, to name a few.  It’s a long stride from its former heydays when then Chief Strategist Herman Kahn wrote “On Thermonuclear War,” a book that argues for a “winnable” nuclear war (fun fact: Peter Sellers’ character in Dr. Strangelove was based on Dr. Kahn).

According to imagine building, think tanks involve complicated legal structures to safeguard them from scrutiny. And sometimes these structures are convoluted enough to self-implode.

Take The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), a think tank which was founded in 1993 by APCO Worldwide, a public relations firm, which in turn was founded by Washington D.C.’s largest law firm, Arnold & Porter, a.k.a the “tobacco lawyers,” in order to act as a front for Philip Morris (now Altria) to debunk the link between smoking and cancer.

Incidentally, TASSC also tried to paint global warming as “junk science.”

Luckily a New York Times article exposed TASSC in 1998, prompting them to go underground. Supposedly, however, they are still operating from a home address in Potomac, MD.

Some think tanks, like the Council on Foreign Relations (CCR), get more flack from nosy bloggers and journalists than others, but are still pretty much untouchable because of their size and influence. CFR is considered the “most influential foreign-policy think tank” in the U.S. It’s a favorite target for conspiracy buffs who believe it was set up by David Rockefeller as part of his “world dominion plan.” They point at CFR’s mile-long member list of Fortune 500 CEOs and U.S. presidents for proof, but the finger pointing usually doesn’t get them farther than, well, their finger.

And The Ugly

Then there is the more conservative part of the rainbow, like the Heritage Foundation. You can actually sink your finger inside Heritage just by looking at its history, an extraordinary tale of how a think tank has influenced government policy and wars for the last three decades. Heritage is the 7th most influential conservative think tank in the United States, touting “traditional family values, Christian spirit, free enterprise, individual freedom, strong defense, and small government.”  Words the conservative think tanks like to copy and paste around.

What really distinguishes The Heritage Foundation is its Hollywood-like approach on good and evil, manifest in their blogs and press releases. Americans are the best people in the world, but they are under a threat from terrorists and moral decadence, one Heritage writer claims. Therefore Heritage “must safeguard Americans by influencing the decision makers with timely research.”

Heritage was founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, Edwin Feulner, and Joseph Coors, former president of Coors Brewing Company. There are some interesting connections between Coors, Heritage, and U.S. foreign policy.

Joseph Coors provided $250,000 to Heritage to cover their first year’s budget. He also privately donated $85,000 to help the Nicaraguan Contras during the Iran-Contra scandal (selling weapons to Iran to fund the contras wage war on the left-wing Nicaraguan government). Mr. Coors was also a member of Ronald Reagan’s Kitchen Cabinet, a collection of unofficial advisers that Reagan consulted regularly. Coors was instrumental in positioning Heritage as a policy-making machine within the White House. What happened in the 80s with Heritage has become a blueprint for think tank lobbyists today.

Heritage Foundation’s first mandate in January 1981 contained more than 2,000 suggestions to make the federal government more conservative. The Reagan administration adopted 1,200 of them, including the development of a ballistic missile defense system, called the “Star Wars.”

Later, Heritage became a leading proponent of Operation Desert Storm under George H. W. Bush.

Records of Desert Storm show that U.S. planes attacked Iraqi troops that were already withdrawing from Kuwait in compliance with a UN Resolution. Incendiary bombs wiped out not only out-of-combat Iraqi soldiers but fleeing civilians. According to U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark: What took place was the use of technological material to destroy a defenseless country. …125,000 to 300,000 people were killed…”

Ramsey Clark has since been labeled a traitor, especially after he led the National Coalition to stop US Intervention in Middle East. Clark’s main argument was that U.S. went after Iraq for oil interests, after USSR lost its influence in the area. The subsequent statistics would seem to support this theory, as U.S. oil imports from Gulf area rose from 10% to 25% from 1989 to 2000.

This is a lot of influence from a single think tank.

Modern American Heritage

How much the Second Gulf War, the Afghanistan War, and subsequent wars in the Middle East can be attributed to these early policies, and present advocacy, is unclear.

Today The Heritage Foundation upholds the 2nd Amendment, abstinence education, and nuclear rearmament. It has an $80 million annual budget, lists Margaret Thatcher as its patron, and is run by Edwin Feulner, a catholic conservative who received the Presidential Citizens Medal from Ronald Reagan in 1989.

Feulner announced the establishment of a new political arm called Heritage Action for America in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on April 12th, 2010.

This institution—Heritage Action for America—will be able to spend money to push legislation we think the country needs without the obstacles faced by a nonprofit like the Heritage Foundation,” writes Feulner.

In other words, an institution that is even more efficient and less constrained in influencing public policy behind public eyes and under private tutorship.

Bruce Bartlett, a former staff member at Heritage turned-whistleblower,who used to write analysis papers to influence congress on a daily basis, lifts the veil of deceit in his Forbes article.

“With the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision having loosened the restraints on corporate political activity, it’s likely that we will see other think tanks adopt the Heritage model as they did in the 1970s. The problem is that the pressure on researchers to conform to partisan political objectives is going to become even more intense, and if they are going to be expected to function as de facto lobbyists they are going to expect to be paid like lobbyists, which will ratchet up pressure to raise money from those with a purely bottom-line perspective. I fear that honesty and truth will get more and more lost in the process.”

Think Tank Of The Think Tanks?

It would seem that the opportunity to abuse the system of governance and democratic process through think tank tales is immense. And accelerating.

How many of the top 50 think tanks in the U.S. (see table below) recognize the need for increased transparency, simply to safeguard their own image? We have only looked at a few of the top think tanks, what are the rest like? Judging by their silence, they are happy inside their translucent skin.

Maybe in an age of think thanks it takes a think tank to really find out what’s going on inside think tanks.

What we need is the mother superior of all think tanks, one that monitors and studies the others to foreclose any oligarchic loopholes.

After all, the government doesn’t care. And the rest of us are too busy.


TABLE: Top Fifty Think Tanks in the United States

(Source: “2011 Global Go To Think Tank Rankings,” by James G. McGann, University of Pennsylvania)

  1. Brookings Institution
  2. Council on Foreign Relations (CFR)
  3. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  4. Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
  5. RAND Corporation
  6. Cato Institute
  7. Heritage Foundation
  8. Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
  9. Peterson Institute for International Economics, FNA Institute for International Economics
  10. American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (AEI)
  11. Center for American Progress
  12. National Bureau of Economic Research
  13. Pew Research Center
  14. Hoover Institution
  15. Atlantic Council of the United States
  16. United States Institute for Peace
  17. Open Society Institute New York (OSI)
  18. Human Rights Watch
  19. Center for International Development, Harvard University
  20. Center for Global Development
  21. Urban Institute
  22. Center for a New American Security
  23. German Marshall Fund of the United States
  24. James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University
  25. Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University
  26. New America Foundation
  27. Earth Institute, Columbia University
  28. World Resources Institute
  29. Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs
  30. Hudson Institute
  31. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
  32. International Food Policy Research Institute
  33. Foreign Policy Research Institute
  34. Freedom House
  35. Pew Center on Global Climate Change
  36. Resources for the Future
  37. Stimson Center, FNA Henry Stimson Center
  38. Inter-American Dialogue
  39. Acton Institue
  40. Economic Policy Institute
  41. East West Institute
  42. Competitive Enterprise Institute
  43. Manhattan Institute
  44. Reason Foundation
  45. Center for Transatlantic Relations, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University
  46. East-West Center Honolulu
  47. Center for Budget and Policy Priorities
  48. Center for the National Interest, FNA Nixon Center
  49. Mercatus Center
  50. Aspen Instute