How well-known are think-tanks?

I received a letter today from John Roskam, executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs, outlining the organisation’s recent successes (and it has indeed flourished under his leadership).

He included with the letter what I think is the first ever survey of think-tank name recognition. Though as John points out in the letter the rather generic name of the IPA may cause its numbers to be overstated a little (there are so many institutes around that I have trouble keeping track of them myself) I’m still impressed by the result.

Even the 21% for the Grattan Institute is pretty good, given that it is relatively new.

There was no question about my employer the Centre for Independent Studies, though in my experience people frequently get think-tanks confused. I regularly get people who are under the impression that I work for the IPA or even occasionally Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Institute.

Will Clive Hamilton reflect on ‘alarmist’ failures?

Clive Hamilton’s series of articles on the climate change debate at The Drum is not yet complete, but what’s missing so far is any self-reflection. Things have gone wrong for the alarmist camp, but the fault according to Clive seems to lie entirely with other people.

For instance I agree with Hamilton that behaviour in this debate has been poor – but poor on both sides, not just the sceptic side. I complained years ago about the ‘McCarthyist’ tactics of the alarmists, and their outrage at any dissent from the official line.

Not only has this approach helped provoke attacks in response and alienated people not strongly committed to either side, but it probably contributed to the broader political shortcomings of the alarmists. As I showed in a recent Policy article, in public opinion the alarmists have had the upper hand for 20 years. Their political imperative wasn’t to stamp out the last remnants of dissent on the science, but to convert belief in the science into support for practical measures to reduce carbon emissions. There was an opportunity cost to chasing down every sceptic offering a view.

The other tactical problem with the alarmists was their focus on scaring people rather than trying to sell a more positive message. Continue reading “Will Clive Hamilton reflect on ‘alarmist’ failures?”

The first Grattan Institute research paper

The Grattan Institute has released its first report, an analysis of student progress measures by Ben Jensen. It argues that ‘value-added’ measures – that is, how much students improve between NAPLAN tests – are a more useful way of assessing a school’s performance than simply looking at its absolute results.

The report meets Grattan’s claims to be ‘objective, evidence-driven and non-aligned’. It is well-researched, uses data, and presents ideas that could easily be adopted by either major political party. While the media played up its differences with the about-to-be-launched My School website, it’s hard to imagine that Julia Gillard would have any fundamental objection to the ideas presented. And that was pretty much how she handled it today:

From what I’ve seen of the reports of the Grattan Institute work, they are saying that this is a good start but they are wanting to see more. Of course we are going to keep building on this website year by year as we get more results from national testing, more results on Year 12 retention, more results on vocational education and training pathways and attendance at school.

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Educational Standards Institute

In the Des Moore model of one-man think-tanks, Kevin Donnelly has established the Educational Standards Insitute.

I’ve had my disagreements with Kevin in the past, since the conservative ‘standards’ approach easily turns into top-down bureaucratic control of schools. The Coalition-backed national curriculum is an example of how this line of thinking ends in what is likely to be a policy disaster in the long term.

Still, Kevin has had many sensible things to say about the unhappy results of ‘progressive’ education, and I wish this new think-tank well.

Do governments assume citizen rationality and self-control?

The latest Per Capita paper summarises the research on various cognitive biases (loss aversion, endowment effect, etc) and makes suggestions for policymakers about ‘choice architecture’ that helps people make better, less irrational, decisions. For example, default options of sensible choices where people have to opt out to avoid them preserves freedom to choose while encouraging decisions that will benefit most people.

It’s the kind of argument Cass Sunstein has been making for years, and on which he co-wrote with Richard Thaler a widely-cited 2008 book called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness (which is strangely not cited in Jack Fuller’s Per Capita paper; if Sunstein did not coin ‘choice architecture’ he’s certainly its main populariser).

I don’t doubt that these cognitive biases exist, or that their negative effects can be reduced by ‘choice architecture’. But I do want to take issue with another example of the annoying rhetorical strategy of setting up straw man opponents:
Continue reading “Do governments assume citizen rationality and self-control?”

Why don’t social democrats read work by their think-tanks?

Over the last few years, the left has boosted its think-tank operations through Per Capita and the Centre for Policy Development, joining the more established Australia Institute.

But if the results of the Australian political identity survey are a guide, the left-wing think-tanks are yet to make a big impact among those identifying with the left labels in the survey, social democrat and green.

As the chart below shows, none of the three left-leaning think-tanks attract more than a quarter of social democrat or green identifiers as regular readers. Indeed, in the case of social democrats more read work from the classical liberal Centre for Independent Studies than by any of the left-leaning think-tanks. By contrast, around half of classical liberals, conservatives and libertarians regularly read work by the CIS, and about 40% read work by the Institute of Public Affairs.

Continue reading “Why don’t social democrats read work by their think-tanks?”

A fantasy think-tank history

Norman Abjorensen must have a masochistic streak, because he emailed me with the news that he is a contributor to The Culture Wars: Australian and American Politics in the 21st Century, which was published late last year.

As I expected, some of Norman’s intellectual eccentricities on display in his book on conservatism are also evident in his contribution to Culture Wars. For example, he claims that the emergence of think-tanks like the CIS was ‘signalled a new offensive against liberal democracy and its perceived progressivist excesses’. In making this claim, he reveals part of the CIS’s history that I was not aware of, and indeed a part of the CIS’s history that its founder, Greg Lindsay, was also not aware of.

Apparently, a 1975 report of the Trilateral Commission (in Norman’s words an ‘extremely influential’ but ‘little known’ body) called The Crisis of Democracy popularised the work of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, and its ‘immediate influence in Australia was evident in a host of new free market think-tanks, such as the Centre for Independent Studies and the Sydney Institute.’

Just how a ‘little known’ body popularised anything is not made clear, and particularly now how it popularised thinkers who were already famous long before 1975. Hayek became a public figure with The Road to Serfdom in the mid-1940s, and won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1974.
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Crook analysis of think-tanks, #2

According to Crikey hack Andrew Crook

Another Thornley backed outfit, PerCapita, conceived as a direct competitor to free market think tanks like the IPA and the CIS, has been more active in recent months with ex-Latham staffer Michael Cooney regularly hitting the airwaves to take on its scorched earth rivals.

But as I reported on this blog, Cooney has left Per Capita, and has been working in Canberra for someone else since early December last year – over the few months in which Crook thinks he has been regularly hitting the airwaves.

Don’t believe anything you read about think-tanks in Crikey. They are just making it up.

Did Katherine Wilson (aka Sharon Gould) hoax the wrong magazine?

As Jason Soon and Don Arthur correctly predicted yesterday, ‘Sharon Gould’ is left-wing activist Katherine Wilson.

Jason and I have a bit of a history with Wilson, having been involved in a lively 2006 debate at Lavartus Prodeo on think-tanks and the significance (or otherwise) of who funds them. Wilson tried to wipe her past by getting LP to delete her posts and comments, but it all lives on in the National Library’s archives.

The pieces of the story are really starting to fit together now. Wilson knows the right is evil, but she hasn’t actually read very much of what they say, and is vague on the differences between the various right-of-centre groups and magazines.

For a hoax using gullibility for pro-genetic modification views – Wilson is an anti-GM activist – the target should have been the IPA Review. The IPA has published lots of pro-GM stuff over the years (eg this). The more conservative Quadrant contributors, as I argued on Tuesday, are much less likely to be pro-GM, and indeed likely to be worried about the way genetic science is developing (Quadrant doesn’t have much on its website, but this is the kind of thing I am thinking of).

Of course, IPA Review editor Chris Berg does not have Keith Windschuttle’s reputation as a footnote fetishist, but to make the political point on GM foods he should have been the target. Wilson hoaxed the wrong magazine.
Continue reading “Did Katherine Wilson (aka Sharon Gould) hoax the wrong magazine?”

Crook analysis of think-tanks

Marcus Smith and Peter Marden are not the only people who believe think-tanks can be analysed without giving any serious attention to what they say or do. Andrew Crook, author of this piece in today’s Crikey on the new Melbourne University-based think-tank the Grattan Institute, seems to share their approach.

Though the Grattan Institute is yet to publish anything, or appoint any staff other than a CEO with no obvious partisan or ideological background, Crook claims that

it’s shaping up as a quasi arm of government that replaces frank and fearless advice with something eminently more pliable. The irony is that the Rudd Government’s obsession with experts … reflects less a return to a disinterested public service and more a proliferation of pick-and-mix advice witnessed at 2020. Grattan is looking like a permanent 2020, staffed by wonks rather than celebrities.

The ‘evidence’ for this is the usual follow-the-money logic (the feds kicked in some cash) and some rather imaginative guesswork from some members of the board, which along with some people with Labor connections includes some less well-known Ruddites such as my former boss and Liberal Minister David Kemp.

Crook’s analysis of the general think-tank scene is no better:

Continue reading “Crook analysis of think-tanks”