Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why I don't work for a think tank

There are a lot of reasons, really. (One is that none of them wanted to hire me.) But this CNAS report, authored by Ethan Kapstein, reminds me of the most significant: think-tanks come up with ridiculous, impossible, never-to-be-implemented ideas all the time.

Now I understand the utility of dialogue, and that some ideas that seem ridiculous at the time eventually become mainstream. What are we to make, though, of a policy brief on defense acquisition reform when the suggestions in it basically amount to:

1. Find a way to make super-smart people work for the government instead of industry
2. Convince Congress to limit itself to an up-or-down vote on the entire defense procurement budget, thus denying itself one of the most effective vehicles for advancing profitable pork and ensuring re-election
3. Profit!

Oh yeah, and "the media, think tanks, and the administration should object strenuously when Congress channels unnecessary funds to procurement that should be going directly to our 'boots on the ground' instead." Uh, right. Problem is we've all got a different definition of "unnecessary," don't we?

I recognize that there's something to be gained from examining the lessons of other systems, and from imagining what benefit we might derive from dramatic change. But shouldn't we also consider just exactly how sodding unlikely these "reforms" are to to be implemented?


  1. Gulliver:

    I think the more interesting question might be the trade-offs between academia and think-tanks. As someone who works for both, Kapstein qualifies as - dare I say - a good case study. What makes one or the other a more attractive or useful place to contribute to the marketplace of ideas?


  2. ADTS -- You make a fair point. Academia and the think-tank world are equally committed to unhelpful suggestions. Academics just usually have a bit more rigor about it.

    With a think tank, of course, there's more visibility. And receptions.

  3. Gulliver:

    I'm not as negative on the academy as you are. I'm thinking more in terms of the defensive realists and in particular, Chaim Kaufman's piece in International Security on why the marketplace of ideas failed prior to the Iraq War, and Stephen Van Evera's (finally published!) Why States Believe Foolish Ideas (available on his website).


  4. I'm being glib, obviously. (Expect MK to show up at any moment and engage on the "academy" side of the ruck.)

    I would once have identified myself as a realist, and probably still do to the extent that the term can be synonymous with "pragmatist" (but then, doesn't everyone think himself to be a pragmatist?). Morgenthau, Waltz, and Mearsheimer are probably the most heavily cited sources in my graduate thesis, and there's a sprinkling of Niebuhr, Van Evera, Carr, and Kissinger.

    I haven't really kept up with the scholarship, but my problem with realists that dabble in the policy-prescription game is that they're very often good at post-hoc rationalization and less effective at prediction.

  5. Gulliver:

    You mean, like, Mearsheimer's prediction that we were headed back to the future after the fall of the Berlin Wall? :-)


  6. Gulliver, I agree with some of what you say. First of all, I agree that this piece isn't very good. I agree with your reasons for not liking though I'll add another: its embrace of French engineers. French engineers aren't all they're cracked up to be. An engineering degree in France guarantees a job in literally any field, whether or not it's related to any kind of engineering. The problem: the French educational system prevents people who weren't good at math and science when they were 15 to (almost ever) become engineers later in life (by that I mean 22). Not only that, but unlike American engineers who may have studied a variety of things, French engineers basically study only other hard sciences in addition to their specialty (no econ, no history, and only rarely business or management, unless they go through ENA or HEC) from the time they enter university, go through the vaunted grandes ecoles, and join some big firm. You can imagine what the problems are with that.

  7. Think tanks aren't and don't. They're buildings full of people who want to be DC socialites and play themselves off as experts on TV. For the most part, they are able to pull it off because they serve a useful purpose to politicians in search of convenient "research" and analysis.

  8. this is why i don't like my stupid "public policy" major at school, it's like vocational training for writing implausible reports like these

  9. Schmedlap -- I'm not willing to go that far. There are good people who work in think tanks, legitimate experts. But once you get into that business, it seems, you start to imagine that mere words and wishes can get just about anything done. The real problem, I guess, is that there's no real reason for them to give pragmatic, limited advice when they can shoot for the stars (and that's often what's called for). Why talk about what can actually be done when you can just as simply say "Congress ought to make these dramatic changes because they're in the interest of the country"?

    No, I'm not gonna say "people who work for think tanks are jackasses," or that they're disingenuous, or that if they were serious people they'd be doing something else. I just think it's too easy to cobble together this sort of implausible nonsense and have everyone tell you you're doing your job.

  10. this is why i don't like my stupid "public policy" major at school, it's like vocational training for writing implausible reports like these

    Tintin, believe me, you don't want four years of practicing how to work in government, either.

  11. MK--help!! Come to that, Alma--help!! I'm going to stick with the work that we do is the exception to the rule:) Seriously though, we do try to make realistic recommendations and to focus on making small steps towards big problems. Think tanks, if they do a good job, can play a part in starting conversations, and discussing options and of course holding governments accountable. Yes, this report isn't very good and just like everyone, we write our fair share of crap, but I know that there have been times where we've done some good things.

  12. I'm not sure this even worth commenting on. Think tanks come up with great ideas, and bad ones, and idiotic ones. Much like bureaucrats. And elected officials. And academics. And certainly military personnel.

    Aside from Gulliver's reactionary response to one silly report, what's news here?

    Schmedlap, you're a smart guy: you can't possibly be that myopic.

  13. Lil, what's the point? This is a series of absurd comments. Should we point out the innumerable times think tanks have made great contributions to policy? For every one we do, they can point to ten reports that were useless, or even counterproductive.

    Just like with all the other institutional sources I listed.

    Even good institutions and smart people sometimes put out crap. Some of us try harder than others not to, because, contrary to Schmedlap's assertions, we feel a real sense of responsibility to be careful to, at minimum, not make things worse.

  14. MK--I knew you'd summarize it better than I could. Since I agree, I'm going to bed.

  15. Aside from Gulliver's reactionary response to one silly report, what's news here?

    Reactionary response? I said, basically, "one reason I don't work for a think tank is that they make a practice of writing crazy shit." That is, in fact, one reason I'm not interested in working for a think tank. What's reactionary about that?

  16. Lil, what's the point? This is a series of absurd comments.

    What series? It seems to me like you're mostly just pissed off about what Schmedlap wrote, and fine -- I disagreed with him in my very next post. So what's your complaint?

  17. Dude, the title of the post sets the tone. And then stating that the most significant reason you don't work for a think tank is that think-tanks come up with ridiculous, impossible, never-to-be-implemented ideas all the time.

    Like you said, you were glibly picking on think tanks. Hyperbole is par for the course. We all ganged up on the media a little while ago, so maybe think tanks were next on the list. I just don't think they stand out for being bastions of inanity or idiocy. I think they serve it up in roughly the same proportion as other types of institutions.

    Can we start picking on the academy now? ; )

  18. Blah. Brain has been fried this week (seriously). Fair criticism. I will restate my earlier comment.

    Much of the research and releases, from outward appearances, seem to be products that will help to land their fellows on TV or in op-ed pages. Their motivations seem to be, not so much providing what they think are worthwhile contributions, but rather a desire to be part of the debate, just so they don't feel left out. I have zero citations to back that up; it is just my impression based on being a freeloader who attended several dozen think tank events while living in DC, while not contributing one thin dime to them (and partaking of their free coffee); speaking to my former BC who was a fellow at a think tank; and speaking with a small, unrepresentative sample of guys who are/were visiting fellows at a few think tanks.

    My general impression is that the head of most think tanks would be far happier to have ten high-name-recognition talking heads who can get on Charlie Rose or CNN every week, rather than a bunch of unknown, hard workers who put out the type of research that Jamestown and a few select other tanks have quietly churned out for years now with little fanfare.

    In spite of my earlier brain fry/freeze, I think I was correct in asserting that their influence is magnified not so much by the merit of their work, but because they serve a useful purpose to politicians in search of convenient analysis. See Finel's recent post on this. I don't agree with all of it, but I think he's in the ballpark and given his background/location/far higher IQ than mine - he's probably got a credible argument. Look at the number of think tanks that have sprung up in recent years. They exist, imo, to produce research that can be asserted as fact in pursuit of a political agenda (we want to pursue X policy - give us the research to back it up). That is anti-scholarship.

    But, I would also point out that I agree with MK:
    "We all ganged up on the media a little while ago, so maybe think tanks were next on the list. I just don't think they stand out for being bastions of inanity or idiocy. I think they serve it up in roughly the same proportion as other types of institutions."

    Yup. Many of the institutions that are supposed to be providing a public service (media, think tanks, academy, Congress, etc) are screwing the pooch and selling the pups. It's easy to pile on them as an outside observer, especially when they're tackled one at a time. I guess I should provide something constructive...

    My take is simply that the incentives are out of whack. People criticized wall street for greed because people were taking shortcuts to wealth and doing so in a pretty unethical way. As Finel points out - look at how young and how thin the resumes are of the people who suddenly have lots of influence. I think we're seeing a think tank bubble that is forming much like the stock market bubble. It is tough to explain why there are so many think tanks now in DC and why so many of the most influential (or at least big-name folks) are people with few or no credentials. That is, it's tough to explain unless one looks at it from a political angle, rather than one of seriously pursuing objective public policy research.

  19. This is a good discussion, actually. I sometimes (okay, a lot of the time) regretted my jokey anti-think tank comments at Abu Muqawama, but such is the nature of that particular blog comment section. A certain casualness has its advantages in allowing a lot of people into the conversation who might not participate otherwise (like me), however the casualness can be irritating to the serious practioner.

    I digress.

    Think tanks are quite good in the area of health care policy, I think, because medical academia can be - to me, at least - status quo-ish. So, I appreciate the intellecutal cage-rattling that good think tanks do. (Although, given the massaged health care bill that may come out of all of the current fervor, I may come to regret that sentiment. Hey, you know what? I hear there is a great concierge hospital in Simla. I can move back to India; to the cold and mountains; to the area that I like best. Actually, the area I like best is America, so, oh no; utter heartache due to health care bills!)

    Schmedlap has a good point, though, in that incentives are out of whack, but that's a general failing of society right now, imo. I would argue, too, that credentials are abused sometimes, and I would like people without specific credentials to be part of the process to help defend against group think.

  20. Scmedlap - I think you make a number of good points. On incentive structure and the attitude of the presidents of think tanks: I agree, but I think a lot of that has to do with fundraising. It's a source of constant pressure, and the bottom line is that it's not enough to be the best, you have to be recognized by other non-specialists in order to raise the cash to keep going.

    Another point that a former boss made to me was that a lot of 'foreign policy' experts in Washington are more experts about the discourse inside the beltway than about the subjects themselves. This is essentially a product of the sheer scale and complexity of the US foreign policy/national security apparatus, and possibly the division of power across the executive and legislative branches, multiplying the power centres that have to be wrangled to get a decision. Not saying it's a good or bad thing - it just is.

    BTW - the same rule applies the UN.

    The one place I'll strongly disagree with you in this post is on the age and qualifications of those exerting influence. As people have pointed out ad nauseum, the Bush national security team was, on paper, incredibly well-qualified with tons of experience. Clearly it did not produce good decisions. Bottom line, I think the merit of the ideas, not the age and qualifications of the source should dictate influence.

    And I think in Exum's case, his influence began well before he signed onto CNAS or was publicly linked to McChrystal. The strength of the ideas and explanations he provided on his blog seemed to attract a lot of attention while he was still in London at KCL. What we see now is the culmination of a longer effort.

  21. MK - I don't think we're in disagreement regarding your next-to-last paragraph. By pointing out people who are young and have thin resumes, I am not suggesting that only old geezers with thick resumes are credible – or even that thickness of one’s resume matters more than the content. I just think the recent trend provides some evidence that current personnel decisions are more driven by considerations other than conducting public policy research. As you point out, those considerations may be the result of simple financial needs. I know office space ain't cheap in DC. But it does seem to have a negative impact such as what Finel gripes about.

    Piggybacking on your second paragraph, I think that even old geezers with unimpressive resumes can be useful. A good understanding of "how Washington works" is useful. I see no other reason for Tom Ricks to be part of a think tank, for example.

    I disagreed with some of the substance of Finel's criticism of Exum, so I kind of agree with you what you wrote above. I would also add that - similar to "knowing how Washington works" can be an asset - people like him and Fick bring to the table some familiarity of how small unit combat unfolds. This can be a useful asset amidst a sea of think tank dorks whose only time on the ground resembles this absurd scene.

  22. "Finel's criticism of Exum"...

    Now, hold on a second here. I didn't criticize Exum. I noted that there are many, many people with his level of experience and knowledge out there. Many of them doing interesting work, getting solid essays published at places ranging from Parameters to Small Wars Journal to even their own blogs.

    Exum had a more successful blog than most. Got it, okay. But the reality is that very, very few bloggers suddenly end up on national TV regularly. He's become quite literally one most visible pundits out there, and that has occurred since he's been able to market himself as an advisor to McChrystal.

    I've had the privilege to teach literally hundreds of tremendously bright military officers from 0-3 to 0-6s. It isn't that I don't respect Exum in that sense. It is just that I know dozens of young men and women (and now not-so-young) with his level of experience, insight, and even publications who are not getting 1/100 the attention he's getting.

    It isn't even that I think this is all bad. As I've said many times, even though I disagree with many of his arguments, I think Exum makes great contributions to the discussion of current issues. I just think we need to acknowledge that how he got there is part merit and part design.

  23. Let me also add that my post was generally about the different levels of attention paid to people with similar resumes recently. Look at the other comparisons I point -- ignore the one where I compare myself to Kim Kagan because I don't want to distract attention from the main argument. My argument isn't that Exum, Biddle, O'Hanlon, Cordesman, and Nagl shouldn't be getting press. But the question is why their role in the debate was so much more prominent than Ward, Preble, MacGregor, or Gentile.

    If you can explain that without reference to access, go ahead.

  24. Bernard - isn't the more parsimonious explanation that military (and other) leaders find the arguments and analysis of Exum et al. more convincing? I don't find what I've read from the second group of analysts persuasive, so it doesn't really surprise me that they get less press.

    And even if you want to argue that it's not merely a matter of finding them more convincing, arguing that Exum is "an example of cronyism, at worst an example of a deliberate attempt by a military leader to manufacture a “credentialed” supporter" seems unjustified. Your argument that Exum didn't earn his prominence and position seems to stem more from the fact that you don't find him convincing, rather than any actual evidence.

    I'm not well-read on this period of history so I may be completely wrong here, but didn't Kennan's influence - including the Long Telegram - wax and wane with the rise and fall of his 'patrons' in the highest levels of government (first Forrestal, then Marshall)? In other words, how is this new and sinister?

  25. MK: I hope you're right. Indeed, I leave open that possibility in my post, where I wrote: "You want to argue that that the first person in each comparison... is a better analyst...." Basically, you are free to make that case. And as I say, I hope that is precisely what happened. But I think it was more strategic.

    In terms of Kennan. Look, Kennan was unquestionably one of the small handful of more experienced Russia experts in the U.S. goverment. He'd served since 1931 in posts in Riga, Moscow, the Russia desk at the State Department. His views were politicizes, sure, and his influence rose and fell at times. But I think comparing his background to the majority of pro-surge pundits is a stretech.

    If you were making a list of the 5-6 best people in the United States government to consult on the Soviet Union in 1946, Kennan would have to be on it. If you had been making a list of best people to consult on Afghanistan, would it really have included most of the members of McChrystal's advisory board?

  26. Bernard - Well, given that, prior to 2006 Gentile's specialty was strategic bombing, he wouldn't immediately spring to mind. Neither would Preble, given that he rejected the strategic-level decision that the President had already made, and doesn't seem to address operational and tactical level issues in his work. I haven't read much of MacGregor's work on the RMA, but it sounds like he bought into Rumsfeld's vision, which clearly contradicts McChrystal's own experience and professional judgment. I'd be hard-pressed to see a compelling reason why McChrystal should have included any of these people on the advisory team.

    Look, McChrystal clearly chose people he trusted. They had a mix of different backgrounds, and presumably they consulted with a host of additional people. Let me flip it back to you: who on that list shouldn't have been there, and who would you have suggested instead (and why)? Aside from Alex Thier, I'm not sure who the other glaring oversights would be. Rubin? Maley? Sinno? Akbar Ahmed? I think the strongest cases could be made for Giustozzi and Grau, but we also don't know what constraints were imposed on the selections, and whether people were asked but turned it down.

    On the comparison to Kennan - he was an expert on the Soviet Union, but not the various parts of the world where he proposed the US should execute the containment strategy. And actually, I think Cordesman and Chayes in particular have pretty good credentials in comparison. But more to the point, it wasn't his qualifications per se that gave him influence: it was that he produced an analysis that some senior figures found convincing. When Acheson arrived, his influence dwindled. It was about individuals and their judgments, not formal credentials.

    Bottom line, I think you're inferring a great deal to make a pretty rickety case.

  27. Aren't we skipping a step? Before we ask who should have been selected, I'd be curious to know why anybody should have been selected. Why did he need a who's who list of Washingtonians to provide him with this assessment? Doesn't he have a giant staff of folks who already get paid to do that?