Myth: Conservative think tanks are the answer to liberal academia.
Fact: Conservative think tanks lack the checks and balances of academia,
and produce crank science.
In response to liberal academia, wealthy conservative businessmen
are funding a growing number of far-right think tanks to establish
a theoretical footing for their causes. Lacking all the checks
and balances that keep academic research honest, these think tanks
produce highly flawed and biased studies whose only purpose is
to promote policies that favor the business classes that fund
By and large, academia tends to be liberal. There are conservative
professors, to be sure, but they are usually moderate, and in the
minority. But what of the far right? For many decades now, the
far right has been gradually disappearing from American universities
(with a few notable exceptions, like the computer science department).
The steadily growing influence of liberalism in academia has alarmed
many on the far right, because without a source of ideas and theories,
the influence of their political movement will crumble.
For this reason, the last decade or so has seen a phenomenal rise
in the number of far-right and libertarian think tanks. They have
received heavy funding from wealthy conservative businessmen who
are eager to reclaim the debate from liberal scholars. William
Simon, president of the conservative Olin Foundation, argues that
businesses who donate indiscriminately to universities are "financing
their own destruction. Why should businessmen be financing left-wing
intellectuals and institutions which espouse the exact opposite
of what they believe in?" (1)
The solution to the far right's problems is the think tank. Actually,
the term is something of a misnomer here. Traditionally, think
tanks analyze policy problems and suggest solutions. The current
organizations are more properly defined as advocacy groups, or
hired intellectual guns. Their sole purpose is to sell policies
to the public and Congress that favor the wealthy special interests
that fund them.
Think tanks are ideal for this salesmanship, because they lack
many of the checks and balances that keep academia honest. Consider
their differences in method:
And these differences of method lead to startling differences
of result. Consider the following examples:
- In academia, the peer-reviewed journal and the scientific
conference are two important tools for keeping research honest.
They allow scholars to confront their opponents and argue out
their differences in sometimes brutal and extensive debate. No
such policy exists for think tanks. Think tanks must be debated
in the media, a severely limited forum (dealing in sound bites)
which provides them with a great deal of intellectual cover.
- In academia, scholars have an important arbiter in the National
Academy of Sciences, which comprises many of the nation's
--- indeed, the world's -- most respected scientists. Think tanks,
on the other hand, submit their work to the general public, who
are usually unqualified to give an expert critique of the study.
- Public universities promote diversity of thought as an official
policy, by rotating different-minded professors in and out of
teaching assignments. There is no diversity of thought in a think
tank, where researchers are hired because they already agree with
the foundation's political philosophies.
- Academics conduct their research first and draw their conclusions
second -- if they don't, they'll catch hell at peer review. But
think tanks do this exactly backwards: they reach their conclusions
first and conduct their research second.
- The sheer size of academia also works to keep research more
accurate. There are over 3,600 higher academic institutions in
the U.S., but only a few dozen think tanks. Academia therefore
has a vastly larger talent pool and considerably greater research
facilities than think tanks. (2)
The Rector quote shows that think tanks also take advantage of
sound bites. For example, they might issue a catchy one-liner,
like "All families experienced real income gains during the
Reagan years." The sound bite is easy to repeat, but the
rejoinder is not, because it requires a lengthy explanation concerning
the business cycle, falling individual incomes, the rising percentage
of wage earners in the family, the longer hours worked, the shorter
vacations taken, etc. Of course, the media will only report the
sound bite. And even if people are exposed to both, they will
understand and remember the sound bite more easily than the detailed
- Supply-side economics. Academia has utterly rejected
this crank theory. The American Economic Association is the economic
arm of the National Academy of Sciences, and it is filled with
scholars of all political stripes. Even so, only 12 of its 18,000
members described themselves as supply-siders in the early 80s.
In American universities, there is no major department that could be called
"supply-side," and there is no supply-side economist
at any major department. Such total rejection by academia has
stung supply-siders. Martin Anderson, who works at the Hoover
Institute, has written a bitter tirade against academia entitled
Impostors in the Temple. He believes that the only good
economics being conducted nowadays is by conservative think tanks,
where supply-side theory thrives. This is either a damning indictment
of academia or think tanks, depending on your point of view. (3)
- The Hoover Institute and the New Jersey Family Cap.
In 1993, New Jersey began denying extra welfare benefits to welfare
mothers who had more kids. Conservatives were eager to show that
the cap took away a financial incentive for welfare mothers to
increase their family size. Sixteen months after the cap took
effect, the Hoover Institute released a study showing that the
average monthly birth rate for New Jersey welfare mothers had
declined more than 10 percent. However, the study was so poorly
done that it failed to compare a control group with an experimental
group. A Rutgers study which did found that "there is not
a statistically significant difference between the birth rates
in the experimental and control groups." (4)
- The Cato Institute's welfare benefits study. In 1996,
Cato released a report claiming that welfare benefits far exceeded
the income from a minimum wage job. For example, they calculated
that the typical AFDC family in California received benefits totaling
$20,687 annually. In reality, the typical California welfare family
of three receives less than $10,000, about $2,000 below the poverty
line. To get their inflated figure, Cato had to add up every type
of welfare benefit imaginable. It counted benefits that only a
small percentage of welfare families can get, as if every welfare
family gets them. It counted benefits that are exclusionary. It
counted different benefits that only different families get. It
incorrectly defined and overstated benefits. And then, to prove
its point that jobs paid less than welfare, Cato committed another
series of errors calculating California income, all of which were
in the same direction, all of which reduced it to as little as
- The Heritage Foundation and the war on poverty. In
a 1994 congressional hearing, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation
unveiled one of the most repeated sound bites of the 90s: "Since
the onset of the War on Poverty, the United States has spent over
$5.3 trillion on welfare. But during the same period, the official
poverty rate has remained virtually unchanged." This is totally
false; the poverty rate fell from 19 to 11 percent between 1964
and 1973. And the U.S. has spent only $700 billion on AFDC and
food stamps since 1962. To get his inflated $5.3 trillion figure,
Rector's "war on poverty" had to include solidly middle
class programs like student loans, school lunches, job training,
veterans pensions and Medicaid, three-fourths of which goes not
to the poor but the elderly and disabled. (6)
The conservative donors behind think tanks
Think tanks also take advantage of the financial limitations
of academia. Economist Paul Krugman writes:
"Despite its centrality to political debate, economic research
is a very low-budget affair. The entire annual economics budget
at the National Science foundation is less than $20 million. What
this means is that even a handful of wealthy cranks can support
an impressive-looking array of think tanks, research institutes,
foundations, and so on devoted to promoting an economic doctrine
they like. (The role of a few key funders, like the Coors and
Olin foundations, in building an intellectual facade for late
20th-century conservatism is a story that somebody needs to write.)
The economists these institutions can attract are not exactly
the best and the brightest. Supply-side troubadour Jude Wanniski
has lately been reduced to employing followers of Lyndon LaRouche.
But who needs brilliant, or even competent, researchers when you
already know all the answers?" (7)
The rapid rise of far-right think tanks has been financed by wealthy
conservative businessmen. Five donors especially stand out: the
Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Koch Family foundations,
the John M. Olin Foundation, the Scaife Family foundations and
the Adolph Coors Foundation. (William Coors, you may recall, reportedly
told a 1984 meeting of African-American businessmen that "one
of the best things they [slave traders] did for you is to drag
your ancestors over here in chains.") The amount of money
they give to funding and promoting think tanks and other conservative
academic endeavors is nothing short of astounding. In 1988, the
Olin Foundation alone distributed $55 million in grants. The Scaife
family has donated more than $200 million over the years. Million
dollar annual grants to individual think tanks are routine. (8)
These Foundations have also been instrumental in creating the
most famous think tanks. The Heritage Foundation, considered the
leading think tank in America, was created in 1973 with $250,000
in seed money from brewery mogul Joseph Coors. The Cato Institute,
the nation's leading libertarian think tank, was founded in 1977
by the Koch family foundations. (9)
The foundations are also active in trying to turn back liberalism
in academia, donating tens of millions to promote conservative
programs in the nation's most elite universities. In fact, Charles
Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, is heavily promoted
by the Bradley Foundation, which has installed him as a Senior
Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Thanks to the foundation's
support, Murray and Herrnstein were able to bypass the usual process
of academic peer review and deliver The Bell Curve directly
to the American public in a splendidly organized and financed
media campaign. This included a Newsweek cover story that
called the science behind the book "overwhelmingly mainstream."
The next year, the National Academy of Sciences denounced the
scientific basis of The Bell Curve as "fraudulent."
Unfortunately, progressive think tanks find themselves heavily
outspent. According to the Center for Policy Alternatives, the
major conservative think tanks in
Washington had a combined budget of $45.9 million, while the major
progressive think tanks had a combined budget of $10.2 million.
What this means is that far-right think tanks are better able
to publicize their findings, stage more conferences, lobby harder
for their policies, and present more and better-packaged information
before Congress. (11)
And the far right is reaping the rewards of this blitz. A Nexus
search of think tanks mentioned in newspapers, radio and TV transcripts
for 1995 found that conservative think tanks were mentioned 7,792
times, compared to 6,361 for centrist ones and 1,152 for progressive
ones. (12) An even more significant measure of their success is
Congress. Often, studies by conservative think tanks end up in
legislation, and become reflected in official policy. Think tanks
affect even the executive branch; one of the more dramatic examples
of this was the Heritage Foundation's Mandate for Leadership,
which became the blueprint for the Reagan Revolution. Reagan adopted
two-thirds of its proposals in his first year in office alone.
The far right's effort to create an intellectual conservative movement
is truly comprehensive, well-funded and well-organized. They are
not only building think tanks at the national level, but the state
level as well, since congressional conservatives are trying to
devolve power to the states. They are targeting the nation's elite
universities, providing funding for conservative academic programs,
conservative college newspapers, and conservative scholarships.
Financially, liberals fall far behind in all these efforts. (13)
"Buying a Movement:
Right-Wing Foundations and American Politics" (Click through the pages)
Creating the Machinery for Downsizing Labor Costs"
The Origins of the Overclass.
Myth: There's no "vast right-wing conspiracy" to get Clinton.
A Timeline of CIA Atrocities.
Return to Overview
1. Quoted in "Buying a Movement: Right-Wing Foundations
and American Politics," People For The American Way, 2000
M Street NW, Suite 400, Washington, DC, 20036.
2. The number of higher academic institutions is for 1992, and
includes 2- and 4-year institutions. U.S. National Center for
Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, 1992.
3. Supply-siders in AEA: James Carville, We're Right, They're
Wrong: A Handbook for Spirited Progressives (New York: Random
House, 1996), p. 12. Supply-siders in universities: Paul Krugman,
Peddling Prosperity: Economic Sense and Nonsense in the Age
of Diminished Expectations (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994),
4. Robert Rector, "The Impact of New Jersey's Family Cap
on Out-of-Wedlock Births and Abortions," Heritage Foundation,
September 6, 1995. Findings of Rugters University study reported
by Michael Camasso in letter to the Washington Post.
5. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities,
"The Cato Institute
Report On Welfare Benefits: Do Cato's California Numbers Add Up?"
(Washington: March 7, 1996).
6. Robert Rector, Heritage Foundation, testimony before the House
Subcommittee on Human Resources, August 9, 1994. Poverty rate:
U.S. Bureau of the Census, Current Population Reports,
P-60 series. AFDC total: "What Do We Spend on 'Welfare'?,"
Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Food stamps total: U.S.
Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service, in Social
Security Bulletin, Annual Statistical Supplement, 1995.
7. Paul Krugman,
"Supply-Side Virus Strikes Again,"
The Dismal Scientist, Slate (Internet magazine), August
8. "Buying a Movement."
10. Ibid. Newsweek assessment: Geoffrey Cowley, "Testing
the Science of Intelligence," Newsweek, October 24,
1994, p. 56. NAS assessment: Don Lattin, "'Bell Curve' Called
Political, Not Scientific: Psychologists Examine Race-IQ Controversy,"
The San Francisco Chronicle, Friday, August 11, 1995, A6
11. "Buying a Movement."
12. Michael Dolny, "The Think Tank Spectrum: For the Media,
Some Thinkers Are More Equal Than Others," Extra!,
May/June 1996, Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting.
13. "Buying a Movement."