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The Think Tank Industrial Complex

By Matthew Yglesias  

"The Think Tank Industrial Complex"

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Steven Walt says:

Here’s why it won’t happen any time soon. As Cindy Williams, former director of the National Security division of the Congressional Budget Office and now a senior research scientist at MIT, points out in an as-yet unpublished paper for the Tobin Project, DOD is insulated from serious cuts by an array of impressive political advantages. First, its budget is more than 50 percent of all federal discretionary spending, and its sheer size gives it a lot of bureaucratic clout. Second, the Pentagon has a large domestic constituency: there are 1.4 million men and women in uniform, 850,000 paid members of the National Guard and Reserve, and 650,000 civilian employees. Forget GM, Ford and Chrysler: the Department of Defense is the largest single employer in the whole country. Now add the companies that provide goods and services for the military. Their employees amount to about 5.2 million jobs, which is a pretty impressive domestic constituency. And don’t forget those 25 million veterans, who are hardly shrinking violets when defense spending is concerned. Finally, a well-financed group of Beltway bandits and Washington think tanks stand ready to question the patriotism of any politician (and especially any Democrat) who tries to put the Pentagon on a diet.

It seems unlike a realist to cite domestic political dynamics as the cause of national security policy, but clearly this is correct. And I would note the last point about the think tanks has implications that go beyond the budget. People don’t like to be dishonest — to advocate for policies they disagree with purely in order for money. And actually the think tank lifestyle isn’t very lucrative. Which means that if people and firms who profit from high levels of military expenditures want to support think tanks that support high levels of military expenditures they need to identify individuals who genuinely believe that high levels of military expenditures are good and properly. Naturally, people who think that kind of thing tend to be people who have a somewhat paranoid attitude toward foreign countries and who are strongly predisposed to favor aggressive use of military force by the US and our allies alike.

That in turn comes to be a serious distortion in the public conversation.

And it goes further. Many members of congress don’t represent districts that particularly benefit from high levels of military spending. And those members tend not to seek out assignments on the congressional committees that deal with military expenditures. But those members whose districts do benefit from said expenditures do seek out those assignments in order to maximize the share going to their folks. That has a distorting effect all its own, but it also re-enforces the think tanks issue. Members of congress like to call experts in to testify who they know are going to agree with them. So if the armed forces committees are dominated by people who favor big military spending, they’ll tend to call in “experts” who agree with that agenda — hawks.

This, in turn, gives hawkish think tank types more juice and credibility. And this, in part, is where the Very Serious People come from. Frank Gaffney gets on TV all the time but you’ll never see Carl Conetta. Gaffney’s a crank, but Conetta’s something much worse — a peacenik.

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