A panel by the influential Brookings Institution

If you and I ever meet, remind me to show you my inbox, ooh-er. It is not a beautiful place, nor is it, at first glance, special. Scroll through a day or two, however, and what you will see is a relief map of the West, with all its current malformations.

There are vouchers for discounts to garments already improbably cheap. There is a Friendly Reminder from my corporate creditor. Every so often, I receive promises of death/rape, but these have diminished in private number now that they can be easily published. Cheap goods. High debt. Threat stripped of value, like so much else, by progress and oversupply. Your inbox may reflect the present with comparable accuracy. But perhaps with fewer reminders from that other modern menace: think tanks.

The name of the scholar who coined the phrase “policy-based evidence” escapes me. They were, nonetheless, very clever and offer concise description not only of major party politics, but the think tank’s current function. Two things often intimately linked.

Last week, the Institute for Public Affairs (IPA) — whose published fellows, I have begun to suspect, are chosen for their ability to bore readers — offered “evidence” that we are all becoming more prosperous, that company tax is an evil only rivalled by government spending on useful things, etc. The Age published it. Presumably, to “balance” a slightly different account published in The Age of that same evidence, offered by another think tank, the McKell Institute.

It is no secret that the IPA exists largely to remind snobs in the Liberal Party to pronounce “von Mises” correctly. And McKell doesn’t conceal that its latest report was compiled with advice from Shadow Assistant Treasurer Andrew Leigh. Yet, these think tanks still manage to make the slight economic disagreement between Labor and the Libs, continued for decades, newsworthy.

You got your unvarnished neoliberalism and your compassionate neoliberalism. Both the “progressive” McKell paper and its “free market” IPA response are united in their basic understanding. They both say that everyday Australians need good wages to safeguard their prosperity — the IPA claims its difference by making stagnant wages move with some gini co-efficient magic. They both overlook the threat posed to prosperity by private household debt. A factor about which even the International Monetary Fund warns. What sort of think tank are you if you cannot keep the pace of the IMF, itself a think tank empowered to lend? A think tank in a nation yet to develop wide suspicion of think tanks.

[Rundle: meet the think tank guru looking for love from Labor]

As the regular recipient of Australian think tank spam, I have learned suspicion. Bit late, though. I am hardly among the first to identify the failure of these institutions to produce new ideas. They serve to endorse the old idea of power.

In 2005, geographer David Harvey follows the money that founded conservative US think tanks, such as the formerly influential Heritage Foundation. Australian political economist Damien Cahill noted local bankrolling of neoliberal “thought” years ago. In 2011,  documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis declared that think tanks themselves “made thinking impossible”. This is not the conclusion of a scholar, which is probably why it grabs me: think tanks are doomed in time to thoughtlessness.

There are think tanks of the present that can claim a thinking past. The colossally influential Brookings Institution once helped the US government think its way out of laissez-faire economics. Now, the newest thought it will indulge is that upheld by McKell: wages are quite low and we should encourage firms, those things that maintain themselves by producing profit, to do something about it. The people at Brookings, who now insist that a profoundly financialised global economy reined itself in years ago, can’t all be so thick that they believe their own economic prescriptions, which have generally been of the “keep on trucking, Mr President” kind.

Think tanks, whether progressive or conservative, largely show no more evidence of intellectual strain than an email aggressor. The death threat has now become predictable, for reasons I am yet unable to fully explain. The unthinking think tank now predictably serves power, for reasons you probably can.

Any organisation committed from the outset to gradualism itself gradually slows to inertia. It develops an unforeseen function, which, in the case of think tanks, is to give political and/or financial leaders prestige and/or temporary employment. Harvey and Cahill have it right when they tell us to follow the funding. Curtis has it right when he tells us to follow the history. Give a small group too much time, money and power, and they will eventually learn to stop innovating.


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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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