Saturday, November 23, 2013

CAN YOU BELIEVE--THINK TANKS IN NEW MEXICO

In all likelihood, most New Mexicans are unaware of think tanks or imagine them to be far away, inside-the-beltway, outfits which conduct arcane research on domestic and foreign topics and publish academic tomes for keeping dust off shelves.  A few know some of the work of those well known and respected, including American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution, Cato Institute, and Urban Institute.  (Heritage Foundation remains well known but has become too partisan to be well respected.)  They offer informed, intelligent advocacy of their views, often with smart criticism of opposing views.  However strong their convictions, their work meets high standards of publication and of engagement with both friends and foes.  Collectively, they are a national asset.

New Mexico has two organizations which are or purport to be think tanks, Think New Mexico (TNM) and Rio Grande Foundation (RGF).  On the basis of my experience with both them and their leadership, I offer a comparison to others less familiar with them.  TNM and RGF differ greatly in just about every respect: orientation and operation, mission and purpose, goals and principles, and membership of boards and staff.  They also different greatly in the contribution which they make to the discussion of state issues.

TNM’s website statement is, all things considered, relatively detailed on these points:

Think New Mexico is a results-oriented think tank whose mission is to improve the quality of life for all New Mexicans, especially those who lack a strong voice in the political process.  We fulfill this mission by educating the public, the media, and policymakers about some of the most serious problems facing New Mexico and by developing and advocating for effective, comprehensive, sustainable solutions to those problems.
Our approach is to perform and publish sound, nonpartisan, independent research.  Unlike many think tanks, Think New Mexico does not subscribe to any particular ideology.  Instead, because New Mexico is at or near the bottom of so many national rankings, our focus is on promoting workable solutions.
Consistent with our nonpartisan approach, Think New Mexico's board is composed of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans.  They are statesmen and stateswomen, who have no agenda other than to see New Mexico succeed.  They are also the brain trust of this think tank.

TNM’s statement emphasizes that it is “results-oriented,” committed to “the quality of life for all,” focused on “problems” and “solutions,” and “nonpartisan” in approach and board membership.  Most of its board members are former government officials or civic leaders.  I like its specificity, agree with TNM’s economic and environmental positions, but disagree with its one position thus far on education, a subject on which no board member has expertise.  I strongly criticized its report advocating small, including charter, schools and sternly condemned its biased presentation, which did not present all sides of the argument or alternative solutions.  The response of TNM’s Executive Director, Fred Nathan, response was professional.  He replied by repeating the report’s points, not attacking me, misquoting my words, or misrepresenting my views.  He also wrote me a personal note expressing his disappointment that we disagree and his hope that we would agree on other issues—a response speaking well of TNM and Nathan.

More recently, TNM published a report on employment in New Mexico, “Addressing New Mexico’s Jobs Crisis.”  It makes several entirely sensible, feasible suggestions for improving the business climate in the state.  Its specific suggestions fall into three major categories: “attracting entrepreneurs,” “enhancing efficiency,” and “accelerating growth,” with a final section on changes to “pay for reform” without gouging the taxpayer.  Only special interests can oppose its suggestions.

However, the section on entrepreneurs makes sad reading.  TNM’s suggestion is to attract international students to New Mexico’s universities because they are far more likely to start up businesses than state residents graduating.  Its suggestion tacitly admits that New Mexico cannot, or does not know how to, overcome its cultural lethargy and its educational deficiencies to inspire and develop similarly competent and enterprising residents.  Worse, in the longer run, the success of this suggestion would leave many New Mexicans relegated to the lower-level, lower-salary jobs which do nothing to change the culture or improve the education in the state.  I wish that TNM had discussed this topic because it would have indicated that this short-term solution does not address a long-term problem.  But, in fairness, TNM might have regarded this consideration as out of scope.

RGF’s statements—its website statements and the editorial description of its President, Paul Gessing—are rather spare on the same points.  According to RGF’s website,

The Rio Grande Foundation is a research institute dedicated to increasing liberty and prosperity for all of New Mexico's citizens.  We do this by informing New Mexicans of the importance of individual freedom, limited government, and economic opportunity.

According to the President’s description,

The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

Its website statement of policies details its non-participation in political activities: candidate support, campaign contributions, and fundraising—not its non-partisanship.  Its website provides little identifying information about its directors, most of whom seem to have business connections, but much about its staff, most of whom have academic economic or business backgrounds.  The one-sided economic and political inclinations of RGF directors and staff make partisanship and polemics almost unavoidable.

Without a range of perspectives, RGF does not respond well to criticism.  For instance, in responding to an RGF column on budget cuts, I agreed with two, and disagreed with one, of its recommendations.  Gessing responded unprofessionally: he misquoted my words, misrepresented my views, and accused me of attacking RGF and its “vision.”  He then cut me from RGF’s mailing list and ignored my invitation to meet to discuss current issues—not the usual response from think tanks or their staffs.  Although he restored me to the mailing list, he has since responded to my criticisms of some of RGF’s economic and educational positions in the same manner as previous responses.

RGF’s two statements of mission are neither consistent nor precise.  The only principle shared by both statements is “limited government.”  The website’s “individual freedom” and “economic opportunity” differ from Gessing’s “economic freedom” and “individual responsibility.”  None of these phrases is equivalent to any of the others.  These mismatches hardly matter, for the phrases are slogans to rally the already persuaded or rouse the easily persuadable.

The website’s and Gessing’s statements of goals also differ between “increasing liberty and prosperity” and “promoting prosperity,” respectively.  I am not going to quibble about differences between the results-orientation of “increasing” prosperity and the intention-orientation of “promoting” prosperity.  But I question the mention of “liberty” in one of the statements because it seems unnecessary.  Everyone has read Patrick Henry’s famous cry in 1775, “Give me liberty or give me death.”  Nearly 250 years later, when Americans say the Pledge of Allegiance, they pledge allegiance to “liberty…for all.”  If everyone favors liberty, no organization, much less a think tank, needs to make it a goal of research and education—or so it would seem.  But appearances are deceiving; when used by a “think tank” like RGF, “liberty” is code-word talk by those more or less extreme who are fearful of and hostile to the federal government.  So this verbal oddity indicates a powerful political bias which undermines its claim to be “non-partisan.”

“Liberty” is not the only partisan term to raise questions about the “non-partisan” nature of RGF “research” and “education.”  So, too, is “limited government.”  All Americans have always believed in “limited government.”  Members of the Tea Bag Party and the American Civil Liberties Union share a general belief in “limited government,” but they disagree on the specifics about which limits or where they are.  Like “liberty,” “limited government” is either a needless-to-say subject or, since it is said, more code language for an ideological cluster of associated economic and political objectives: small (that is, weak) government, free markets, less regulation, and low taxes.  I do not object to some of these objectives—indeed, my allegiance to “free markets” is better balanced and truer than RGF’s—but I do have doubts about “research,” the results of which resolutely, not always reasonably, promote this ideology.

Among others, I have two major criticisms of RGF’s ideology.  One is that its “vision of limited government” is one-eyed.  In advocating “free markets,” RGF sees government intervention only in terms of regulations and taxes on business; it is does not see it in terms of grants, subsidies, tax credits or waivers, and tax reductions to business.  At the federal level, for example, the end of such annual wealth transfers from citizens to corporations would just about equal the annual trillion-dollar deficits of the past three years.  In New Mexico, the end of such transfers would, I think, approximate its projected budget deficit.  But RGF’s “vision of government” turns a blind eye to these market-distorting giveaways and a deaf ear to its hypocrisy about free markets.

My other major criticism is that RGF’s goals and principles do not constitute a social philosophy.  Because of its one-dimensional, pro-business perspective, it has none.  It does not understand that business is just one of many institutionalized functions—among others, religion, education, medical and social services—in society.  Worse, it assumes that the purpose of government is to support corporations and disparities in wealth.  RGF cannot conceive that government is necessary to mediate between conflicting economic interests, and between business and other interests; and to keep capitalism from destroying itself, the economy, and the country with it.


What RGF means by “research” and “education” is not what most people understand by those terms.  Its purposes—entirely legitimate ones, I hasten to add—are the narrow ones promoting the business interests or ideologies of its corporate sponsors.  However, its biased work and its inappropriate behavior toward critics are those less of a think tank—it does very little thinking—than of a ministry of propaganda.  If they do not already do so, people should view its publications and pronouncements in that light.

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