The New York Times published a fascinating article about the think tanks that have allowed their reputations to be sullied by acting as spokesmen for corporations who contribute to them.

This is very sad. The nation relied on think tanks to be independent of corporate influence, to be able to make pronouncements on public policy based on hard evidence, not corporate donations.

In recent years, we have seen the emergence of think tanks with an ideological/political agenda. No one is surprised to learn that the Heritage Foundation supports conservative policies, the CATO Institution supports libertarian and conservative policies, the American Enterprise Institute support free-market policies, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute supports school choice and free-market policies, and the Economic Policy Institute supports policies that favor working people.

But the Brookings Institution stood alone as a source of independent and informed thinking. Now we find that policymakers at Brookings are catering to corporate donors.

This is especially sad for me because I was associated with Brookings for many years. I was in residence there from 1993 to 1995, and then became a Nonresident Senior Fellow. I served without pay in that role until 2012 when I was summarily dismissed by Grover Whitehurst, who had been George W. Bush’s education research director and then joined Brookings. I wrote about my abrupt dismissal here. I was fired for “lack of activity” on the same day that my article criticizing Mitt Romney was posted by the New York Review of Books. Whitehurst was an advisor to Romney, so I couldn’t help but think that there was some connection. Whitehurst used his position at Brookings to promote school choice, which was odd since Brookings had long been known as a liberal-leaning think tank in the past. Whitehurst is no longer head of the Brown Center on Education, and to my knowledge, no one has been named to take his place as yet.

The Brookings that I knew in the early 1990s was a place of knowledgable scholars, most of whom had had experience in the federal government. They were independent, thoughtful, and always open for a good discussion.

Later, after I left, I heard stories about the pressure on scholars to raise money for their activities.

But I could not have imagined this scenario that was reported in the Times:


As Lennar Corporation, one of the nation’s largest home builders, pushed ahead with an $8 billion plan to revitalize a barren swath of San Francisco, it found a trusted voice to vouch for its work: the Brookings Institution, the most prestigious think tank in the world.

“This can become a productive, mutually beneficial relationship,” Bruce Katz, a Brookings vice president, wrote to Lennar in July 2010. The ultimate benefit for Brookings: $400,000 in donations from Lennar’s different divisions.

The think tank began to aggressively promote the project, San Francisco’s biggest redevelopment effort since its recovery from the 1906 earthquake, and later offered to help Lennar, a publicly traded company, “engage with national media to develop stories that highlight Lennar’s innovative approach.”

And Brookings went further. It named Kofi Bonner, the Lennar executive in charge of the San Francisco development, as a senior fellow — an enviable credential he used to advance the company’s efforts.

“He would be a trusted adviser,” an internal Brookings memo said in 2014 as the think tank sought one $100,000 donation from Lennar.

Here is Brookings’ board of trustees: With all that money, why should scholars be compelled to seek corporate donations?

When I heard that Brookings had named Arne Duncan, a man with zero scholarly credentials, as a Nonresident Senior Fellow, I knew that something important had changed. Arne certainly has federal experience, but I wonder who will write the regular posts that Brookings expects from its senior fellows? It is not a good sign, because it shows a lack of discernment about the failure of Arne’s policies.

The lesson in all this is that money not only corrupts our politics, it corrupts those who are supposed to give nonpartisan advice to policymakers and the public.

If corporations want lobbyists, they should hire lobbyists who are openly identified as such.