I’ve written a lot about pay-to-play think tanks, whereby big donors get all sorts of perks and are allowed to influence specific projects, even those in which they have a financial stake. What’s great for donors is that think tanks usually don’t disclose their contributors so the public doesn’t even know who’s behind the allegedly independent ideas they promote. In other words, many think tanks basically serve as undisclosed lobbyists for big contributors.
I spoke to one think tank insider who described the way the system worked and the resulting intellectual corruption. This person — and I’ll have more from him soon — has been a donor to think tanks and had board positions with several. Here are his remarks, which were very lightly edited.
He who pays the bills, calls the tune, as much as people try to deny it. There’s a vicious competition in this town for money. The foreign segment is relatively new and important. Before most of that money was Israeli but now it’s much more diverse and you begin to see more and more donors pushing for very distinct and specific causes.
The competition is getting tougher and tougher and so think tanks are becoming more and more reckless. Things are done now that would’ve been impossible in the past. The boundaries are being eliminated.
The means of payment are sophisticated. There is no straightforward bribery. Maybe you work at a think tank but you also have a position at another unrelated company or maybe you have a girlfriend who has a business that’s totally unrelated to the think tank. Maybe you have a company that holds events around town and that company gets hired and is overpaid for some unrelated work by 25%. The money doesn’t go directly to the think tank, it goes to one of these other projects and the money moves from some offshore Singapore account to that unrelated company account.
There are places in town that rank countries in terms of political and economic freedom, or human rights. Someone at a think tank can move your country up the rankings; they can’t move it to the top but they can move it and that perception is important. They can teach you how to improve your data so you move up the index and in some cases the data may need to be falsified.
Think tanks are now weapons of personal and mass destruction. They have become part of the lobbying community; that was always the case to some extent but now they’ve become very specific lobbying weapons.
It’s no longer a bipolar world like it was during the Cold War. There are diverse interests out there and who’s to say who the enemy is? If someone is paying you why not promote Rwanda with meetings on the Hill or at the National Security Council? The big players are bad enough but the small guys are the worst. They are leading the cavalry charge and that’s where the worst abuses are.
I could start a think tank called the Foundation for the Defense of Fairness and put together a board and two phones and an office and hire my smartest girlfriend as the researcher, and I could start taking orders.
The advocacy side is not as interesting as the attack side. Think tanks have become attack dogs for these private interests. The goal is to gain influence but often what you’re really looking for is impact in your home country. No one here cares about the deputy governor of some Indonesian province but over there it’s very useful if you can get a think tank to attack your enemies. Third-party validation is very important if you want to disgrace someone.
Governments and gangsters are the two biggest clients for these think tanks — not corporations but governments, and not European Union governments but Third World governments.