The Hand That Feeds: Can Think Tanks Ruled by the Wealthy Really Be Impartial?

 The Brookings institution

The Brookings institution

Like it or not, interested money often pays for interested research. For those who prefer their policy studies without a dash of ideology, universities are often the best place to go. Another place associated with objective policy research is the independent think tank, and what more venerated example than the Brookings Institution? Unlike conservative stalwarts like Cato, Heritage and the American Enterprise Institute—and liberal ones like the Center for American Progress—Brookings has a firmly entrenched reputation for impartial research. 

Whether Brookings still deserves that reputation is a matter of debate, especially as a think tank that draws from increasingly corporate wells of support. Indeed, a quick peek at Brookings’ board of trustees reveals a panoply of corporate leaders. You might imagine that a think tank that offers policy ideas on an array of issues that affect Americans of modest means might have at least one board member that comes from a community-based organization or grassroots group. But no.

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As we've argued previously, looking at the Peterson Institute for International Economic Policy, it's hard to see think tanks overseen by corporate leaders and heavily funded by business as truly impartial. Even if scholars in these organizations are granted independence, as is the case with both Peterson and Brookings, the reality is that board members and donors have substantial influence over the direction of think tanks—as a result of the priorities they establish or fund. If these muckety-mucks are all drawn from the upper class (which, by the way, holds different views than ordinary Americans), it's not a stretch to imagine that the institutions they dominate will be more likely to speak for that class than other groups of citizens. So while Brookings and Peterson aren't akin to AEI or CAP, they do reflect a larger pattern of political inequality: The wealthy have a much bigger seat at the table when it comes to influencing public policy than lower income Americans. 

RelatedYikes, Look At All the Corporate Money Behind This Washington Think Tank

Among the many wealthy people on Brookings' board, no one is more loaded than David Rubenstein, who currently serves as co-chair. Rubenstein is a founder of the private equity giant Carlyle Group, a billionaire, and a signatory of the Giving Pledge. His philanthropic profile is hard to nail down. Rubenstein has no foundation, and describes his highest-profile gifts as “patriotic philanthropy”—that is, purchasing copies of landmark civic documents like the Magna Carta and gifting them to the National Archives, the Smithsonian, and other federal custodians. He also directed $7.5 million toward restoring the Washington Monument, among other projects. 

Having joined the Brookings board in 2009, and attaining the post of co-chair in 2014, Rubenstein recently gave the organization $15 million to establish the David M. Rubenstein Fellowships. From now until May 16, policy scholars have a chance to apply for two-year research positions across Brookings’ entire range of work. Geared toward early- and mid-career professionals, the intent is to increase the diversity of the Brookings scholarly community. Diversity here means a cross-section of backgrounds, experience, and “scholarship expertise.” Rubenstein’s gift totals $20 million, with the $5 million remainder going to Brookings’ foreign policy department. 

This is one of the bigger gifts made to a think tank in recent years. It's worth noting that it's the same size as a gift we wrote about a few years ago to AEI from Rubenstein's longtime partner at the Carlyle Group, Daniel D'Aniello. Looking at these two gifts, you might be tempted to draw a hopeful conclusion about pluralism and philanthropy—that even billionaires minted by the same private equity group can have divergent views, and that the overall effect of their gifts is to help a wide range of ideas flourish to enrich the public debate. There's something to that, for sure. But keep in mind that the spectrum of views supported by these two gifts is pretty narrow—from conservative to centrist—which tends to be the case when wealthy people write checks to support public policy work. 

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Rubenstein is a very interesting figure. While his high-profile “patriotic giving” gets the most press, by all accounts, he’s something of a Renaissance man of the modern elite. He gives major sums to universities, especially his alma mater Duke, as well as places like Harvard and the University of Chicago. He’s funding scholarships and fellowship programs at all three universities. His arts giving is varied as well, and he also gives to health and the national parks. 

Rubenstein’s wealth comes from finance, but he’s always been deeply involved in the world of policy research, starting with a youthful role as a policy adviser to President Carter. Since then, he’s been in the upper leadership of places like Brookings, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Institute for Advanced Study. Check out his personal website for a full list of his roles (and of course, where he gives money). 

Despite key jobs at the heart of American finance and policy research, Rubenstein isn’t overtly ideological, and that bodes well for Brookings’ nonpartisan reputation. But again, keep in mind the invisible boundaries that may circumscribe this institution's work, given who oversees and funds the place. The hard reality is that no one likes to bite the hand that’s feeding them. In the case of Brookings, that remains a decidedly corporate hand.