Respond to this Article December 2003

In the Tank

The intellectual decline of AEI.

By Benjamin Wallace-Wells

In 1998, John R. Lott Jr., an economist then working as an instructor at University of Chicago Law School, published More Guns, Less Crime, a book that argues that arming civilians has a substantial deterrent effect on violence. He produced data seeming to show that deaths from multiple-victim shootings dropped 90 percent in states that passed laws permitting concealed weapons. His book tipped the terms of the debate, handing the gun lobby, which had previously relied on brute politicking to win over lawmakers, a devastatingly effective academic study supporting their side. Conservative legislators in several states used his book to push through laws permitting civilians to carry guns. Lott used the book's profile to get off the itinerant academic circuit, and land a permanent post as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Washington's premier conservative think tank.

This spring, two economists, Ian Ayres of Yale and John J. Donohue III of Stanford, published a paper charging Lott with falsifying his statistics. Then things really got weird. Someone named "Mary Rosh" started turning up on Web sites where Lott's work was being discussed, claiming to be a former student of the embattled academic and defending him vigorously. Some Web loggers investigated and couldn't find any student of his by that name. Eventually, Lott admitted that he himself was "Mary Rosh." Criticism continued to mount, though both Lott and his sponsors at AEI have argued that Ayres and Donohue's paper contained inaccuracies of its own. Several other academics called into question separate aspects of his scholarship, the National Academy of Sciences set up an expert panel to establish whether he'd fabricated data (the panel is still investigating), and the editor in chief of Science called Lott a "fraud."

Had Lott been in academia, he would almost certainly have lost his job--as did Michael Bellesiles, the Bancroft Prize-winning liberal historian from Emory University, who resigned after a panel found he had faked data purporting to show that fewer Americans had actually possessed guns in the 19th century than historians had previously thought. But AEI is not a university. It is a conservative think tank, operating in a world where penalties for bad scholarship hardly exist. AEI did not fire Lott, or reprimand him, or even investigate him. The institute's president, Christopher DeMuth, repeatedly refused to even answer reporters' questions about the incident. Indeed, several AEI fellows had warned DeMuth of their suspicions on Lott's lack of scholarly honesty back when AEI was recruiting him in 2000. DeMuth hired Lott anyway. In an email to The Washington Monthly, DeMuth defended Lott and questioned critiques of his work, adding, "We welcome and encourage challenges to our research rather than regarding them as cause for empaneling boards of investigation."

Since coming to AEI, Lott, not previously known as a polymath, has expanded his range of pronouncements, penning papers and op-eds on everything from the disputed votes in Florida (he published a study which seemed to show that blacks hadn't been discriminated against, a charge which was vigorously disputed), to the McCain-Feingold campaign reform bill (he's against it) to Rush Limbaugh's firing from ESPN for saying the media let black quarterbacks like the Philadelphia Eagles' Donovan McNabb off the hook too easily (Lott dashed off a quick regression analysis which purported to show that the media was, indeed, less inclined to criticize black quarterbacks). Last month, AEI proudly led its Web site with an op-ed by Lott, arguing that gun-safety locks "are more likely to cost lives than to save them." The scholarship of others at the think tank has been challenged. Laurie Mylroie, a leading Iraq scholar and AEI fellow, has theorized that al Qaeda is an agency of Iraqi intelligence, that Saddam Hussein was behind the first bombing of the World Trade Center, and that Iraqi intelligence was linked to Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols--claims dismissed by countless experts in the field, and for which Mylroie has been unable to supply credible evidence (See "Armchair Provocateur" on page 27). And James Glassman, an AEI fellow and ubiquitous pundit, hosts an influential Web magazine whose editorials frequently mirror arguments made by lobbyists for its corporate sponsors (See "Meet the Press" on page 32).

Plenty of intellectuals offering disputed research lurk in other Washington think tanks, liberal as well as conservative--often B-team refugees from the academy who have not managed to get tenure. But AEI is in a different league, because of the influence its scholars wield in Washington and their consequent power to turn research into government policy. There's Lawrence Lindsay, former AEI scholar and until this year head of the White House's National Economic Council, who, among other things, counseled the president not to support new corporate accountability measures in the wake of the Enron scandal. There's AEI scholar Leon Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, whose advice led the president to restrict federal funding for research on future stem-cell lines based on a gross overestimate of the number of the lines already existing (See "Science Friction" from our July/August issue). Indeed, the whole idea that regime change in Iraq should be at the center of American policy was nurtured at AEI, by current and former AEI fellows who became the architects of the administration's war in Iraq, including de-fense advisor Richard Perle and Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith. Dick Cheney is a former senior fellow of the institute, and Paul Wolfowitz a former member of its Council of Academic Advisors. It is perhaps not coincidental that so many Bush administration officials formulated their policy ideas at a think tank that takes a laissez-faire view of scholastic rigor. Indeed, AEI has both enabled and been enabled by the general drift of conservative culture in Washington, one in which information from forged documents about yellowcake uranium makes its way into the State of the Union address, and a mounting GI body count is deemed a sign of the enemy's desperation.

Deep lobbying

Thirty years ago, AEI was a mainstream, economic policy and political science think tank--and a number of respected centrist analysts still at the institute, like William Schneider and Norman Ornstein, embody that old style. But beginning in the '70s, and increasingly since DeMuth took over in 1986, AEI has put in place an astonishingly successful formula for attracting money and garnering influence, which has matched the increasingly aggressive style of Washington's conservative community.

First, AEI started courting conservative scholars outside its traditional spheres of economics and political science, particularly in the fields of social and foreign policy. These included Irving Kristol, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and other neoconservatives who felt out of place, even discriminated against, in liberal academia, and who undoubtedly brought a more clever, penetrating, disputatious intellectual style to the organization. From the start, they also used AEI as a platform from which to float scholarly-sounding ideas that had not passed academic muster, but which informed Republican policy. Irving Kristol's protégé Jude Wanniski, the godfather of supply-side economics, used an AEI fellowship to write his 1978 book The Way the World Works, which promoted the dubious Laffer Curve, and its purported proof that tax cuts lead to more net government revenue. And Charles Murray, then as now an AEI fellow, wrote 1995's The Bell Curve, which argued that intelligence test score differences among the races were in part genetically determined. High-profile scholars like these also attracted large grants from conservative foundations such as Scaife and Bradley.

Second, AEI made a strategic decision to become a major advocate of economic deregulation, hiring teams of economists to produce papers arguing for looser government oversight of particular industries. In this, the organization was not only following the currents of Washington thinking, especially within the Republican Party. It was also positioning itself to take advantage of a profound but little-noted change in the rules governing Washington's influence-peddling game. Traditionally, business interests eager to garner public favors have relied on K-Street lobbyists to make their case directly to officials. But over the last decade, a series of reforms has severely limited the tools with which lobbyists gain access. For instance, new rules prohibit elected officials and their staffs from accepting meals that cost more than $20, meaning they can no longer accept invitations to expensive D.C. restaurants and allow the lobbyists to pick up the check. Similar restrictions on industry-funded junkets have further restricted the ability of lobbyists to "educate" officials.

Consequently, business interests have been forced to find less rule-bound venues for the hundreds of millions of dollars they have available to influence the policy process, and think tanks have become one of the places of choice. As 501(c)3 charitable institutions, think tanks are not bound by hospitality restrictions, and so can offer public servants a movable feast of fancy policy- seminar lunches and all-expense-paid fact-finding trips to foreign countries.

Think tanks provide ideal cover for the advancement of a funder's economic or political agenda by shaping the intellectual atmosphere that surrounds Washington decision-makers, a process Steven Clemons of the centrist New America Foundation calls "deep lobbying." Think tank scholars enjoy more credibility when quoted in newspapers, speaking on TV, or testifying on the Hill than do paid industry spokesmen, even when both are making the same arguments, and even when the expert's scholarship is laughably bad. And short of endorsing specific candidates for political office, there are no restrictions on what think tanks can say in these venues--or what they can write in the policy briefs that flood congressional offices.

Such freedom is perfectly defensible. One wouldn't want to limit scholarly free speech and inquiry. But as think tanks like AEI have garnered lucrative grants from corporations and industry trade groups, incentives have mounted to pick their experts and tailor their intellectual product to suit the givers' interests, even if that means cutting corners on scholastic rigor.

AEI is not necessarily the most aggressive player in the "deep lobbying" game. Indeed, many of its scholars remain intellectually independent and ideologically idiosyncratic. Nor is AEI the only right-of-center think tank to advocate both deregulation and conservative social and foreign policy. It has, however, arguably done the best job of marrying these ideas into an overall worldview that supports the conservative political movement--a worldview perhaps best exemplified by AEI scholar Michael Novak, who in books like The Catholic Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argues that the government has a Christian imperative to cut taxes. It's easy, then, to understand why AEI was so eager to recruit, and ignore the failings of, John Lott, whose arguments against gun restrictions pleased both the libertarian and social conservative wings of the GOP.

Of course, conservative think tanks have no monopoly on ridiculous theories, sloppy research, agenda-driven reasoning, and pathological groupthink. All of this is endemic to many universities, where liberal scholars reign and Democrats--more so than Republicans--turn to for policy ideas, expertise, and validation. The difference is that academia is governed by some basic rules of conduct. Books and papers are peer-reviewed. Up-and-coming scholars know that their work will be scrutinized by tenure committees. Universities have established procedures to investigate accusations of fraud and punish those found guilty of it. Think tanks, by contrast, have few such systems of internal checks. Behavior that would be considered a firing offense in academia is not necessarily considered in the think-tank world, especially when a scholar's work advances the institution's political mission and attracts funding.

It's a good thing, of course, that think tanks provide a place for out-of-the-box thinkers with controversial views. But think tanks should also provide guardrails to ensure that the work of these scholars is not specious or fraudulent.

Considering the direct connection between the research put together at AEI and the policies made at the highest levels of the U.S. government, it's in everyone's interest that those ideas and that research be as sound as possible. Empowering the IRS to do a better job of making sure non-profit think tanks are not abusing their non-profit status might help. But that's not going to happen under the current administration, and no one should want the federal government in the business of regulating thought. Think tanks could voluntarily put in place more checks on dubious research. But there is no incentive in the current environment in Washington for them to do so. Think tanks like AEI will only change if and when the elected officials who use their ideas as the basis for policy decide that those ideas are getting them in deep political trouble.

Unfortunately, a lot of damage can be done between now and then.

Benjamin Wallace-Wells is an editor of The Washington Monthly.


Mission   Masthead   Features Archive    Writers Guidelines   
Feedback   Customer Service    Subscribe Online    Make A Donation

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 2006
The Washington Monthly 1319 F Street N.W. #710
Washington DC. 20004.
Comments or questions ... please email editors by clicking here