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A liberal think tank has just pushed out an employee who criticized Google. That’s worrying.

- August 30, 2017

The New York Times reports that the liberal-leaning think tank New America has pushed out scholar Barry Lynn and his team on the foundation’s Open Markets initiative.

This happened shortly after Lynn published a piece for New America praising the European Union for fining Google. Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet (the holding company that controls Google), is a major funder of New America and had sent an email to New America President Anne-Marie Slaughter expressing unhappiness about Lynn’s piece.

Slaughter and Schmidt both say that the decision had nothing to do with Schmidt’s displeasure. However, the Times reports that, in an email to Lynn, Slaughter accused the scholar of “imperiling the institution as a whole.” The Times also said that in an email ahead of a 2016 conference organized by Open Markets to focus on concerns about tech industry monopolies, Slaughter had asked Lynn to “just THINK about how you are imperiling funding for others.”

There may be another side to this story that has yet to come out. However, the facts as initially presented in the Times article suggest that this episode is yet another example of a growing problem. As Washington Post contributor Daniel Drezner discusses in his new book, “The Ideas Industry,” the key sources of policy ideas are increasingly beholden to big funders, who very often have their own financial interests.

There are big problems with the ideas industry.

Drezner’s book looks at what he calls “the ideas industry” — the loose assortment of universities, think tanks, intellectual magazines, conferences, free-floating intellectuals and other institutions that produce ideas that can lead to substantial consequences for how we think about and organize politics, the economy and our society. Drezner argues that the ideas industry has changed drastically in recent decades and that the “most important driver behind the transformation of the Ideas Industry … is the spike in economic inequality.”

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Growing inequality is creating a new class of donors at the top who shape the ideas industry by giving to universities, sponsoring programs at think tanks and so on. These donors, in contrast to early 20th-century philanthropists such as John D. MacArthur, who famously gave the board of his foundation no instructions at all, “adopt a more hands-on role in their engagement with ideas,” Drezner writes. This can lead to problems, especially when these donors share the same broad outlook. Some ideas — those favored by well-heeled donors — tend to get developed and promoted while others wither on the vine.

Think tanks are short of money.

These problems grew worse after the economic crash. Many think tanks and similar organizations used to rely on traditional foundations for money. But these foundations saw their endowments shrink during the economic crisis. To survive and keep their employees paid, think tanks started looking to new sources for money, and in some cases were prepared to accept conditions on funding that they previously might have balked at.

Those agreements may partly explain why many prominent think tanks, including the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, have been accused of behaving more like corporate lobbyists than independent arbiters of ideas.

This presents problems for their credibility.

As UCSD sociologist Tom Medvetz’s book “Think Tanks in America” argues, think tanks have to pull off a very difficult balancing act. On the one hand, they rely on donors to keep the lights on and pay the staff. On the other, they have to appear independent of their funding sources to remain credible. If a think tank becomes too independent in the wrong ways, it may enrage donors and lose funding. If it becomes too obviously dependent on donors, it becomes harder to distinguish from a lobbying operation.

New America is an interesting case in point. It has always had strong connections to the technology industry and to Google, and its mission statement talks a lot about using technology to improve America’s politics and society. For a long time, it was reasonably straightforward to reconcile the interests of key funders, such as Google, and New America’s mission by focusing on causes such as network neutrality, where the two plausibly overlapped. However, as public concern about the economic and social dominance of big technology firms has grown, the balancing act may have become a lot trickier.

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Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein notes in a recent article that Lynn’s Open Markets team has become a crucial institution reshaping the debate on how technology platforms are concentrating power in a few hands. A recent paper by Lina Khan, who works with Open Markets, has electrified discussions over U.S. antitrust policy and whether it is capable of restraining actors such as online retail giant Amazon. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

It’s not surprising that the work of New America’s Open Markets team would draw concern at Google and other technology firms, since it directly challenges both their self-image and their business models. Nor would it necessarily take a direct request from Google’s Schmidt or someone else to get rid of Lynn. If the Times article is correct, this may be an instance of how, as Drezner describes it, “the heads of intellectual organizations — universities, think tanks, and like-minded structures — will voluntarily reshape themselves to ‘become highly attuned to the needs, preferences and idiosyncrasies of major institutional donors.’”

New America is in a particularly tricky situation.

Unlike other think tanks, which are more closely associated with industries, partisan groups or other interests, New America draws much of its intellectual capital from its association with a loose civic movement: to create greater political, social and economic openness via technology. Now, it is faced with what looks on the surface to be a direct clash between the values that it and its supporters publicly profess and the priorities that key donors would like it to have. It is nearly impossible to balance on a tightrope when people on either side are trying to use poles and hooks to pull you toward them.

Perhaps there is an untold side of the story that will emerge over time and mitigate the impact of what the Times described. At the moment, however, New America faces a particularly acute form of the dilemma that Drezner and Medvetz identify. Participating in the production of ideas requires resources, which may shape or even compromise the ideas that one wants to spread. Getting the resources while retaining the necessary independence to keep the ideas credible is hard. Notably, this is a structural dilemma. While the personalities of the actors involved (Lynn, Slaughter and Schmidt) may have had consequences for the final outcome, any actors would have faced a very complicated set of tradeoffs.

Here, universities have some comparative advantage over think tanks because of tenure, which provides a less risky way for employees to protest university funding priorities that might damage intellectual credibility. For example, professors at the University of Utah are vigorously pushing back against a proposed donation from the libertarian Koch foundation that they suspect is being given with strings attached. However, as research by Elizabeth Warren, conducted before she became a U.S. senator, makes clear, universities also sometimes give in to the temptation of taking funding that is clearly intended to push a specific economic or political agenda.

[Disclosure: the Monkey Cage accepts funding from foundations. But our ethics guidelines preclude us from accepting funding that is partisan or oriented toward specific policy goals, other than furthering the social sciences and improving the connection between the social sciences and public debate.]