Campus Author: Murray Weidenbaum, Ph.D., the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor

The Competition of Ideas: the World of the Washington Think Tanks Transaction Publishers (2008)

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, Ph.D., 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, the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor, argues in his book, “The Competition of Ideas: the World of the Washington Think Tanks,” 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 Department of Economics in Arts & Sciences 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 offers an insider’s view of all five of these vital public policy institutions, highlighting their accomplishments as well as 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,” said Thomas D. Hopkins, Ph.D., a former high-level government official who is now a professor of economics at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

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 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.

— Gerry Everding