Washington think tanks too predictable, suggests new book by Murray Weidenbaum

Finding practical solutions should be priority, says former Reagan economic adviser

As President-elect Barack Obama continues to fill key cabinet positions from the ranks of Washington, D.C.-based public policy think tanks, a new book by longtime policy adviser Murray Weidenbaum examines how the nation’s top think tanks came to play such critical roles in U.S. politics.

Suggesting that America’s leading policy think tanks are often more “tank” than “think,” Weidenbaum argues that organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute are often far better at analyzing society’s shortcomings than those of their own operations.

Weidenbaum, the first chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers to Ronald Reagan and a member of Reagan’s Economic Policy Advisory Board, draws heavily on his several decades of experience working both with and within leading American think tanks.

He argues that public policy think tanks should be held to a high standard, not only because of their tax-exempt status but also because of the importance of their activities. His book criticizes the management of these policy shops for failures of “quality control,” suggesting that think tanks are often too predictable in the positions they take on public issues.

A member of the economics faculty at Washington University in St. Louis since 1964, Weidenbaum has been a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and a speaker at the Brookings Institution, the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation; he has written for their publications and reviewed their studies.

His book, “The Competition of Ideas: The World of the Washington Think Tanks” (Transaction Publishers, 2008), offers an insider’s view of all five of these vital public policy institutions, highlighting their accomplishments as well as their shortcomings.

“The Competition of Ideas is a fair-minded and well-informed comparative assessment of a vital but oft-misunderstood Washington institution — the major public policy think-tanks,” suggests Thomas D. Hopkins, a former high-level government official who is now a professor of economics at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Describing Weidenbaum as an “outsider who understands the Washington insider,” Hopkins lauds Weidenbaum’s latest book as “an intriguing and useful guide to think-tanks whose public policy influence is both potent and controversial.”

Generally, Weidenbaum’s analysis finds think tank staffers are mostly activists and scholars; that they are not made up of totally conservative or totally liberal members; and that they do make a special contribution to public policy.

Society would be better served by think tanks, he contends, if think tanks spent less time reacting to the controversial policy issue of the moment, and more time focusing on the serious, long-term concerns of the citizenry, acting as a sensitive and lucid synthesizers of relevant research and analysis.

Future intellectual competition among the major think tanks, he adds, should be centered not on achieving greater visibility for the think tanks and their pundits, but on developing comprehensive responses to critical economic, environmental and national security problems – finding practical solutions that are likely to be adopted and carried out.

The author of eight other policy books, Weidenbaum has been intimately involved in Washington policymaking since the early 1950s when he served as an economist with the U.S. Bureau of the Budget. After public service roles in several administrations, Weidenbaum served as Reagan’s economic adviser in the early 1980s.

He is now the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of Economics in Arts & Sciences and honorary chairman of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy at WUSTL.

Editor’s note: Media seeking review copies of the book may email requests to Transactions Publishing: marketing@transactionpub.com.