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D.C. is a “think tank” kind of town — from those that follow the scholarly “university without students” model to those with a more ideological “government in waiting” approach. Kojo examines the rise of think tanks and analyzes what the dispute over the future of the libertarian Cato Institute says about the role think tanks play in shaping public policy.
- Tevi Troy Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute; former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- Neera Tanden President, Center for American Progress; Counselor, Center for American Progress Action Fund; former senior advisor for health reform at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
- Jim McGann Assistant Director of the International Relations Program and Director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania; Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute; author of "World Rankings of Think Tanks"
2011 Global Go To Think Tank Rankings
From the Selected Works of Dr. James G. McGann, University of Pennsylvania, January 2012:
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's no surprise that Washington is the think tank capital of the world. Nearly 400 think tanks make their home here. They range from old to new, conservative to liberal, scholarly to activist. For almost a century, think tanks have contributed research, analysis, expertise and ideas to the development of public policy. And while some have maintained a nonpartisan outlook, others have long seen the world through the lens of a political ideology.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut a recent struggle over control of the libertarian Cato Institute has raised new questions about the role think tanks play in shaping policy and influencing politics. As the Supreme Court reviews the nation's health care law based, in part, on ideas that came from think tanks, we'll look at how these organizations operate and participate in the public discourse. Joining me to explore the growing influence of think tanks is Tevi Troy.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Tevi Troy, thank you for joining us.
DR. TEVI TROYThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Neera Tanden, president of the Center for American Progress. She's a former senior adviser for health reform at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Neera Tanden, thank you for joining us.
MS. NEERA TANDENIt's great to be here. Thank you.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania is Jim McGann, assistant director of the International Relations Program and director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. He's also a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute and author of "2011 Global Go To Think Tank Rankings." Jim McGann, thank you for joining us.
DR. JIM MCGANNMy pleasure to be with you.
NNAMDIIt's a conversation you can -- you, too, can join by calling 800-433-8850. Simple question: Which think tanks do you trust the most and why? 800-433-8850. You can send a tweet, @kojoshow, email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Tevi Troy, Washington think tanks date back to the early 20th century, started as academic-style research centers focusing on issues related to public policy, essentially universities without students. How did, for instance, the nonpartisan Brookings Institution and other early think tanks get started?
TROYWell, there was a sense that Washington policymakers needed some type of objective advice, and it was helpful to have people in Washington who could work on these new initiatives and new plans. So there was a thought that -- there was a group like Brookings might be a good place to house that. Carnegie was also one of the early ones. Later, there was a sense that there might have been a more liberal perspective coming out of a place like Brookings.
TROYEven though it's mostly nonpartisan, it does lean a little bit left. And then so other places like the American Enterprise Institute, which was originally the American Enterprise Association, came to give it a sort of conservative counterweight.
NNAMDIJim McGann, the mission of think tanks has, well, evolved over the years. You've said some are still traditional think tanks, while others could be better described as think and do tanks that both conduct research and engage the public and policymakers. What do you think is the proper role for think tanks to play today?
MCGANNWell, I think, over time, the role of think tanks have evolved in response to changing demands within Washington and around the world and changes as a result of advances in technology and globalization, et cetera. But the principal role is to provide advice, sound advice that has a rigorous base for policymakers, the media and the public. Increase -- historically, there was the view that think tanks in ivy -- in their ivory towers would essentially provide or produce ideas, and policymakers would be the path to their door.
MCGANNThat is no longer the case, and that has necessitated changes in both the strategy and structure of think tanks to meet these changing demands.
NNAMDIDo you think, Neera Tanden, that that was, from the very beginning, an impossible kind of arrangement to try to have the thinking that think tanks could be -- if continuing to be nonpartisan, that they could be completely non-ideological?
TANDENWell, I think there are actually a range of think tanks -- Brookings, Rand and others -- that do provide -- that are nonpartisan. And I think many people would consider them nonpartisan. But Tevi points out that some conservatives thought that they were ideological. One could argue that they were providing nonpartisan advice and proposals. But there was a reaction to them from conservatives who did not think that they were representing their views.
TANDENAnd a number of conservative think tanks were created in -- you know, in large part in response to that. And so, you know, I don't think it's wrong to think that think tanks can provide non-ideological answers to problems, particularly the more -- the smaller the problem, the -- perhaps the easier it is to -- it's still important, but it is possibly easier to have a non-ideological response to that.
NNAMDITevi Troy, it just seems to me that we live in a political environment in which everybody seeks to understand the others' ideological underpinnings and that, therefore, it is very difficult for any academic or intellectual these days to claim to be completely nonpartisan without somebody digging into the ideological basis for whatever that academic or intellectual is producing.
TROYYeah. I do worry of mixing up the words ideological and partisan.
NNAMDIAnd philosophical. OK.
TROYBecause what I think is every think tank has some type of ideological predisposition. Even Brookings, as Neera was talking about, they claim to be non-ideological. I guess that's a disposition. But the question is, are they partisan? Do they pick one side of the partisan divide and say we're going to do research that will defend that party no matter what and be unwilling to criticize that party?
TROYAnd the real key in this game is if -- are you willing to kick -- criticize people on your own team, on your own political team in the guise of trying to pursue an ideological agenda and be up front about the ideological agenda? So Cato, for example, everybody knows that Cato is ideological. It is a libertarian think tank, but it's not partisan in that it's willing to criticize Democrats and Republicans equally.
NNAMDIOK. The reason I wanted to get into that is because there are, among our listeners, those who are neither affiliated with the Democratic or Republican Party and consider themselves independent. So I wanted to make -- I'm glad you made the distinction between ideological and nonpartisan. Neera Tanden, you're president of the Center for American Progress, which was founded by former Clinton administration official John Podesta in 2003 to promote progressive ideas. As one of the younger think tanks in town, what is the mission of the Center for American Progress?
TANDENWell, I think the distinction between partisan and ideological is an important one. You know, CAP is a progressive organization and has -- as part of its mission, is to solve the country's problems. We have a progressive view, but, you know, where ideas -- where the ideas that are more centrist or more liberal, you know, we try to put forward ideas that are right for the country, that are actually solving the country's challenges.
TANDENOur mission really is to look at the country's greatest challenges and most significant areas where we need to make progress and try to solve those challenges through policy ideas. And we have invested more in communications because, I think, Jim McGann is right that, you know, it's important to get your ideas in front of policymakers in new and innovative ways. But at our core, our most important mission is to develop policy proposals. And, as you pointed out, we are in the midst of a discussion before the Supreme Court about the Affordable Care Act.
TANDENOne of the things CAP is proudest of -- or I'm proudest of with CAP -- is that in 2005 when a lot of people in the political discussion weren't willing to talk -- excuse me -- about universal health care again, CAP put forward a plan to have near universal coverage that became the basis of Massachusetts -- the Massachusetts plan and also ultimately of the Democrats who were running for office and ultimately enacted. And so that is when we were most successful, when you're putting forward a policy idea, large or small, that can be adopted by political actors down the road to make change in the country.
NNAMDIIn the case you're just joining us, that's the voice of Neera Tanden. She's president of the Center for American Progress. We're having a conversation on think tanks' growing role in policy and politics. Also joining us is Tevi Troy. He's senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. And Jim McGann is assistant director of the International Relations Program and director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania.
NNAMDIYou can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think it's impossible to be a nonpartisan think tank? Also, you can send email to email@example.com. Tevi Troy, you've written that activist think tanks on both ends of the political spectrum may be muddying the waters for everyone by blurring the distinction between scholarly research and ideological activism. What's the danger in think tanks that promote a certain ideological orientation?
TROYYeah, I think, you know, it's a free country. Think tanks are welcome to do whatever they want. But when you have a proliferation of think tanks that are advocacy think tanks that do take this partisan approach, people might dismiss the research of think tanks that are more of an academic approach. And so it's kind of a devaluation theory, that the more you have people -- the more you have think tanks out there that are dismissed as partisan by the media -- and this is kind of at the heart of Jim McGann's excellent work on ranking the think tanks.
TROYIf they get dismissed by the media, then the media might say, or the public might say, well, maybe all think tanks should be thrown in the same collection of ideological or overly-partisan organizations that we won't pay attention to any of their work, even if it's good.
NNAMDIJim McGann, here in Washington, the libertarian Cato Institute is in the news after the Koch brothers moved to take control of Cato's board and apparently used the institute in a partisan effort to defeat President Obama in November. Could you talk a little bit about what's going on there and how it reflects concerns about the role of think tanks?
MCGANNWell, it's obviously, for the entire think tank community, a very serious concern because it raises a whole host of issues, not just the question of the partisan dimension. It -- the independence of a think tank is raised, the governance issues, the influence of money and then, you know, what one might describe as a hostile takeover of what is a publicly supported institution.
MCGANNSo all of those are very troubling developments. And, you know, I have been concerned for some time because there were earlier issues with Cato that raised troubling concerns that, I think, damaged the entire think tank community, and that it is essential that the community get ahead of these problems because it damages and calls into question the credibility not just of a single institution but all think tanks.
NNAMDIWell, for those who may not know exactly what's going on is that apparently the Koch brothers in a meeting with Robert Levy, chairman of Cato's board of directors, expressed their intention to remake the institute into a party organ that would aid their effort to unseat President Obama. In order to do so, they needed control of the board. They intend to get it by suing the widow of one of the board members who was recently deceased for control of his shares.
NNAMDIBut, apparently, this is going to be decided in the course. This comes from Ezra Klein's column in The Washington Post. What is your concern, Neera Tanden, about what's going at Cato?
TANDENWell, you know, let me just first say that I think Jim is right, that there are a lot of concerns raised by this. But, you know, I have to say I've focused less on this because my job is to be focused on CAP. And, you know, to the extent that Cato has problems with donors wanting to take over, that is a problem that CAP does not experience, and so it's not a problem that I'm concerned about for my own institution. And so I will leave Cato's problems to Cato, and the work -- I do think it's important.
TANDENIt has had a long recognition of being a libertarian organization. They have gone into uncharted waters for a lot of conservatives supporting issues like gay marriage and medical marijuana and just legalizing marijuana. And so, you know, continuing with their -- the support of their past ideological positions, I think, would be good for their credibility, but, again, you know, the specifics of what's happening with their donors is something that we're less focused on.
NNAMDITevi Troy, I get the impression, however, that you think Cato's problems are not simply Cato's problems.
TROYYeah, well, I agree with that. But, first, I'm not sure you've characterized what's going on at Cato correctly. I think there is basically a prenuptial agreement, and they're kind of fighting over the prenuptial agreement. And so I don't think -- you said that the Koch brothers have used Cato in a partisan way. I don't think that has happened at all. There is a question of the future leadership of Cato, and there's a legal battle over it. We'll see how it works out in the courts. The Koch brothers have a long history of philanthropy for a lot of conservative causes.
TROYAnd I wouldn't necessarily assume that the line that they are trying to do this partisan takeover is the correct one. But we don't know for sure all of the details. In terms of the concerns about Cato, I wrote my article before -- my article about think tanks in National Affairs before this whole Cato thing blew up. And the article in National Affairs talked about this tendency over the last 30 years for what I call lose an election, gain a think tank, where each side loses an election, whether it's Republicans or Democrats, and they say, you know what our response should be?
TROYLet's create a new think tank, and this think tank will be an advocacy organization that will do what the other side did after the last election, but even better. And it started with Heritage Foundation, and then Democrats did it with the Progressive Policy Institute. The Republicans did it with the Project for Republican Future. Neera's group did it with the Center for American Progress. And there's a sense that each new organization is kind of a carbon copy of the previous one, but a little fuzzier and more removed from the model of the university without students.
TROYI don't have a problem with new think tanks coming about, but there is a sense that this kind of original sin founding in the notion of an electoral loss does lead to think tanks that are partisan in their conception.
NNAMDII could see...
MCGANNI would have to -- if I can interject here, I mean, I have to...
NNAMDIYou can, but, please, do so after a short break. We've run over time here. And I know both of you and Neera have things to say about that, so hold your thought for a second. And if you want to join the conversation by telephone, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Have you worked at a think tank? Is there something that we are not seeing here that the general public does not understand about how think tanks work that you want to share with us? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking think tanks in Washington and taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What role do you believe think tanks should play in policy development? Are you confused by the ideological leanings of think tanks? Call us at 800-433-8850. We're talking with Jim McGann, assistant director of the International Relations Program and director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of the "2011 Global Go To Think Tanks Rankings."
NNAMDINeera Tanden is president of the Center for American Progress and former senior adviser for health reform at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And Tevi Troy, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, he is a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Jim McGann, when we took that break, we were discussing what is going on at the Cato Foundation and its relative importance for the think tank community as a whole. I interrupted you.
MCGANNWell, I can't disagree more with Tevi in terms of his observations about Cato, whether there -- however they intend the Koch brothers to use the Cato Institute, the reality is that for donors to essentially exercise the level of control in a hostile takeover -- and that's really what it is. To essentially suggest that it is -- does not have implications for the broader think tank community and is not problematic is simply wrong.
MCGANNIt has major implications for the entire industry and for the credibility of the industry. Simply to -- in terms of what is proper in terms of nonprofits and the governing structure, what is occurring there in -- very much in a public way damages all think tanks.
NNAMDIIn what way?
MCGANNI think there's no two ways about it. Well, I mean, in terms of -- it suggests that the independence of the institution is not what we thought it would be if this can occur, that the president of the institution can be (word?) dismissed by those, by, you know, a small group of contributors, that these institutions as publicly supported are to be serving in the public interest. Clearly, the individual intervention or individual's intervention in the operation of a nonprofit and the way that it is taking place is seriously damaging for the entire community.
NNAMDIHas there been any kind of precedent for this at all, as far as you know, Jim McGann?
MCGANNWell, there's always been struggles on boards and -- but they are dealt with in terms of the entire board, and certainly not to the extent where there are a few individuals who have a specific interest and agenda and have the resources that sort of are treating this as their private institution. Now, if they want that, they can do that. But this -- the other people who have contributed to Cato did not contribute to that institution.
MCGANNAnd to have two individuals hijack the institution simply because they provided a substantial amount of funding, it really threatens the independence of the institution and its credibility.
TROYI fear Prof. McGann misunderstands what I'm saying. I wrote in The Washington Post that the whole Cato issue is damaging to the credibility of think tanks. But my point is that I wrote a longer piece in National Affairs even before the whole Cato thing became public, saying that I was worried about the credibility of think tanks. So it's not the Cato incident per se that is leading to my concerns about the partisan nature of think tanks and the donor takeovers, both of it which are significant issues and concerns, but I think it predates Cato. Cato is just a symptom of a larger problem.
NNAMDINeera, let's look at the influence that think tanks have on domestic policy. You mentioned the Supreme Court reviewing the nation's two-year-old health care law. How is CAP, the Center for American Progress, involved in proposing universal coverage and health insurance exchange, as you mentioned, you started back in 2005?
TANDENIt's great, and I would like to address some things to be said about CAP's creation. But I'll first answer that question. You know, in 2004, you know, we had an election. No Democrat or Republican had put forward a plan to have universal health care. We believe universal health care was an important goal for the country and that it was sorely lacking in the political debate. CAP worked for over a year to develop a plan for near-universal coverage.
TANDENThe idea of it was to ensure that we maintain the coverage we have in the system today, the employer-based system, that build on it through a system of new insurance markets that were better regulated than the current system and that provides subsidy to people who could afford it as well as real insurance protections to consumers. That framework was one that we pushed out. We did a lot of events around it. We talked to a lot of members of Congress. We eventually did a series of events. And this might be the more action-oriented way that CAP works.
TANDENWe did an event -- we held an event with the Service Employees Union in 2007, which -- where we invited all the Democratic candidates. We invited all candidates, but the Democrats showed up. And it was there that there was a lot of discussion of health care and eventually the plans -- or the framework of our plan. The basis -- the basic plan was adopted by the Democratic candidates.
TANDENAnd so scenario where, you know, you can use tools, like your communications and external relations operations, to ensure that your ideas get a fair hearing. And CAP is proud of the work we've done to innovate in social media and elsewhere to ensure that our ideas get a fair hearing. But central to our work is the -- our ideas and how -- or how our ideas are solving the country's challenges.
TANDENAnd, you know, I think that one of the concerns that we've had with Tevi's article and some of the things he's written elsewhere is that it really ignores the work that some progressive organizations, especially CAP, the work we've done in the ideas front. We put forward -- we're the first organization and first think tank to put forward a comprehensive plan to end the Iraq War. That plan formed the basis of what the president ultimately adopted, and we're proud of that work. And at the end of the day, we're most proud of the changes we've made.
TANDENAnd when CAP was created, it wasn't created because Democrats had lost an election. CAP was created because we believed it was important for there to be a place where your progressive ideas across issues -- economic, national security, domestic -- and that you could work on those ideas across the spectrum.
NNAMDIAre there occasions on which CAP has opposed Democratic or White House proposals?
NNAMDIOK. Then we -- you don't have to...
NNAMDI'Cause I wanted to stay with health care for a while, Tevi, from your perspective, how have think tanks, particularly in this case, the Heritage Foundation, contributed to the evolution, if you will, of health care policy?
TROYWell, Heritage has been influential in policy writ large since the 1970s when it was originally created. There was a sense that other conservative think tanks, particularly the American Enterprise Institute, were not preparing material in response to current debates, and Heritage wanted to be more current. And so they've been very influential within the conservative movement.
TROYTheir whole notion is they want to prepare papers that could be read by congressmen on the walk from the Hart building on the Senate side, or from the Rayburn building on the House side, to the floor, and they could be absorbed by the senator or congressman on the way to a vote. So they're very much about getting involved in the political debate and having Republican politicians -- not just Republican politicians, but all politicians respond. But more -- but as Neera was saying that more Democrats responded to their health care event, more Republicans tend to respond to Heritage papers.
TROYSo they've been very influential, and it sort of -- the way you could look at Heritage is if you want to see what the current sort of mainstream conservative thinking is on a particular issue, you can go to Heritage. And they will have a paper on just about every issue, and you'll get a sense of that.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned current because the narrative of Heritage's relation to universal health care is that, as far back as 1989 that Heritage participated in developing the idea of universal health care delivered by the private sector with an individual mandate. The narrative, of course, goes on that when Obama and Democrats adopted that idea, Heritage promptly reversed its position and fell into step with the Republican Party. Care to comment on that?
TROYYeah, I don't think that's a fair depiction. I think Ed Fuller wrote a piece in The Washington Post where he described the differences between the way Heritage prepared the mandate and created the mandate and the way the mandate was laid out by the Obama health legislation. So there are certainly differences. But, look, health policy evolves. And, over time, different ideas have come to the fore, and some ideas go up. And, I mean, you look at something like premium support, which is on the Medicare side of things. That was an idea that a lot of Democrats came up with.
TROYAnd you've had Sen. (word?) was behind the idea. And now, today, when Paul Ryan is pushing the idea -- and he does have -- he's had some Democratic cooperators. Alice Rivlin was with him at one point. Ron Wyden is on board with one version, but he gets pilloried from a lot of the Democratic think tanks for his premium support idea. So you do see this shift over time in ideas. You might have someone on board with something at one point, but these things do change over time.
NNAMDIJim, again, I'm going to get to you in a second, but Neera Tanden is choking me. Go ahead, Neera.
TANDENJust to clarify in the specific issue of the individual mandate and Heritage, Heritage championed the individual mandate for many years. It then championed -- it actually claimed, as a success of its own making, the Massachusetts model. Stuart Butler was a fellow who came up with -- who supported the individual mandate. He championed -- they championed it. When Massachusetts did the individual mandate, they put out press releases saying it was a Heritage idea. That individual mandate is virtually identical.
TANDENI appreciate that people would like to make distinctions, but it is virtually identical. If anything, the national mandate is slightly stronger and more effective, but it is virtually identical. And so I appreciate that Heritage has been trying over the last several years since the Obama administration came into being and has tried to put forward -- has adopted the idea that they like to make distinctions. But I don't think policy analysts in the health care field find those distinctions of weight.
NNAMDIJim McGann, broadening the discussion of think tanks again, you've said think tanks play a big role in policy formation here in the United States because of our insistence on limited government. We've got a separation of powers and the distrust, if you will, of civil servants that lead us to look outside of the government for expertise. Can you compare the influence of think tanks here in the United States and the rest of the world?
MCGANNCertainly. The role and influence of think tanks in the United States is unparalleled around the world. They're much more visible. They're much more influential. They're greater in number. Their budgets are -- dwarf most, if not the vast majority of think tanks around the world. And it really has to do with the fact that we have, historically, dating back to the inception of the republic, we've looked to outside organizations, factions, as de Tocqueville observed when he traveled throughout America, to provide advice.
MCGANNSo the proliferation, the significant number of think tanks in the United States, their visibility, their influence is profound relative to other countries in the world. And we have a greater diversity of think tanks. And the landscape is varied so that, you know, in many respects this discussion of partisan and even advocacy is less troubling to me relative to other countries where there may be a single party. In the U.S., virtually every view on an issue has an institution that can support that position. Now, that creates a cacophony and problems.
MCGANNBut the bottom line is that it is reflective of our democracy. And I think the best example of this, relative to other countries, is if you look at the 9/11 Commission closely, we did not impanel a commission that was composed of government officials and bureaucrats. We went outside of government principally, but not exclusively, to think tanks to look at what was one of the most critical issues facing this country. What happened? Why did it happen, and how can we avoid it in the future? And in each case, if you look at the members, they're either on boards of think tanks or presidents of think tanks.
MCGANNSo it says and manifests in the most -- in the clearest way in a very important issue the importance and significance of think thanks in the American political system.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones, here is Perry in Brunswick, Md. Perry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PERRYThank you, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I'm cleaning my cats' litter boxes here.
PERRYThree cats, three litter boxes. Anyway, my first question is relating -- I'll take the answers off the air -- is relating to the tax -- the tax status of the organizations you've discussed this morning, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the progress groups that's represented this morning. And then the second is a comment about the health care debate. It just seems to me that, from the very beginning, the White House and the Congress took the same (unintelligible) off the agenda. Those who supported it could not get a hearing or a serious debate.
PERRYAnd now, we're hearing that in the -- as the court discusses the current system, that a single-payer system would have been constitutional. It would not have been challenged by -- could not have been challenged as unconstitutional. Thank you very much. I'll take the answers off the air.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. I will start briefly with the health care system first and the die-hard single-payer system supporters who invariably call us when this discussion comes up. Your turn, Neera Tanden.
TANDENJust on that issue, I would say that, you know, for -- there are many policy analysts who believe a single-payer system is a better way to go. Obviously, a lot of countries have it. They have lower costs, better outcomes. The challenge we have is that in our country, a health care system grew up. That was an employer-based system. And, you know, the American people like their coverage the way they receive it.
TANDENAnd so, I think, the challenge we all have is that if you want to get to near universal coverage, the way to have it happen in our lifetime is to have the system that they have adopted, which is to have an individual mandate in addition to private and health insurance options. You know, I was a supporter of a public option. But, at the end of the day, the most important thing for progressives and, I believe, all Americans is that we are going to ensure that, you know, 32 million more Americans have health care.
TANDENAnd we could wait decades before we get universal coverage through a single-payer's plan, and I'm not, you know, not optimistic that that would even take decades. It might take a half century. But, in the meantime, we have this way to get to near universal coverage, which, I think, is a strong and important step for this country.
NNAMDIOn to the broader issue of tax status that our caller Perry raised, Tevi, most think tanks and nonprofit organizations, a growing number, now, however, have an advocacy in addition to their research side. How does that affect their nonprofit status, their tax status and, ultimately, their mission?
TROYYeah, I agree. This is one of the trends that I find worrisome. Most think tanks, as you say, are 501 (c)(3) organizations. Not every 501 (c)(3) is a think tank. So the two things you need in order to be a think tank are having this 501 (c)(3) nonprofit designation and self-declaration. You call yourself a think tank. But think tanks increasingly are developing these C4 arms. The C4 is a non-tax deductible, and it could be a political organization. I know Neera's group has a C4 arm.
TROYHeritage now has a C4 arm, and you're seeing this development happen more and more often. And there's a question of how thick is the wall between the two organizations. And, obviously, they have to be very careful, from a legal perspective, not to violate it. But if a think tank takes certain positions and the C4 takes certain positions, you wonder about the way these things come about and is the organization following the lead of the C4.
NNAMDINeera, you have to leave very shortly, so I'll let this be the last question for you. CAP is one of the think tanks with both a research side and an advocacy side. You're president of the Center for American Progress. You're also counselor for the Center for American Progress Action Fund. What's the difference between the two, and how do you maintain a distinction?
TANDENIt -- there's a very clear distinction. The C3 is the organization that is devoted to creating ideas and new policy proposals to solve the country's challenges. The C4 allows us to advocate for that on the Hill, those ideas, talk about them, communicate with the -- communicate about them, criticize proposals of politicians, et cetera. But I want to be crystal clear about this because I think it's very -- it's made very unclear in some of the criticisms.
TANDENOur C3 policy ideas lead our C4, so our C4 advocates on behalf of and promotes the work of our C3. You know, there were occasions where, you know, our C3 hasn't taken a position on an issue where the C4 will blog or write about something. But the C3 in the policy of the Center for American Progress and the policy positions it takes are the -- are what lead the work of the organization and of both organizations on the advocacy of the C4. And it's...
NNAMDIWhat's the difference on their tax status?
TANDENThe 501 (c)(3) is -- has a tax deductible as -- you know, contributions are tax-deductible, and so they have a tax preferential treatment. The C4 does not have any such treatment.
NNAMDINeera Tanden is president of the Center for American Progress. She's a former senior adviser for health reform at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation with Tevi Troy, Jim McGann and you, those of you who called 800-433-8850 or sent an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, sent a tweet, @kojoshow, or went to our website, kojoshow.org to ask a question or make a comment. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about think tanks and their growing role in policy and politics. We're talking with Jim McGann, assistant director of the International Relations Program and director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, and Tevi Troy, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He's a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Jim, we made reference earlier to your rankings report.
NNAMDIYou just released your fifth annual rankings of think tanks around the world. How do your rankings help journalists and policymakers figure out which think tanks are worth listening to?
MCGANNWell, the process is a rigorous process where -- and it's truly global. I mean, there are 15,000 individuals, which are journalists, donors, policymakers, academics, think tank -- former think tank directors and members of their boards who participate in the process and help identify through a series of criteria that were established as a result of research that I did on pre- and post-...
NNAMDIAllow me to interrupt for a second because, from Jim's ranking, you can find out what the top 10 countries with the most think tanks are. United States is first with 1,815, China next with 425, India with 292, and at the bottom of that list of 10 is Canada. In the middle, you'll find the U.K., Germany, France, Argentina, Russia and Japan. Please go ahead, Jim.
MCGANNWell -- and the criterion or -- and it really -- I developed the rankings based on calls that I will receive from journalists from around the world, from donors, et cetera. You know, what are the top think tanks in your estimation? You've been studying them for 25 years. And I felt uncomfortable giving my opinion without having some systematic way of ranking them. So I developed this process which now takes about eight months to complete. Think tanks are nominated.
MCGANNThey are then ranked. And then an expert panel from every region of the world and in all the functional areas looks at the list and provides their input. And from that, the index is developed, so it's a fairly rigorous process. It really responds to -- and I've, you know, received input from institutions and policy makers that, you know, when they go to a country, when they're looking to -- in terms of collaboration, it helps them identify what are the centers of excellence in functional areas and in regions throughout the world.
NNAMDIIn your rankings report, you note that the number of think tanks in the BRICS countries -- Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa -- has doubled in the last five years. Why is that significant?
MCGANNWell, it's significant because they're emerging powers. And like us in the United States, when we were rising the -- and the inception of Brookings was to meet the increasing demands that government has for -- on the critical issues facing a country. The BRIC countries, as they emerge, are seeing these challenges and are quite rapidly looking to develop their capacity. And a simple example would be if one looks at China and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. They went from -- with 15 institutes to now close to 35 in a very short span of time.
MCGANNIn the physical sense, they -- the building that they were housed in for years, they built another building right next to it that is equal in size. They understand the importance of having high-quality advice and analysis on key policy issues to help chart their course going forward. And that is why most of the BRIC countries are rapidly expanding their think tanks and their capacity within the existing think tanks within their countries.
NNAMDITevi Troy, before I get back to the phones, looking ahead, what do you see as the biggest challenges facing American think tanks? And how do you see the role in policy development changing or evolving?
TROYYeah. I think the number one challenge is maintaining credibility in the face of a lot of these outside challenges, whether it's donor challenges or political perceptions. Going forward, I think think tanks are going to continue to be an important source of policy research, and Jim's research suggests that it's going to take place not just in the U.S., but continue to take place around the world.
TROYBut the best way to get good research is to be able to sift between the organizations that are on this more academic model and then the other institutions that are a little more partisan, a little more advocacy-oriented. You have to be able to distinguish among them.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here's John in Silver Spring, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHello. Yes. Can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
JOHNOh, great. I have a question -- a quick anecdote. I met David Brinkley in the airport about 15 years ago, and I asked him what a young man could do to have an influence. And he said, join a think tank. So -- rest his soul. And my questions are two parts: one is, how do you compare the influence of think tanks, you know, versus the power of the political influence of, whether they're related or not, you know, political action committees and super PACs?
JOHNThe other part of my question is, do you think think tanks serve to kind of support the centrist nature of our political system, or do they actually serve to make it broader and more kind of -- bring out the wings of the -- the various different wings of different parties? Thank you.
NNAMDIFirst part to you, Jim, think tanks versus PACs, political action committees, in terms of influence.
MCGANNWell, I think, in terms of this whole debate about the hyper-partisan dimensions, particularly in Washington, I think we have to be cautious that, one, this is an election year. So we're going to see increased partisanship leading up to the November election. Secondly, I think that, you know, one of the more recent developments is super PACs, which further complicates this process because you have individuals that are exerting -- who have significant means that are exerting influence over the political process.
MCGANNI am not as troubled by, you know, in terms of the number of advocacy groups simply because, within the total environment, there is -- in the U.S., at least -- a balance between the various opposing voices. It does create some difficulties, and I think that there are trends that I have been tracking since 2005 when I wrote the "Casualties in the War of Ideas" that emerged, that are not simply a result of the partisan or hyper-partisan politics in Washington.
MCGANNThere are a whole range of things that are contributing to the changes that are taking place in the policy community and in think tanks themselves that need to be tracked and addressed. But I'm not as terribly concerned, and I think these things tend -- in our system, tend to work themselves out.
NNAMDITevi Troy, your answer to the same question.
TROYYou know, my first question, of course, is whether John took David Brinkley's advice and joined a think tank. But, secondly, in terms of the partisan nature, look, think tanks reflect our society, and, right now, we have a pretty partisan society. That doesn't mean that there aren't think tanks out there that are doing excellent work or that you don't sometimes have a partisan think tank that does particular good work on a subject.
TROYThe question is one of credibility. Can you rely on the work of a think tank in general? And where do you go when you need policy advice? I know, when I worked in the Bush White House, if we wanted to get a study that supported what we had to say, the best place to go would be if, let's say, Brookings -- which is a little bit on the other side, but also an academic place -- backed up what we had to say.
TROYIf you wanted to look on the right, you're probably better off looking at a place like an AEI or an American Enterprise Institute because they seem to have a little more of that academic credibility. A similar thing takes place on the left, where they would rather get a -- an academic conservative think tank back up what they have to say, whereas a place like CAP is seen as some place that would just be supporting them 'cause you would expect them to support them.
NNAMDIThe other thing that I inferred from John's question, Jim, is that I got the impression that he was saying that, on the one hand, he think that the cumulative effect of PACs is to take us towards the extremes and wondering if the cumulative effect of think tanks brings us towards the center.
MCGANNWell, I think, ultimately, that's true that think tanks tend to be lead-oriented and help to maintain the status quo. And there is this dynamic that's going on in terms of whether it's Take Back Wall Street or America and/or the Tea Party movement that are on either side. I think it is, you know, important to note that we have been -- until the economic crisis, politicians have been able to essentially avoid dealing with some of the fundamental challenges facing this country and were able to kick the can down to the next administration.
MCGANNThat, I think, is a part of this whole dynamic, is that now we have very hard choices to make, and politicians and think tanks are in the middle of trying to sort that out. And they're not easy choices, and it is going to require an intense debate. And it's going to be rancorous in terms of making very difficult, painful choices that we're going to need to make in the coming years.
MCGANNBut simply because we do not have the resources and our position in the world is changing, which will force us to make changes and choices that, historically, we've been able to defer to the next administration or the administration after that, that is no longer the case, and what's going on is really a part and parcel to that political dynamic that's occurring.
NNAMDITevi Troy, we got this email from Philip in Washington, D.C. "I have worked as a researcher at a think tank and consider myself to be a working-class Nero. Moreover, I regularly attend presentations of research findings and new idea sessions at various Washington area think tanks, most notably the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. At the conclusion of these presentations, the moderator often asks, what is the tank talk takeaway from this? Maybe you can give us some further insight into useful tank talk takeaways that you have seen or benefited from."
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left.
TROYWell, I've been to a lot of think tank forums over the year. I've never heard of a tank talk takeaway, but I'll give it my best shot.
TROYThe point is that there are more think tanks. They are very involved in our debate. They are very important in the policy development process, and I think it's an important resource that the U.S. has had, that has been important in developing key policies over the years such as the Marshall Plan or welfare reform. And I would just like to protect that resource, and that's why I wrote my article, "Raising the Alarm," about some of my concerns on think tanks.
NNAMDITevi Troy. He's a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Tevi Troy, thank you so much for joining us.
TROYThanks for having me.
NNAMDIJim McGann is assistant director of the International Relations Program and director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. He's a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute and author of "2011 Global Go To Think Tank Rankings." Jim McGann, thank you for joining us.
MCGANNKojo, thank you and your listeners for giving me this opportunity.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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