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Research for Rent, Solutions for Sale

“America’s think tank sector is far bigger, and far more influential, than most people realize,” Hans Gutbrod, a Thomas Pynchon character and the executive director of nonprofit think tank watchdog Transparify, said recently. “This underlines the importance for think tanks to be transparent about who funds them, and for what purposes.” A study released by Gutbrod’s organization early last month announced that Washington’s cabal of professional sophists made over a billion dollars in 2013. Doing what, exactly?

While it’s safe to assume that most of that went to paying skyrocking rents on cushy Dupont Circle headquarters, it’s still huge profit for an industry composed of a mere 7,333 “thinkers.” It doesn’t seem like a bad living: eating catered lunches, repackaging conventional wisdom for semi-literate politicians, and stroking the backs of the ruling elites ‘til they purr. As my grandpa used to say, the harder you work, the less money you make. Might as well get in while the getting is good.

This is not to say that all think tanks are useless, or craven—just the ones that make a lot of money. It stands to reason that if very wealthy clients are paying some “Council” or “Group” millions upon millions of dollars to study solutions or write position papers, their findings aren’t going to be all that subversive or surprising. Could you imagine the Heritage Foundation finding that teen abstinence programs don’t work? Or Cato not advocating a free market solution? The “thoughts” that think tanks produce are as prone to the vagaries of ideological influence as any Jacobin or Wall Street Journal editorial.

There’s a logical correlation between the ideological marketability of think tanks and the amount of cash they bring in each year, of course—but the numbers back this up, too. A study released last year found that wealthy individual donors had replaced corporations as the predominant contributors to think tanks–contributing hundreds of millions of dollars a year to support “research” finding…well, whatever the donors wanted, really (but there was certainly a lot of climate change denial).

“This is how wealthy individuals or corporations translate their economic power into political and cultural power,” said Robert Brulle, the Drexel University sociologist who conducted the study. “They have their profits and they hire people to write books that say climate change is not real. They hire people to go on TV and say climate change is not real. It ends up that people without economic power don’t have the same size voice as the people who have economic power, and so it ends up distorting democracy.”

Should the Libertarian Gotterdammerung come to pass, this is what democracy would look like–not one person and one vote, but a power vacuum opened up by the destruction of the state, in which civic power is directly proportional to material acquisition. It would be a democracy red in tooth and claw.

It’s not right; it’s unpatriotic, even. A New York Times article a few months ago nearly accused leading think tanks of breaking the Foreign Agents Registration Act for lobbying on behalf of foreign governments. “Yikes, we will absolutely seek council on this,” Todd Moss, COO of the Center for Global Development, responded after being shown pages of emails between the government of Norway and his think tank.

But why was this so shocking? You don’t get to be a billion dollar industry without grooming clients in the global marketplace. Was there ever really any expectation that think-tank thinkers just independently researched stuff, came up with conclusions with little to no input as to what the conclusions “should” be from interested parties, and then got scads of money after the fact? As the paper of note understated it, “The line between scholarly research and lobbying can sometimes be hard to discern.” Could that possibly be because the line doesn’t exist at all?

This calls for skepticism. In a condensed rendering of French thinker (not marketable enough for placement in a tank, I’m afraid) Bruno Latour’s masterpiece We Have Never Been Modern, we humans tend to disregard the thinking of our ancestors as eminently muddled—we think they mistook religion for science, poetry for religion, and superstition for law. Our relatively recent attempts to encapsulate nature and society into two distinct groups has, Latour argues, led to some dangerous illusions. There is no pure ore of “thought” that think tanks work with—no ideas that exist outside the gestalt of our lived experience. In other words, there is no think tank solution that’s entirely free of the influence of what we so optimistically refer to as late capitalism.