Interview about the Spanish rating in an online newspaper

Ibercampus, an online newspaper specialized in Spanish and Latin American Higher Education, sent me some questions regarding the Transparify rating of Spanish Think Tanks that I did with Francesc Ponsa for On Think Tanks.

Here is the link to the full interview:

http://www.ibercampus.es/los-think-tanks-espanoles-los-menos-transparentes-del-mundo-29602.htm

Transparency and reputation of Spanish Think Tanks

Complete transparency rating of Spanish Think Tanks

This has been an exciting week. On Wednesday my article with Francesc Ponsa, Director of the Spanish Office of the Observatory of Think Tanks, was published on Onthinktanks.org. Today, January 22, McGann’s 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, the most renowned independent evaluation in the field of Think Tanks, came out. Our article, entitled ‘How transparent are Spanish Think Tanks’, is a complete transparency rating of all Spanish Think Tanks using Transparify’s framework, and a powerful diagnostic of the development of the field, the types of organizations that fall under the ‘Think Tank’ tag, and the current and still marginal culture of disclosure. Out of 48 institutions, 27 disclose no financial information whatsoever, 19 were given a 1 or 2 stars rating, and only 2 had a rating higher than two, out of five possible stars. Fundación Ecología y Desarrollo (ECODES), a small environmental Think Tank, and the foreign policy Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Desarrollo Exterior (FRIDE) lead the rating with 5 and 3 stars respectively.

The reputation of Spanish Think Tanks

A number of the institutions we reviewed appear in McGann´s Index, showing that, in spite of the marginality of the sector and the still low profiles these organizations have in Spanish media, they are well known internationally and, in some cases, are even important partners and members of international networks. This is the case of Real Instituto Elcano, that hosted the co-authors of two of the top three reports profiled in the index. Here is the complete list of Spanish institutions in GTTTI and the rating we assigned them:

The reason why the last bullet does not link to an external website is simple: IDEAS, formerly the party tank of the Spanish Socialist party, was discontinued in 2013 following a scandal of nepotism, and its staff relocated in Fundación Pablo Iglesias, the official non-profit arm of the party. This is an illustration of the lack of rigour of the GTTTI report, which seems to have defective procedures for factual check and quality assurance. The rating is not applicable to Fundación Carolina because it is an endowment Foundation, not a Think Tank, and to Bankinter’s because this is a corporate Think Tank, which means that the transparency standards for independent institutions do not apply. In any case, it´s somewhat encouraging to see that the average transparency rating of better known institutions is higher than that of the complete sector: 1.4 rather than 0.7, including GRAIN. This  doubles the general average, and I consider it a reasonable indicator that the consolidation of the sector in the years to come may also result in more disclosure and stronger reputations. It should be pointed out the FRIDE, a reasonably new player, responded directly to Transparify’s first evaluation one year ago and has disclosed their funding in different brackets as a direct result of Hans Gutbrod’s team advocacy. A fantastic example of why this work matters.

AEI’s reputation as a Community of Scholars

The view of a scholar

Karlyn Bown

I have no idea of the politics of my colleagues

This was one of Karlyn Bowman’s most eloquent expressions of the American Enterprise Institute’s adamant defense of scholar independence. In a very clear narrative that represents fellows as insulated researchers deciding their subjects autonomously and only occasionally sharing their expertise for larger projects, Ms. Bowman insisted her Department ‘met once [in the eighties] and never decided to meet again’.

When asked about the emerging agenda for more transparency in Think Tanks, Ms. Bowman was skeptical about the added value of both disclosing the identity of donors and the allocation of financial resources to specific projects, and considered transparency advocacy a ‘recurring wave’. In fact, she insisted, total disclosure can harm the impartiality of staffers, who are currently advancing their work with no strings attached.

I have no idea who funds me; and I’m lucky I’m not asked to do fundraising.

When I asked her what would AEI management decide to do if a hypothetical foundation were to donate a large sum under a set of requirements, including the celebration of events on predefined topics, Bowman was categorical: ‘we don’t do that’. With a base of about 1,000 between corporate and individual donors, plus its endowment, AEI has preferred to stay small and to do research that is relevant in the long term, as opposed to more advocacy oriented organizations who are ‘harming the environment’.

The institutional view

American Enterprise Institute

The notion of credibility that the American Enterprise Institute pushes to embody is unique for several reasons. Firstly, there is an interesting combination between the claim of non-partisanship and rotund ideological embracement: AEI is the conservative Think Tank. AEI´s form to balance this dichotomy has been to promote the atomistic autonomy of fellow researchers as a form of decentralized neutrality, and the stress on the negative impact of disclosure offers a slamming response to recent investigative efforts to put the work of Think Tanks under scrutiny. In fact, the Washington Post´s recent piece on Brookings can be used to measure the difference in their reputational brands. According to the report, Brookings donors often buy issues on the agenda (and this doesn´t imply that either research outcomes or impact enter the transaction). In contrast, AEI donors allegedly support the institution and refrain from targeting impact on the institutional agenda.

Although it still is hard to imagine how the public may contrast the accuracy of this framework without information about who the donors are, AEI´s Research Integrity statement does a very good job in defining an alternative to institutional credibility. I recommend reading the whole document, which is incredibly well written and opens with the lines that follow:

AEI’s operations are financed by donations from corporations, foundations and individuals and by investment earnings from an internal endowment. The Institute does not perform contract research and does not accept government grants. Its research agenda is determined by its president in consultation with its trustees, scholars and fellows, and academic advisers; the substance and conclusions of its research and publications are determined by the individuals conducting the research.

The statement also reinforces its tradition of impassion in the face of everyday politics:

AEI is generally prohibited from attempting to influence legislation in the U.S. Congress or other legislative bodies. Legal requirements aside, AEI has important reasons of its own for abstaining from any form of policy advocacy as an institution. Policy research of the kind AEI specializes in—emphasizing empirical analysis, intellectual depth and originality, unflinching criticism and concrete proposals for reform—is an inherently individual activity, best pursued by a single scholar (or a pair or small group of scholars) rather than by a committee or hierarchy.

Finally, the in-house recipe to control for conflicts of interest lies in four methods: diversification, disclosure, reputation and intrinsic quality. In particular, disclosure is defined as follows:

AEI scholars and fellows are required to disclose in their published work any affiliations they may have with organizations with a direct interest in the subject of that work. In the release of its products, AEI also discloses relationships in which donors have a specific material interest. AEI scholars, fellows and officers provide annual reports to AEI’s president listing all of their outside activities; the president then provides a summary report to the Nominating and Governance Committee of the AEI Board of Trustees.

Even if we weren’t to share AEI´s beliefs on donor confidentiality, their notion of integrity is in my opinion very articulated and worth of inspiration in other parts of the world.

The Bipartisan Policy Center and the formula of stakeholder balance

The different actors involved in the American policy enterprise (a term I like to borrow from the report Using Science as Evidence in Public Policy) have different forms of marketing their brands as authoritative sources for policy makers and the media. The more traditional legitimation of a Think Tank is the claim that its work is intellectually pure, independent and scientifically valid. With its motto of quality, independence and impact, Brookings is the classic example of an institution that understands itself as being super partes and exerts its influence through the autonomy from ideological affiliation. Credibility is understood as neutrality and balance. On the other side, activist organizations like Heritage to the right or the Center for American Progress to the left brand themselves as organizations with an immediate impact, thus the label of marketing Think Tanks (Rich, 2004). In this case, their credibility is seen as partisan effectiveness.

 

A third approach to the construction of a relevant form of credibility is exemplified by the Bipartisan Policy Center, officially founded in 2006. As its name declares, BPC is neither a neutral, nonpartisan nor a one-sided partisan organization. The activities of this Think Tank largely consist in the work of different specialized commissions that include members of the two parties. When I spoke to BPC’s Director of the Democracy Project John Fortier, who was incredibly generous with his time in spite of the then upcoming midterm elections, he pointed out that it takes an important effort to build truly bipartisan groups of experts — and to communicate that vision to the outer world. Indeed, he argued, it would be very easy to engage moderate Republicans who sometimes vote with Democrats and more conservative Democrats who vote alongside Republican lines in certain issues and have them collaborate on easily agreed upon recommendations; but that line of work would not be representative of any of the two parties, which may view them as points of poor leverage and excessive compromise. Instead, BPC’s commissions recognize the ideological differences between blue and red and facilitate towards solutions that may satisfy important priorities from both sides. BPC experts engage the agency officers and politicians with whom they work by providing useful knowledge taken from their research background.

In BPC’s model, credibility is the dynamic balance of conflicting interests that recreates very closely the strenuous mechanisms of democracy. In fact, Dr. Fortier admitted external criticism is frequent. Since empirical balance is never the same from one group to the other, some of their recommendations are targeted from different groups as either too conservative or too liberal.

When asked about the possibilities of replicating the institution in other parts of the world, Mr. Fortier replied that the basic inspiration of bringing together a large range of stakeholders is subject to very different implementations, and cited California Forward as a significant effort in this sense. In other words, context may give you very different pieces and cultures of participation; but the decision to build an organization that understands credibility as a dynamic balance can be universally inspiring.

BPC’s transparency

Because of its declared dedication to a more understanding and collaborative political climate in the country’s capital and the foundational balance between the parties, the BPC doesn’t consider their financial transparency an issue of priority and defend that a certain degree of confidentiality in their meetings is an important ingredient for the success of their project.

Financial information from BPC. Source: Annual report 2013

Financial information from BPC. Source: Annual report 2013

Even though specific amounts are not disclosed, the annual report contains easy to read and important financial information, including the total funding, its breakdown and a comprehensive list of donors with only two anonymous funders. BPC received a total of $ 24 million in 2013, 71% of which corresponds to foundations, while the remaining 29% is the sum of corporations and individuals.

What’s next?

In the next post I will make an in-depth analysis of the recent Washington Post’s piece on Brookings, which has very interesting consequences for the debate on Think Tank accountability, currently shifting towards the problem of activist philanthropy.

Astroturfing in the net neutrality debate

The guys from Transparify have called my attention to an interesting article by Grant Gross published at pcworld.com. Gross has used a Transparify DIY approach to analyze the financial transparency of different groups (non-profits, Think Tanks, advocacy associations) engaged in the net neutrality debate. There is a lot of diversity: from organizations who disclose their donors and the amounts donated (rated “A”) to others who provide no information whatsoever about their contributors. His summary: most of these groups get poor grades for financial transparency. 

This rating gives me a precious opportunity to show why financial transparency, though important, is never enough in itself. Blind ratings can endorse poor, biased work of policy research institutions or fail to recognize good organizations; the accountability process is much broader and it needs good reporting eyes that look into goals, strategies and research output.

Let’s take the Center for Democracy and Technology, a DC-based group that has received an A in this informal rating. Among others, they are funded by Google, Facebook and Verizon. But they are transparent, so they have nothing to hide, right? At least, they can’t be blamed of astroturfing. Says Gross: 

Astroturfing is commonly defined as a lack of funding transparency, paired with the appearance of grassroots support

Center for Democracy and Technology

With good reasons, though, CDT might be blamed of half of it: the appearance of grassroot support. According to my own analysis of one of its policy papers from last year, The Importance of Internet Neutrality to Protecting Human Rights Online,  CDT has masked its advocacy in favor of net neutrality as an issue of civil rights and freedom of expression in order to garnish a support from the general public they wouldn’t be able to generate if they spoke openly in name of their donors.

If you want to know the details of my analysis, you can read the text that follows. You will find a very qualitative discussion on the meaning of the concepts and definitions used in CDT’s paper. No need to dive into data.

Policy paper analysis. Masking motivations in the net neutrality debate.

How does CDT represent Internet neutrality? The working definition appears somewhat late in the text, at the end of page 3:

the principle that providers of internet access should not discriminate in their carriage of Internet traffic on the basis of its source, destination, content, or associated application.

In other words, networks have traditionally been blind to the use given to the ones and zeros that run through their veins, and this has been possible because they belong in a different layer than user-related functions, leaving all the work to transform information in usable content to user-held terminals (layering and end-to-end architecture principles).

According to this model, all internet nodes are structurally equivalent. Due to its architectural design, this amorphous structure has no pillars, centers, meeting halls or walls. All nodes can connect with all and become a temporary nucleus that will eventually be reabsorbed into the horizontality of the architecture. For CDT, this result of the two architecture principles has an important consequence for users: the internet is free of constraints, there are no limitations nor borders to the maximum distance information can cover; and there are no limits to what citizens can make out of that information. These are the human principles of borderlessness and free choice.

In comparison to the threefold model of communication, internet neutrality thus simplifies at the microscopic level to the transmission between symmetrical endpoints:

The threefold model:                                   Sender>Message>Receiver

The neutral network transmission:           Node<>Transmission<>Node

Looking more closely (and noting the distinction between free expression and free choice), each iteration has two ways: a user exerts free choice by requesting information, and then receives the information requested, fulfilling the free expression of others.

NNT W1:             User > Request (Free choice) > Content

NNT W2:             User < Transmission (Free Expression) < Content

Of course, content can have all kinds of different forms: (software, audio, video, apps, written text, website contents, VoIP protocols, etc.) with different sizes and associated difficulties, but the enforcement of the end-to-end principle should guarantee access providers only have to worry about the capacity of their networks.

Problems with CDT’s account of internet neutrality

I have found CDT’s account to suffer from three major shortcomings.

1. Human Rights or Fair Market?

In my opinion, a very weak point in CDT’s position is the persistent focus on Human Rights even though the problem at hand matters most because of its economic implications. In words of Tim Wu, the inventor of the “net neutrality” term:

The promotion of network neutrality is no different than the challenge of promoting fair evolutionary competition in any privately owned environment, whether a telephone network, operating system, or even a retail store. Government regulation in such contexts invariably tries to help ensure that the short-term interests of the owner do not prevent the best products or applications becoming available to end-users. The same interest animates the promotion of network neutrality: preserving a Darwinian competition among every conceivable use of the Internet so that the only the best survive.

Tim Wu, Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination, Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law, Vol. 2, p. 141, 2003.

There. The network neutrality issue is not (eminently) about human rights, it’s not (eminently) about freedom of expression and freedom of choice, it’s not (eminently) about promoting the civil liberties. CDT’s paper gives the impression that we need FCC’s no-blocking rules to guarantee access to the websites of activist organizations, bloggers from Iran or tweets from Venezuela and Ukraine. Instead, the current debate is about preserving a fair market where innovations are possible and the best new service can replace present technological giants. Where a small company won’t lose against the big ones because it can’t afford a peer agreement with a major ISP.

This shortcoming comes first on my list because it’s a hard blow against the rhetoric foundations of CDT’s position. Even though the paper opens with a strong humanist appeal to the importance of education and culture, ultimately the better defended Human Right is not the freedom of expression, but rather its pseudo-synonym, the freedom of choice, which implies viewing internet users as users and customers, as opposed to citizens and creators.

2. The reality of networks

With a graphic quote from an article appeared in Wired last June, I would like to challenge the notion that the mature internet as we know it has a neutral architecture.

http://www.wired.com/2014/06/net_neutrality_missing/

Now, even if this image can be considered a distorted and overly simplified model of how the internet functions, it does call into play the existence of backbone services, which are missing in CDT’s account, and places Google’s search engine at the user’s end of the process. Given that major content players are closer to the backbone than any other node in the network and have a differential importance on how users access what they want, the symmetrical model above is probably misleading.

Opposed to this likelier realization, CDT’s discourse seems on the verge of falling into essentialism. It does acknowledge that certain characteristics of the internet “are not immutable”, but only after having secured they are what “have defined the internet since its inception”. In the next paragraph I will discuss some of the reasons why I don’t think the internet has always been by definition user-controlled and decentralized, which are for CDT two of “the defining attributes of the internet”

What is really an access provider?

Google is in the business of accessing the internet. So is Facebook. Both are main donors of CDT. Arguably all these companies discriminate internet traffic based on its content, source, destination, or a combination of the above. Google’s algorithm ranks pages, creates an index, and prioritizes their meaningfulness to the user. Facebook feeds have a great power to shape user behavior, as a recent and polemical study linking AB tests to emotions has shown. Naver requires creating affiliated content in one of their café’s in order to appear in their homepage. They all enjoy quasi-monopolistic positions in different markets and clash directly with Wu’s demand for more competition.

Arguably, these and other companies have long ago disrupted the internet as a place where decentralized, user-controlled communication can happen. But (together with CDT) they are amongst the important names advocating for net neutrality.

If what we really want is a neutral network, we probably should take some steps back and look at what normal user behavior is really like. The request-and-transmission model above describes an unrealistic relationship of users with the content of the internet where the user can freely decide what he desires and magically retrieve it. Instead, few actors play a mediating role that has curved the way the internet works.

Google access:                 User > searches terms > chooses from indexed information

Facebook access:             User < enters the feed < clicks on assorted contents

If Facebook decided to erase the updates of feminist pages from the feeds of all male users (and there are several reasons why they could be interested in this move), or if Google decided to give priority to commercial websites, they could change radically the identity and ideology of users without their consent, and enter in a major conflict with their freedom of choice. To an important extent, this is already happening. So much so that, according to some, social media could be one of the places where freedom of expression could be losing its democratic value ­–one of the strong claims of Eli Pariser’s The Filter Bubble.

What next?

Currently, based on the Communications Act of 1934,

  • ISPs are considered providers of information services and not providers of telecommunications services.
  • Telecommunication service providers are common carriers, information services providers are not.
  • Only common carriers, due to their close link to the public interest, can be subject to restrictions such as the no-discrimination and the no-blocking rule.

An obvious measure is amending the Communications Act of 1934. It’s common sense that ISPs are providing telecommunications services that consist in the transmission of information, so that distinction needs to be eroded. Also, in the twenty-first century more and more basic everyday actions, like looking for a job, purchasing a health insurance or enrolling in college require a connection to the internet, so the declaration of internet access as an utility (and of ISPs as common carriers) can easily be advocated with large support from vast constituencies.

In words of Tim Wu,

What we still need […] is a better way of regulating internet service providers. One way of doing this is through common carrier law —as defined in the Title II section of the 1934 Communications Act. Basically, this would treat ISPs as utilities. This would allow the government to prevent them from blocking or degrading traffic, but it would also force the ISPs to offer their internet lines to other companies. That creates competition, which is really the best way of ensuring that ISPs behave. As it stands, there’s very little competition.

The next step is actually tougher, because it is about regulating the companies that are in the business of accessing content. Can we imagine a federal agency or an international organization dedicated to the creation and update of indexes that users could employ to navigate the internet? Google is currently fulfilling a job that in the 1920’s would have been the job of the Ministry of Information, in what Siva Vaidhyanathan (The Googlization of everything… and why we should worry, p. 41) has called a public failure:

Public failure […] occurs when instruments of the state cannot satisfy public needs and deliver services effectively

Google does their job very well, but it wouldn’t be absurd to subject it to reasonable public controls.

Rediscovering relevance for policy research. Think tanks and the impact agenda

This was a great surprise for me. There is little or no scientific evidence that policies influenced by research are better policies. And that’s why  every think tank staffer and agency officer in the US should start by reading Using science as evidence in Public Policy, a recent (2012) report by the National Research Council Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education.

Abstract:

Using Science as Evidence in Public Policy encourages scientists to think differently about the use of scientific evidence in policy making. This report investigates why scientific evidence is important to policy making and argues that an extensive body of research on knowledge utilization has not led to any widely accepted explanation of what it means to use science in public policy. Using Science as Evidence in Public Policy identifies the gaps in our understanding and develops a framework for a new field of research to fill those gaps.

The text throws a brilliant picture of the relation between research, the policy enterprise and political activity. Given the complex interaction of scientific data with values and the political interplay of interests,

Evidence-influenced politics is suggested as a more informative metaphor, descriptively and prescriptively, than evidence-based policy.

Even when values are at stake, scientists can legitimately advocate for attending to knowledge that accurately describes the problem being addressed or that predicts probable consequences of proposed actions. It is our normative position that if policy makers take note of relevant science, they increase the chances of realizing the intended consequences of the policies they advance. This is evidence-influenced politics at work.

This clear position notwithstanding, there have been very little advancements in the understanding of the use of scientific results as evidence in policy making processes since the 1970s, when the issue first emerged: the NRC report Knowledge and policy: the uncertain connection signaled the problematic relation of the two spheres.

The committee behind the report has put forward a research agenda to determine “whether, why, and how science is, or is not, used as evidence in public policy” in order to gather up an interdisciplinary effort with contributions from social psychology, behavioral economics, decision theory and organizational sociology. Let’s build a science of how policy makers work and we may find more relevant ways to make usable social science.

Lessons learned

1. The serendipitous nugget

Carol H. Weiss’ works were foundational for the development of a new field that she called the sociology of knowledge application, with lasting effects in policy evaluation standards. In her seminal work Social Science Research and Decision Making, an important reference in the NRC report, Weiss criticized a simplistic conception of the influence of social science on policy makers. According to her, a deterministic notion in which research outputs have an immediate translation in new policy initiatives excludes the most usual ways in which science influences political action and raises the stakes enormously.

Policy nuggets, in fact, can only happen when the following eight circumstances are met:

  1. “Research [is] directly relevant to an issue up for decision”
  2. “[Research is] available before the time of decision”
  3. “[Research] addresses the issue within the parameters of feasible action
  4. “[Research] comes out with clear and unambiguous results”
  5. “[Research] is known to decision makers”
  6. “[Decision makers] understand its concepts and findings and are willing to listen
  7. “[Research] does not run athwart of entrenched interests or powerful blocs
  8. “[Research] is implementable within the limits of existing resources

Does this ever happen? Rarely. It’s interesting to remind the famous anecdote about how Paul Weyrich decided to found the Heritage Foundation when the American Enterprise Institute released a great, useful report on supersonic transport two days after the vote that killed the initiatives. Had the report appeared on time, it would probably had been a nugget. Since that day, timeliness (condition 2) has been one of the communicational values of the Heritage Foundation.

It may be interesting to measure the output of different think tanks communications using this set of requirements for relevance. This could be called the nugget test. Taking the test literally would actually be a quite complex and costly process, for it requires to identify many contextual factors, including stakeholders, relevant officers and decision points, and extracting qualitative information from decision makers. I wonder if it’s worth exploring? While I don’t think every think tank would agree it is desirable to force every project into nugget potential, this list is a good measurement of the distance between strictly academic research and policy research designed for impact. In other words, in going from data to recommendations there is always a leap, and the expertise of think tanks is to make it.

2. Networks for knowledge validation

The basic positioning of the social sciences in the nonprofit sector has implications for its use in policy making, notably in the number and workings of intermediary organizations—think tanks and advocacy organizations—and in the heavy presence of interested private funding.

This committee diagnostic is a less radical, more optimistic formulation of Thomas Medvetz’s main argument in Think Tanks in America:

The growth of think tanks over the last forty years has ultimately undermined the value of independently produced knowledge in the United States by institutionalizing a mode of intellectual practice that relegates its producers to the margins of public and political life.

Together with the complicated balance between autonomy and dependence from funders, the validity of scientific research is perhaps the most vulnerable aspect of think tanks. Fellows don’t publish at peer reviewed journals because they want to be clear and concise and to be read by a wider public, and that’s a good thing. But peer review processes should not disappear completely as an alternative or a complement to the quality assurance processes that are in place inside many of the most reputable institutions. When the Center for Global Development approved their data and code sharing policy in 2011, they were saying that this matters. Colleagues at other institutions should have the right incentives so they can find time to replicate methods and confirm results. In an article for Science from the same year, Gary King supported the idea that “we need to nurture the growing replication movement”. Networking is not only a DC thing. “Social scientists need to continue to build a common, open-source, collaborative infrastructure that makes data analysis and sharing easy”.

Things are changing. The McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown University is opening a Massive Data Institute that “will use Big Data sets to increase understanding of society and human behavior and thus improve public policy decision-making”. There are many risks in embracing the big data paradigm when we don’t even know the influence of traditional social science, but there are many opportunities. Hopefully replicability and collaborative networks should be in the agenda.

What can we learn from ‘Billionaires’?

Darrel West, Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at Brookings Institution, has published a new book on Billionaires, their political activism and the controversy over their undue influence. Billionaires, reflections on the upper crust is an interesting investigation on the evolution of the upper class, its income, social extraction, ideology and attitudes.

Billionares-index

The Index of ‘Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust’

The good old philanthropist

The book is also interesting because it includes a chapter on philanthropy that is very relevant to the topic of nonprofit independency in general and of Think Tank transparency in particular. One of West’s main claims is that the classic model of disinterested, nonpartisan philanthropy is vanishing and giving way to a new type of philanthropic advocacy ventures, like Bloomberg’s multimillion donations for gun control, George Soros’ funding for open societies around the world or David Koch´s libertarian organization Americans for Prosperity. Whereas old-fashioned philanthropists, like Alfred Taubman, “sought out good people and worked with them to make their programs effective[,] emphasized broad-based research, civic education, and raising public awareness” (p. 76), and did not interfere in the specific activities of the recipients of funding, the situation has changed for worse in the new era of activist philanthropy:

In the current climate, in which activist philantropists have clear objectives and partisan goals, the political risks have risen dramatically. There is a much greater chance of a donation going wrong, from the donor’s perspective, by not being aligned with the donor’s intention. The good old days when wealthy individuals gave money and left universities or nonprofits figure out the best way to use it to solve problems has too often given way to interventionism and a focus on achieving specific goals. (p. 78)

Prof. West does not pull the corollary explicitly, but it is easy to see that if the new type of activist philanthropy ever became the established new paradigm of investment in policy relevant organizations, then the alleged independence of Think Tanks would be under serious threat of collapse. The few Brookings investors or Board members quoted in the book are depicted as part of the old benevolent elite, and the reputation of the organization will probably defend it from a rapid degradation of the relation with donors, but other, less consolidated institutions may already be suffering from higher involvement of philanthropists in the definition of projects and project outcomes –not to mention the situation of partisan Think Tanks that are explicitly aligned.

This theory of philanthropy is disingenuous in that it displaces accountability from the institution to the donor, the first in a chain of goodness: if the donor is good and disinterested, the ‘good people’ will make sure that the project is good. What could possibly go wrong?

Billionaires and the Norwaygate

Billionaires was presented to the public only few days after The New York Times published a big article about the undue influence of foreign powers, like Norway and Qatar, in the activities of some of the most important DC based Think Tanks, including Brookings itself. An institutional statement and a response by Strobe Talbott, President of BI, were the official and direct reactions to the article.

In my opinion, Billionaires is an important, indirect response to the accusation precisely because it was not written in reaction to the controversy. The book is not a passive dismissal of an accusation, but an active problematization of the difficult relation between the interests of big money and the accountability of tax exempt organizations that are politically engaged. The fact that West’s attention is primarily focused in electoral campaigns, PACs and superPACs and not in his own institutional category should not be seen as a distraction tactic; instead, it can be read as a quite decent crystallization of Brooking’s independence. Making enemies among the top fortunes of the country is not the most ambitious fundraising strategy.

A signal of the independency of scholarly research at Brookings is a piece released on September 16 by Richard V. Reeves. Titled Inequality at the top: Why should we care?, the piece covers the same problem with a different approach and diverging solutions: whereas West insists on the importance of supporting the poorer, Reeves believes it might be time to tackle the problem of increasing inequality with innovative policies directed at the middle class. As opposed to institutional independency, and even recognizing that Reeve’s text feeds the interest for West’s Book, this divergence supports the independence of individual scholars.

On the other hand, a malevolent reader will find a confirmation of the Norwaygate hidden in page 90 of the book. The example at hand is Vladimir Putin’s decision to ban all foreign funding of political activity, but it can easily be read as a tacit validation of the concern that foreign powers may be (at least, interested in) buying political influence by targeting funding at prominent Think Tanks.

“Such fears [that the wealthy will exercise disproportionate influence] are especially strong when organizations receive financial support from outside a country’s borders”.