Monday, September 19, 2005

What's the value-added of think tanks? Should Harvard Move to Washington D.C?

What would be the consequences for idea consumers if there were no think tanks? I see a couple of implications regarding; 1. career paths and risk taking by intellectuals, 2. Intellectual middlemen and the media, 3. co-ordination. Let me explain.

1. An old cliché is that thinkers enter think tanks when their Political Party is not in power. If think tanks did not exist, would “policy wonks” go to Washington? Only risk lovers would go and try to spend their career there. The risk averse wimps would seek out the relatively scarce jobs in full time academia. Think tanks offer a type of insurance policy for leaders to hang out while out of power. You might argue that an unintended consequence of this is that Government does not attract enough “new blood”. I agree with this point but if there is learning by doing on the job then recycling is not such a bad thing.

2. Transaction Costs: Most newspaper articles quote some expert usually like a spice. Interesting recent studies have examined media bias by measuring which experts from which institutions (left wing/right wing) are regularly cited in which newspapers. If there were no think tanks, journalists would face higher transaction costs in finding an expert to quote. Do journalists have downward sloping demand curves?

3. Conferences and co-ordination problems --- Think tanks conferences help to co-ordinate where and when economists meet up. I must admit that I really enjoy the annual Brookings/Wharton Urban Affairs conference at Brookings. The papers are interesting and it attracts most of the leading urban scholars in one room for 2 days.

4. Blogs and the Internet tend to reduce the need for think tanks. I believe that blogs substitute for think tanks. Each economics blogger basically now has his own think tank except there is no lunch room or seminar. Reporters can easily google blogs to find a quotable economist. Since I started my blog, I’ve been approached by more reporters than in the past.

5. I do think that many think tanks generate "new" ideas that are real world
focused that may not have been generated had these nerds been sitting in a pure
academic setting. I realize this is a tough "what if" but hey this is only a blog!

6. Think Tank Book Publication Presses --- most academic presses are too academic focusing on small niche fields where the vocabulary is so jargon filled that only
"insiders" can read it. Such monopoly power is rarely a good thing. The Think
tanks (Brookings, Resources for the Future, AEI, Cato) produce readable books filled with big ideas.

7. Here is an open question for you. If Harvard was in Washington D.C, would there be less of a need for Washington think tanks? Would national public policy improve as its faculty and students “moonlighted”? Proximity matters and many leading minds who care about government and believe in government’s ability to improve well being are in Cambridge not Washington.