Creaky foundation

A journalism dean credits the Heritage Foundation for being what it's frequently not: Rigorous, evenhanded and scholarly.


Brendan Nyhan
May 11, 2002 1:46AM (UTC)

In his latest column, the Washington Post's David Broder extols the virtues of the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute, two of the nation's most powerful and influential think tanks, on their 25th anniversaries. He writes that their "usefulness in Washington politics stems from their intellectual honesty and their willingness to question conventional wisdom, even when their friends are in power."

But his paean fails to acknowledge how ideology and public relations concerns can dictate -- and distort -- much of Heritage's work. What about the foundation's methods, which are more than just an intellectually honest questioning of the "conventional wisdom"? As John Judis describes in his book "The Paradox of American Democracy," the foundation is dedicated to producing good conservative P.R., not rigorous scholarship. Founder Edward Fuelner wanted a "quick response capability" and article-length pieces rather than dense scholarship. Some years ago, Burton Pines, a Heritage vice president, said this of the think tank's mission: "We're not here to be some kind of Ph.D. committee giving equal time. Our role is to provide conservative public-policy makers with arguments to bolster our side."

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Of course, there is nothing wrong with this in general, and Broder surely understands how Heritage operates. However, it should be pointed out that the many position papers and Op-Eds it pumps out are often less than rigorous (or worse).

Consider the flaws in some recent Heritage work. Last year, the foundation's Center for Data Analysis launched an attack on a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) about income inequality and tax policy. CBPP responded by taking Heritage's charges apart in embarrassing detail. Most notably, Heritage blatantly misstated the source of CBPP's data, which was clearly cited in the original report, in an attempt to cast doubt on it. This was either a massive error or a troubling attempt at misdirection.

The CBPP authors wrote that their study "relies primarily on the latest data available from the Internal Revenue Service on income and income tax trends." Heritage's rejoinder: "Shapiro and Friedman badly misuse data to create a statistical mirage of growing income inequality in America from 1992 to 1998. The Census Bureau warns researchers not to do this because of major survey changes in 1994." However, these changes were made in the Current Population Survey carried out by the Census Bureau, not the IRS data used by CBPP.

Or consider the March 28 Washington Times Op-Ed by Heritage's Daniel Mitchell praising Russia's flat tax, which Jonathan Chait rightfully excoriated in the New Republic Online. (As the McKenna senior fellow in political economy, Mitchell is blessed with the imprimatur of the institution and given assistance in placing Op-Eds, securing radio interviews, etc.) In his piece, he argues that the fact that Russia has seen tax revenues rise "proves the class-warfare artists in Washington completely wrong when they argue that tax revenues would fall and the rich would get a big tax cut if America adopted such a system. The Russian experience confirms -- again -- that tax revenues rise under a flat tax."

Of course, "intellectual honesty" would require Mitchell to at least acknowledge that he's drawing a conclusion with little evidence to support it. Russia's previous tax system was corrupt; President Vladimir Putin instituted a flat tax as part of a reform effort that also included toughened enforcement. As Chait says, "Any system that involved a strong central government rationalizing and enforcing tax laws would be more efficient than the old Russian system." Moreover, the situation in the United States is obviously almost totally different, yet Mitchell pretends as if Russia's experience provides a useful comparison.

Despite this slipshod work, Broder's overwrought praise continues. He calls the think tanks "models of healthy democratic discourse at a time when too much of the policy debate here takes the form of 'Crossfire'-style exchanges of insults."

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While Heritage generally doesn't put out highly aggressive jargon, its experts employ public relations tactics that often polarize public debate. Mitchell in particular appears to specialize in highly charged metaphors equating tax policy with civil rights.

In an Op-Ed in the Washington Times this week, Mitchell condemns the Supreme Court's infamous 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case (which ruled that slaves who escaped to free states were still considered the property of their previous owners) and then attempts to connect the case with a proposed change in corporate tax policy, writing that "some U.S. companies soon may be treated in a similar manner" to slaves under Dred Scott due to a bill in Congress that would prevent U.S. corporations from re-chartering in countries with "better tax laws," such as Bermuda. "The politicians who support this are acting as if these companies belong to the government," he writes. Does Broder actually believe that comparing corporations, legal entities chartered by the government, to human beings owned as slaves is somehow superior to "'Crossfire'-style exchanges"?

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Last year, in an interview with the New Republic's Anand Giridharadas, Mitchell similarly compared tax evasion with the civil rights movement, saying that he could not condemn a family that "deposits their assets offshore in the face of a confiscatory tax like the death tax, any more than I would condemn Rosa Parks for sitting in the front of that bus."

Obviously, Mitchell feels passionately about these issues, and it is his job to serve a strong advocate for them. But this shouldn't be what passes for intellectual honesty and healthy democratic debate in Washington. Broder should expect more.

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Brendan Nyhan

Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist currently serving as a RWJ Scholar in Health Policy Research at the University of Michigan.

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