ThinkTanked Today?


thinktanked.jpgAlthough he’s just launched it, writer Allen McDuffee has a fun blog called ThinkTanked that is worth paying attention to.
He has a good roster of the better institutions — although according to a Department of State study done at the direction of then Policy Planning Director and now Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, there are more than 1,500 think tanks in Washington. Most of them are boutiques and exist more as concepts than working institutions — but the bottom line is that think tanks play a huge role in political and policy work in Washington, and Americans know very little about them.
But some Americans are interested. Just the other night, I met up with an inquisitive Zach Galifianakis at the Bloomberg/Vanity Fair post-WHCA dinner who really wanted to know what think tankers thought about. And he was sincere, which most Americans who ask that question realize soon after they begin to get an answer that they didn’t really want to know.
I am, however, interested in tracking work at other policy institutions and look forward to Allen McDuffee’s coverage — including of the New America Foundation.
— Steve Clemons


22 comments on “ThinkTanked Today?

  1. JohnH says:

    Interesting, CharityNavigator used to make 990s available on their site. No more.
    I found NAF’s at the Foundation Center.


  2. Linda says:

    WigWag, JohnH,
    First, WigWag, thanks for your posting about Guidestar that I believe now is independent but was started by the Urban Institute. Not all non-profits allow all their funders to be known, and all this information should be public. Also Guidestar used to provide all information for free, but now charges hefty fees if one wants more detailed information and past history.
    This information all comes from IRS 990 forms–so in order to have transparency and sunlight, it really should be available for free on IRS website. I believe Joint Committee on Taxation (the only nonpartisan Congressional Committee where staff stays and does not change when control of Congress does) has looked into this, but I really don’t know more about it.
    Anybody know more about this?


  3. JohnH says:

    Posting the list shows how the wealthy obscure their agenda: first, form a non-profit. Then have their personal non-profit distribute money to selected lobbying groups, think tanks, etc. At least most of the groups funding NAF have the founder’s name on the non-profit. Often this is not the case, because the underwriter doesn’t want his name associated with the anti-social causes he supports.


  4. WigWag says:

    “Thanks WigWag. Good for NAF for posting the list. Is it common practice?” (Dan Kervick)
    Some do post their donors others don’t. The organizations are actually required to list their donors when submitting their IRS 990. It is usually listed as an exhibit at the end of the tax return. The IRS permits not-for-profit organizations to redact their donor information when submitting their forms for listing on Guidestar. Some non-profits redact this information, others leave it in for everyone to peruse.
    Most think tanks do publish annual reports which do provide some information about who donates to them. It is usually available by request from the organization.


  5. WigWag says:

    Dan, in case you are interested here is some information on the NAF Donors that you mught find informative.
    Eric Schmidt of Google. I believe he is chairman of the board.
    Bernie Schwartz. Former CEO of Loral Space Sciences, a major defense contractor. Schwartz has been retired for about 10-15 years. He was a major supporter of both Clinton and Gore and he was mixed up in the Gore/Chinese fundraising scandal (although never charged with any crime).
    Open Society Institute. This is George Soros’ organization.
    Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Pete Peterson is a conservative Republican who along with Steve Schwartzman founded the Blackstone Group, a major investment company. Peterson’s major focus has been to warn about fiscal irresponsibility and he is a major Republican campaign donor.
    Wal Mart Foundation. The Foundation sponsored by the Walmart Corporation.
    Rita Hauser. Long time Republican. Co-Chair of Republicans for Obama. Yasser Arafat’s lawyer at Stroock and Stroock and Lavan. All around strange duck.
    Leo Hindrey, Jr. Long time Democrat. Major benefactor of Tom Daschle. Founder (along with Goldman Sachs and George Steinbrenner) of the Yankees Sports and Entertainment Network.
    Levi Strauss Foundation. One of several Foundations controlled by the Goldman Family, a wealthy San Francisco based family that founded the famous blue jean company. The other foundation affiliated with this family is the Richard and Rhoda Goldman fund. Other family interests include autism research, lupus research and Democratic politics.
    Ploughsares Fund. This is a non-profit organization dedicated to nuclear non-proliferation issues. It is currently run by Joe Cirrincione and was founded by the wonderful Sally Lilienthal who died about four years ago.
    Steve Rattner. He runs a major investment fund and is very close to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg hired him recently to invest the billions Bloomberg is dedicating to his new Foundation. Rattner is a big Democrat who Obama tapped to be his “automobile czar.” Rattner is currently involved in a minor financial scandal.
    John Whitehead. Whitehead is a former CEO of Goldman Sachs (this goes back a few decades). Whitehead’s father (also John Whitehead) is the person who made Goldman Sachs the incredibly successful firm it is today.
    The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Started by one of the founders of J&J it is the fifth largest Foundation in the United States. It focuses primarily on health care policy issues.
    Dan Crippen. This one interested me. Crippen, a Republican, served as a staff member to Senator Howard Baker and follwed Baker into the Reagan Administration when Baker became Reagan’s Chief of Staff. While serving Reagan, Crippen met Ken Duberstein (who replaced Baker as Chief of Staff) and when Duberstein and Democrat Mike Berman (Mondale’s Chief of Staff) set up the lobbying firm, The Duberstein Group, Crippen became a full time lobbyist and Vice President of the Duberstein Group. Crippen left that position and became the head of the Congressional Budget Office from 1999-2003. Crippen pissed off his Republican colleagues big time when he failed to adopt the policy of “dynamic scoring” a procedure designed to prove that cutting taxes actually raises revenue.
    All in all, the NAF has quite an interesting and diverse set of donors.


  6. Dan Kervick says:

    Thanks WigWag. Good for NAF for posting the list. Is it common practice?


  7. PissedOffAmerican says:

    Hmmm, I imagine a lot of think tanker’s assholes are puckering while reading the direction this thread has taken.
    Don’t worry guys, you can always simply lie about what side your bread is buttered on. I mean, hey, thats how its done in DC, ain’t it?
    Kinda comical seeing Nadine express a desire for open declarations about who’s tickling whose brain cells for how much dinero. Its not like she’s gonna open up about who writes HER script.
    And its not just money that drives the bullshit. Access has a huge part to play in it too. Try consistently buckin’ AIPAC, and watch the doors slam shut. Theres more than one way to get “paid” for your bullshit, propaganda, and biased policy analysese.


  8. WigWag says:

    Dan, here is a list of the NAF donors,


  9. Dan Kervick says:

    While the IRS 990 form appears to tell us quite a bit about how much New America, for example, pays Steve Clemons and Steve Coll, and also about the organizations expenses and grants *to* other organization’s, I couldn’t find the information you described about who their donors or benefactors are. That’s what I really want to know: who is paying the bills for these think tanks?


  10. WigWag says:

    In the meantime, all we can ask is for some transparency in both values and in the sources of funding — which generally will shed light on the values. (Nadine)
    “It would be a good thing for the think tanks themselves to choose to practice a sunshine policy of above-board transparency. But if they don’t, then enterprising reporters and NGOs should dig up everything they can on funding sources and influence, and make that information available to the public in some easily accessed repository.” (Dan Kervick)
    The transparency that Nadine requests and the “sun shine policy” that Dan Kervick recommends already exists to a large extent.
    Almost every “think tank” including the “New America Foundation” and every other one you can think of, is a not-for-profit corporation organized under section 501(c) or 509(a) of the Internal Revenue Code. That means that the tax returns that they file with the IRS are available for public scrutiny. These tax returns provide a treasure trove of information including the salaries of the top 5 highest paid employees of the “think tank” as well as who their employees, consultants and independent contractors are.
    Curious how much money Richard Haass or Steve Coll or Strobe Talbott makes in salary and benefits? It’s all there, right on the tax returns filed by CFR, the New America Foundation and the Brookings Institution.
    The not-for-profit tax return is referred to as the IRS 990 and it also contains information about the organization’s programs, how it raises its money and who its donors are.
    The repository that Dan mentions actually exists. It is a website called “Guide-Star” and it can be accessed through this link,
    Registration is required, but it’s free. Look up any “think tank that you’re interested in; they are all listed.
    The guidestar site is also great for looking up the tax returns of charities that you might be interested in supporting as well as information on private foundations both large and small.
    Happy hunting!


  11. JohnH says:

    Josh M said, “it isn’t the search for objectivity that guides the trunk of the policy making process anywhere — it’s values.”
    I suppose greed is a value, but why not just call it what it is?
    I still think the solution is for lobbyists, pundits, and think tank “experts” to be required to proudly wear their brands, like Hester in the Scarlet Letter. If they’re in bed with somebody, which they are, then let the world know.
    Put them on the scaffold once a year, too, so that everyone has an opportunity to throw tomatoes and rotten eggs at them. For the amount of money these propagandists make, a day on the scaffold is a small price to pay.


  12. Paul Norheim says:

    Here is Steve Walt’s take on this – written 6 months ago:
    “…is there any way to clean up the marketplace of ideas here in
    the United States? We are drowning in information and opinion,
    much of it claiming to be objective and authoritative when it
    may in fact be inspired and funded by moneyed special interests
    eager to sell the public a story that advances their particular
    objectives. Most “think tanks” in Washington portray themselves
    as objective, quasi-scholarly institutions (indeed, they
    increasingly give researchers endowed chairs and other quasi-
    academic titles), but unlike most universities, most think tanks
    remain heavily dependent on “soft money” and are bound to be
    especially sensitive to what potential donors might be thinking.
    And some of them aren’t really scholarly at all; they are just
    public relations operations or “letterhead organizations” seeking
    to mold public opinion and push the policy process in a
    particular direction. But unless you know who’s paying for it, it’s
    hard to decide who’s giving you an honest opinion and who is
    just shilling for some powerful interest group.
    Can we tame this beast without infringing on free speech?
    Here’s a suggestion: let’s start by asking participants in the war
    of ideas to provide a lot more information about their financial
    dealings. The SEC requires companies to make relevant financial
    information available to investors; why shouldn’t those who
    provide information in the public arena provide a similar level of
    disclosure to those who “invest” in their alleged expertise? We
    don’t have to pass a law requiring think tanks or pundits to
    disclose the details of their funding arrangements to the public;
    as a first step, we could simply rank different organizations and
    individuals on the level of disclosure they provide, much as
    other groups help potential donors rate charitable organizations
    on their administrative efficiency.
    For example, think tanks could be ranked according to their
    willingness to provide lists of their funding sources, specifying
    both the sources of the funding and the specific projects that
    the donors paid for. Wouldn’t you like to know who is
    bankrolling the American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute,
    Heritage Foundation, Center for American Progress, Washington
    Institute for Near East Policy, Brookings Institution, Council on
    Foreign Relations, Hudson Institute, Middle East Institute,
    Foreign Policy Initiative, Institute for the Study of War, the
    Federation of American Scientists, or the New America
    Such groups shouldn’t make us dig for the information; they
    could just put it all out on their websites. Lord knows that these
    groups work overtime disseminating reports, testimony, op-eds
    and policy memos; surely it is not too much to ask them to tell
    us who is providing the wherewithal. Organizations that come
    clean could get a 5-star rating, and journalists and citizens who
    get exposed to their “analysis” could attach the appropriate
    discount to whatever they were being fed.
    Or take this idea a step further: why not ask prominent pundits
    and commentators to provide similar disclosure, and rate them
    for their transparency as well? Where do David Brooks, Juan
    Cole, Ann Coulter, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, Michael
    Goldfarb, Michelle Malkin, Matt Yglesias, Richard Perle, Steve
    Clemons, Fred Kagan, or George Will get their money? How
    much is salary, and how much is derived from honoraria,
    royalties, or consulting work? And who’s paying the bills?”
    More here:


  13. Dan Kervick says:

    I want to echo Nadine’s comment. Think tanks do appear here to stay. But they now constitute a sort of unofficial institutional auxiliary to the official constitutional core of our national government. They pass ideas and professionals back and forth between think tank and government agency the way the respiratory system exchanges oxygen and waste gasses with the circulatory system. The rest of us have a right to know where these influential think tanks get their money and institutional support, and who are their chief backers and drivers.
    It would be a good thing for the think tanks themselves to choose to practice a sunshine policy of above-board transparency. But if they don’t, then enterprising reporters and NGOs should dig up everything they can on funding sources and influence, and make that information available to the public in some easily accessed repository.


  14. nadine says:

    In the meantime, all we can ask is for some transparency in both values and in the sources of funding — which generally will shed light on the values.


  15. Josh M. says:

    The notion that think-tanks are objective is an
    obvious misnomer, but the hope that objectivity
    exists in the realm of domestic and foreign policy
    creation is an even bigger one.
    When folks criticise think-tanks for being biased
    institutions, I’m not exactly sure what they’re
    getting at. Theoretically, the standard for
    objectivity, if not in think-tanks, would be in
    the world of academia; however, in both domestic
    and foreign policy, academics as well as Fellows
    at think-tanks are forced to first choose a set of
    theoretical assumptions that undergird their
    empirical tests and policy prescriptions.
    So, assuming that the “facts” are right, it isn’t
    the search for objectivity that guides the trunk
    of the policy making process anywhere — it’s
    Now, if we had an honest values debate in academia
    or in think-tanks (e.g. it is reasonable to kill
    this many innocent civilians to get X much oil for
    the global industrial economy), then the policy
    debate would look significantly different…


  16. nadine says:

    Ben Smith of Politico chronicled your star turn at the WHCD, Steve:
    Realists capture McDonough, for a night
    Kim Kardashian and Justin Bieber drew the camera flashes at the White House Correspondents dinner, but foreign policy geeks took closer note of the TPM table, where National Security Council Chief of Staff Denis McDonough — probably the most powerful foreign policy staffer in the administration — was seated with the two grand old men of “realist politics,” former National Security Advisors Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski.
    Also at the table, New America’s Steve Clemons, who qualified that he and the others are “progressive realists” and added that the table also included “Sex and the City” creator Darren Starr and TPM founder Josh Marshall, the host.
    Scowcroft and Brzezinski have been vying for influence in the Obama White House since Obama introduced the latter in Iowa, then distanced himself from him over Israel. They’re currently central to the efforts to persuade Obama to advance his own Mideast peace plan.
    McDonough, who came up on the process-oriented Hill, tends to keep his own broader views on foreign policy close to the vest.


  17. Steve Clemons says:

    David — the Institute is called the Institute for New Economic
    Thinking (INET) and is directed by Rob Johnson. I am overdue on
    some posts for it — but Michael Hirsh of Newsweek had a terrific
    piece on the conference and new institute. For the time being,
    INET is housed out of the Roosevelt Institute in New York. The best
    resource to go to is INET’s website on line. I don’t have the url
    address on me at the moment…so just google….or bing.
    best, steve


  18. David Billington says:

    A short while ago you covered a conference at Cambridge that was
    to have created an institute to research new thinking in economics.
    Has there been any further work to set this up?


  19. Steve Clemons says:

    Cato the Censor — Wonks and think tanks are here to stay. Some will shill. Others won’t. . .as much. But they are embedded in the system, and much of the world is moving towards cultivating their own think tanks…though DC clearly is the Silicon Valley of Think Tank Creation.
    all best,


  20. JohnH says:

    Washington would be a much better place if all the “wonks” had to prominently display the logos of those they’re shilling for.


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