How Scary Is It When Foreign Governments Give Money to Think Tanks?

What sounds scarier to you? The government of Norway writing a check to a think tank in Washington, or ExxonMobil doing the same? 

I suppose that depends on how you feel about either Norway or ExxonMobil, but personally, I'm more wary of ExxonMobil, which last year had revenues four times larger than Norway's GDP, and which has many more issues pending before policymakers in Washington than Norway does. 

But while it isn't news when ExxonMobil makes a donation to a think tank, it is news when Norway does. 

This weekend, the New York Times dropped a bomb on the DC think tank world when it revealed that these groups had received tens of millions of dollars of funding from dozens of foreign governments.

It was a great piece of investigative reporting in most respects, and it's nice to see the New York Times focusing on who funds think tanks. As I have often written, the money going to these institutions is every bit as effective in influencing policy as campaign donations to politicians or spending by lobbyists, and often more so. 

The amount of philanthropic dollars going to policy and advocacy groups is best understood as one of the three major tributaries of a mighty river of money flowing into politics. It's rare to see this tributary get the attention it deserves, so kudos to the New York Times for digging in here.

What I didn't like about the piece was the assumption that money from foreign governments is uniquely insidious. That core implication was never defended, despite the many words the Times gave to the article. 

Yes, the Times pointed out that spending by foreign governments to influence policy is regulated (and rightly so), and that the donations appear to have flouted those regulations in some places. And it pointed out that some of the governments making donations, such as Qatar's, are quite odious.

But otherwise, the piece reeked of xenophobia. All sorts of donors give money to think tanks to help press their agendas, and most of that money is coming from ideologically motivated individuals and foundations or self-interested U.S. corporations. Every funder wants something. And thanks to the ridiculously broad tax rules around charitable donations, writing a check to, say, the Heritage Foundation is treated exactly the same way by the IRS as writing a check to the Salvation Army. 

The bigger scandal here is not who the influence buyers are; it is that intellectual influence is for sale, often at taxpayer expense.