Alberto Mingardi  

Think tanks, idea factories no more?

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Robert J. Samuelson has an interesting, and rather pessimistic, piece on "the future of think tanks". Samuelson deals specifically with the Heritage Foundation, particularly because Stuart Butler, for 35 years a senior researcher at Heritage and "among the most visible figures -- possibly the most visible -- shaping conservative views on social policy", is moving to the Brookings Institution.

Samuelson thinks that this move is justified by the "mutation" of Heritage and, similarly, of many other Washington think tanks, with a few exceptions (including Brookings):

Most think tanks were once idea factories. They sponsored research from which policy proposals might flow. In the supply chain of political influence, their studies became the grist for politicians' programs. But think-tank scholars didn't lobby or campaign. Politicians and party groups did that. There was an unspoken, if murky, division of labor. This was Butler's world. But it's disappearing, and many think tanks -- liberal and conservative -- have become more active politically.

I have posted before on the subject, here, and a rather interesting discussion developed in the comments.

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CATEGORIES: Economics and Culture

COMMENTS (2 to date)

Tax law raises important issues which I do not see mentioned yet in this post or in its references.

As I understand government law regarding IRS 501(c)(3) organizations, the IRS will allow such organizations to keep their favorable IRS status only so long as the organizations work at the "educational" level. The organizations must stay aloof to both: any present political race, and any legislation currently under consideration. Contributions to an IRS 501(c)(3) organization are income-tax deductible, so an organization which has this tax status finds it possible to raise funds from many sources which would otherwise be closed.

The Heritage Foundation is IRS 501(c)(3) as I have been able to discover from poking around their website this morning. That means Heritage must stay at an abstract distance from immediate political topics, if tax law is being enforced (which may not be happening in these times).

I learned the restraints on IRS 501(c)(3) organizations because I set one up and reported to the IRS on its activities. But I am not qualified as a tax or legal consultant.

Perhaps I should add a few clarifying sentences.

The drift in organizational focus, which is lamented by both Robert Samuelson and Alberto Mingardi, would seem to me to run afoul of IRS regulation, at least for IRS 501(c)(3) organizations.

Regulations coming out of Washington DC make a strong distinction between political campaigns and educational causes. In particular Washington watches contributions-to-political-causes versus contributions-to-educational-causes. Of course this distinction will always be fuzzy, but I know the IRS has tried to make a clearly defined distinction involving campaigns for elective office and pending legislation, as I recall and tried to express in my previous comment.

So if an organization was set up in government law to be educational (to take advantage of tax breaks) it seems unlikely to me that the organization's purpose could drift into more active politics without hitting a big bump in the road.

At least I think that bump is there, but I might be mistaken. I hope none of the above will be taken as advocacy for government law.

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