Think Tanks in the Economics Profession

Indicators via representation at the Allied Social Sciences Association meetings.

In the past few years, I have read more policy analyses from Washington DC based think tanks than usual. I’ve assessed some of these reports on Econbrowser over the past year, including some by the Heritage Foundation [H1] [H2] [H3], American Enterprise Institute [A1], Peterson Institute for International Economics [P1], [P2], Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies [Ph1] [Ph2]. I thought it would be interesting to see how many economists from these think tanks attended the Allied Social Sciences Association meetings in Chicago, as an indicator of the level of rigor and location near the mainstream of these research groups.

Here’s my rough tabulation of how many individuals from each research group, as listed in the preliminary program.


Figure 1: Number of participants at ASSA 2012. EPI is Economic Policy Institute, CAP is Center for American Progress, CEPR is Center for Economic and Policy Research, AEI is American Enterprise Institute. Source: ASSA and author’s tabulations.

Over course, one year is not necessarily representative. I would’ve liked to do an average over several years, but only ASSA 2011 is online, so I’ve presented below the two year average.


Figure 2: Average number of participants at ASSA 2011 and 2012. EPI is Economic Policy Institute, CAP is Center for American Progress, CEPR is Center for Economic and Policy Research, AEI is American Enterprise Institute. Source: ASSA 2012, ASSA 2011 and author’s tabulations.

Update, 1/18, 3:05PM: Roll Call (via HuffPost) notes, in “Brookings Tops Study of Most Influential Think Tanks”:

The Brookings Institution ranked once again as the world’s top think tank in an annual survey out today.

The report also ranks think tanks by category. Cato and Heritage placed in the top five for economic policy.


37 thoughts on “Think Tanks in the Economics Profession

  1. Julian Silk

    Dear Professor Chinn,
    It’s a debatable question how much the ASSA sessions are rigorous, and how much they are just presentations to the choir and marking out turf. Last year (not this one), I was at the ASSA meetings (in Denver), and attended one of the sessions that discussed multipliers and macroeconomic behavior in China. The presenter for the multipliers paper argued that relevant evidence for multipliers must be that they are very low, since in one case, for Germany, his results were that they were 0.2. In poking around in his presentation, it turned out that those data were heavily influenced by the late 1980s, when West Germany absorbed East Germany to become the unified German republic. The money the West Germans paid to absorb East German debt was counted as government spending. I asked for a sensitivity analysis, along the lines of Chatterjee and Hadi, to see how much difference it would make, and the presenter was totally unimpressed and surely has not done it. So the Cato Foundation and the like are well-financed and do not need to stake out professional claims, while others do, but not necessarily in argument that goes the last mile in rigor, and that may explain the difference.

  2. Steven Kopits

    Seach for ASSA on Google, and up pops the AEA website with….hmmm…Paul Krugman pictured in the center.
    On the other hand, the ASSA Conference looks pretty interesting. Very diverse set of topics and presenters. Overall, the conferences seems seem pretty clueless about oil and the economy, although Barkley Rosser appears to have spoken on energy sustainability, and he’s clearly aware of everything Jim has posted here and probably a fair smattering of my comments. Having said that, were I presenting, I’d probably do a paper entitled something like “A Series of Oil Shocks” or “Energy and Economic Growth”. Nothing on shales either in the program. These are very important to the economy and central to, say, China’s energy outlook. We now have a nice in-house forecast for US shale gas production; and indeed, for China’s shale gas production.
    In any event, let me concede your point. The ASSA Conference looks like great fun, with a wide range of offerings, no doubt from the obscure and impenetrable to the sublime. I would think it well worth the trip, even if one worked at Heritage.

  3. Ricardo

    Interesting – it appears that CATO, Manhattan, and Heritage may be the least establishment and the least brainwashed of all the think tanks.

  4. Ricardo

    Steven Kopits,
    Here is Mark Skousen’s take on AEA for what it is worth. It appears that the only non-mercantilist presentation was the panel with Bob Mundell, Bob Zoellick, and Gary Becker (yes, I know that Larry Summers was also on the panel but they needed the comic relief.) It appears to be just another holiday for demand side economists to tell one another that their failed policies just need a little more time and a little more “stimulus.”

  5. Steven Kopits

    From Mark Skousen:
    “Usually the Cato Institute has a booth at the AEA meetings, but not this year. However, I did see Liberty Fund and the Ayn Rand Institute there.”

  6. Menzie Chinn

    Julian Silk: Everything is relative. But I have two observations. First, one seldom oes a robustness test on-demand at a conference presentation, when the presenter typically has 20 minutes. Second, you are extrapolating on one observation? Having had experience in both worlds, I think averages are the relevant thing.

    Steven Kopits: (6:41AM) Gee, I bumped into Lutz Kilian at the conference, and he was on the program; is he in your “clueless” category. Anyway, this is what I mean by dangers of analysis by anecdote.

    Ricardo: Re your comment (7:01 AM):

    Interesting – it appears that CATO, Manhattan, and Heritage may be the least establishment and the least brainwashed of all the think tanks.

    I think you are right! Yes, I tremble to think how the American Engineering Association has brainwashed the engineers of America into worrying about tensile strength, calculus, statistics, and all those quantitative aspects you dismiss.

    Ricardo (12:18PM): Is that the same Mark Skousen who has published with Regnery Press?

    Steven Kopits: (2:52PM) Please note I was tabulating individuals on the preliminary program. Anybody can buy a booth at the ASSA.

  7. don

    Seems like a big “appeal to authority” argument to me. One would think that academic economists of the most rigorous and prestigious ilk have covered themselves in glory of late.

  8. Charles N. Steele

    Almost none of the conclusions people are drawing follow from Prof. Chinn’s data. The truth or falsity of a viewpoint certainly doesn’t hinge on whether it is represented at AEA.
    I am a free-market advocate, and regularly attend the AEA/ASSA (including the Continuing Ed. courses, great stuff). I’ve not felt unwelcome or under fire there. If one chooses sessions sensibly (and avoids the crappier of the ASSA sessions), they are generally rigorous and very informative, whether one agrees with the perspective or not.
    Here’s the thing that rings true to me about Menzie Chinn’s point – how many George Masonites were there? For all their claims to be pioneers revolutionizing economics, the “New Vienna,” and all that, they are strangely missing in action…all preening for their GMU mutual admiration society at APEE, I guess.
    Finally, Mark Skousen (whom I know) was mistaken; I don’t think there was any special fire directed at free market thought this year. And the CATO booth was there as usual. BTW, no one should give Skousen a bad time; he has his own idiosyncratic viewpoints, but is a nice guy willing to consider anyone’s views and treat them decently. Treat him with similar respect, even if you disagree with him.

  9. Charles N. Steele

    One other point re Cato: MC is using presence at the AEA/ASSA as an indicator of rigor of economic research. Cato is not specifically an economic think tank, but a policy tank. They promote libertarian viewpoints on drug wars, civil liberties, foreign policy, etc. that don’t have a great deal to do with economic research and policy. I’m a donor to them, but not because I think they are doing groundbreaking economic research, and I don’t think that’s their raison d’etre. Mostly they don’t seem to claim otherwise. (Mostly.)

  10. Menzie Chinn

    Don: Good point. I was going to a dentist tomorrow for a new crown, but why pay extra for that credential of DDS. I think I’ll look for somebody on the street instead.

    Charles N. Steele (7:52PM): I am certain that Dr. Skousen is a perfectly intelligent, amiable person. I was citing Regnery Publishing as an indicator of distance from mainstream.

    Charles N. Steele (8:06PM): I noted this link as some indication that Cato was involved in economic policy “research”. In addition, the one time I visited Cato, the talk was on economics, so I thought that they were involved in economic research as well as general libertarian advocacy.

  11. Ricardo

    The same Mark Skousen who holds a sold out FreedomFest of over 2,500 participants every summer in Las Vegas. You should check out the list of Keynote speakers, then browse the other speakers. You may not recognize a lot of the names because many actually run successful businesses. Your favorite whipping boy, Don Luskin, will be there.

  12. Eric

    You’re missing the RAND Corporation (maybe you don’t consider it a think tank?), which had 3 participants in ASSA 2012, and a whopping 8 participants in ASSA 2011. This would mean RAND would have 5.5 average participants — more than any other think tank you list.

  13. ben claassen

    Since these replies are coming from so many “thinkers” in the tank, I struggle with a question that some of you may weigh in on. For the general piblic, TIME magazine just ran a story with Warren Buffet’s “short order position on economic policy”. His positions are opposite most Republican views. Are the “thinkers” equally divided? Are many thinkers just thinking what they are told by their backers? As a scientist, I understand global warming and almost all scientists agree that CO2 creates a greenhouse effect. Is Warren mostly right–no lowering of corp tax, possible oil tax, higher tax for higher income, for more, read the Time article.

  14. Menzie Chinn

    Ricardo: The point is not that the people aren’t famous — I’m sure they are. The point is location near mainstream economics.

    Eric: I consider RAND a think tank, but one that does projects for clients more so than the others. However, I am happy to revise the graphs. If you were to generate new ones, I would post them. Of coures, there are others I did not even search for which might be usefully included as well, and if you were to do a more comprehensive search, I would be much obliged.

  15. Eric

    Menzie: I may revise the tables later this week (now is not a great day to do so, with Wikipedia down), but I think at the very least the number of participants should be normalized to the number of academic employees each think tank has. This may be difficult in some instances, as I know some think tanks are merely mastheads and sources of grant funding, without permanent academic staff.

  16. Menzie Chinn

    Eric: OK, look forward to it. By the way, ASSA2011 and ASSA2012 are online, so you can search those electronically, as long as you have a list of think tanks in mind.

    I agree some sort of normalization would be nice; the problem is some are more economics-oriented than others. For instance, both Brookings and AEI cover security, foreign policy, social policy as well as economics, while CEPR and EPI are almost completely economics-oriented. So one might want to normalize by size of issue-area, for instance.

  17. Ricardo

    My point is that in today’s climate of mainstream economic failure, “mainstream economic academic” may not be a label all would like to wear. I would dare say that more of the speakers at FreedomFest saw the 2008 crash and wrote about it than speakers at AEA.

  18. Steven Kopits

    Lutz is certainly a fine economist and nice guy to boot. He makes important contributions to the field of oil and the economy.
    Now, Lutz argues a narrow point at the ASSA proceeding: macro news and oil prices.
    But there are much bigger issues in play:
    If we allow that US oil consumption is and will be in secular decline, then what is the impact on the economy? (On this topic, see my 2009 article, “Peak Oil Economics” or BP’s “Energy Outlook to 2030″, issued today, p. 22, col “OECD Declines”,
    Anon accused me two posts ago (and not without some justification) of playing loose with the concept of positive externalities. So I went back to check the numbers, and it looks to me–back of the envelope basis–that the multiplier for oil is on the order of 10-12 if oil is a binding constraint (and today it is). Thus, an additional barrel of oil has a positive externality equal to 9-11 times beyond its internalized value to the individual. Do I believe that? Not sure, but that’s an absolutely critical number to peg down. And I would guess it’s pretty high, and if it is, that should take center stage at the AEA meeting. Because then you end up arguing that growth is materially constrained without incremental oil; and that shale oil and gas are the difference between the US and Europe in the second half of last year. You’ll start looking hard at the prospects for those shales (BP, p 84) and consider CNG and LNG for use as a transportation fuel (just the exercise I’m conducting for a client today). I’d expect to see presentations on those topics. And I might expect to see a presentation entitled, “Will Peak Oil Kill the Welfare State?” or “Are European Fuel Taxes Sustainable?” And further, one might expect to see a presentation about the difference between demand-constrained modeling, where you’re solving primarily for volumes; and supply-constrained modeling, where you’re solving primarily for prices with significant demand-side adjustment. (Most economists operate under the de facto assumption that supply is demand-determined, thus a supply-constrained model is alien to their mindset.) I didn’t find any topics like these on the ASSA agenda.
    So I stand by my statement. The AEA is largely uninformed about oil and the economy. Frankly, the profession as a whole remains heavily dependent on Jim’s individual work. Once you start digging to see who knows about this topic, the road inevitably seems to take you back to him. I didn’t see his name on the agenda at the ASSA meeting either.

  19. Lance

    Peterson is sort of an outlier. Most of the fellows that represented them are either well-published academics or well-known in policy circles. (Mussa, Reinhart, Gagnon).
    It’s interesting to note that Hall & Judd were identified as apart of the Hoover Institute.

  20. Menzie Chinn

    Steven Kopits: Well, first, Lutz has another paper on the program which is more “real”. Second, there is specialization – I suspect much of what you are searching for is at the International Association of Energy Economists, or Association of Environmental and Resource Economics. But we are far afield — in terms of economics (micro, macro, int’l trade and finance), the question was how far these thinks tanks were from the mainstream (and note, I didn’t tabulate RFF).

  21. Menzie Chinn

    Lance: I did not tabulate persons with joint affiliation with a university, when the university appointment is the primary affiliation(e.g., Hall). But Judd would’ve counted as one individual for Hoover, had I tabulated the Hoover Institution.

  22. Anonymous

    Professor Chinn-
    Regarding your use of “mainstream economics” as your polestar, I am reminded of a quote attributed to Gen. George Patton:
    “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”
    Heterdoxy does not guarantee truth, it may be the work of cranks. But there is a powerful impulse to be with the herd and invoking mainstream anything is just a way of dismissing arguments without any real effort. It’s just an example of an ad hominem attack.
    Happy New Year!

  23. Menzie Chinn

    Rich Berger: As I recall, ad hominem means personal. It is not a personal attack to say somebody has views different from others — just as it would not be a personal attack to say a forecaster is high in the distribution. It would be a personal attack to say somebody is stupid and malevolent for being high in the distribution — or far away from the mainstream. I did not make either of those claims.

    Rather, I made an objective statement regarding presence at ASSA, combined with a conjecture about distance from mainstream.

    Happy New Year!

  24. Rich Berger

    From wikipedia
    An ad hominem (Latin for “to the man” or “to the person”), short for argumentum ad hominem, is an attempt to negate the truth of a claim by pointing out a negative characteristic or belief of the person supporting it.
    I think “not in the mainstream” meets the bill. I still like General Patton’s view of the mainstream.

  25. Rich Berger

    Fair enough. I also believe that to dissent effectively, you have to understand what you are dissenting from.
    Not sure if that is grammatically correct, but you know what I mean.

  26. Charles N. Steele

    One additional thought: I suspect the method used to count participants affiliations is flawed. My impression is that Brookings, say, has a staff of in house researchers who would list Brookings as their affiliation in the program. Institutions built on a different model, e.g. Cato, tend to have researchers whose primary positions are elsewhere. I’m familiar with people who have written for Cato & AEI who list their university affiliations when they present/attend.
    I don’t know the extent of this issue, but my impression is that it would have a big effect for Cato, some for Brookings,perhaps very little for Heritage… but it makes me quite suspicious of drawing any conclusion at all from thse data.

  27. Charles N. Steele

    Interesting, & thanks. So now I wonder if checking Brookings would show you’ve understated the case, and also what a multi-year analysis would show.
    I think attendance may be an indicator of how seriously engaged one is. Whether it says anything about “location near mainstream” is doubtful, given the participation of URPE and some other heterodoxists.
    Regardless, I think its a mistake for economists of any flavor to not participate in the meetings.

  28. Julian Silk

    This is a response to Menzie Chinn’s response to my comments. I have been to many of the ASSA sessions, except for this year’s one in Chicago (because of a severe accident) and a stretch during the 1990s, since starting graduate school in 1980. The papers in all the sessions were like these in Denver, so for me, it was a typical point and pretty close to the average. Of course Menzie Chinn is correct if we are just talking about the presentations themselves – there is no time to go into detail in those. But in the discussion, when there is time, especially if one of the presenters is not there, which often happens, a scientific approach would be to go into the nuts and bolts of the presentations. If there are dummy variables, you would want to show what difference they make and above all, show the data in detail, and make it clear to an unbiased viewer that your conclusions really were driven by the data. The ASSA presentations are probably the best you are going to get on a profession-wide basis, but they do not approach that standard. In the small sessions, usually there is a somewhat self-selected group: the people of a relatively conservative bent who are publishing in the mainstream journals like the Journal of Macroeconomics in one room, and the old Keynesians in another. In discussing multipliers, they are discussing the same topic, but they do not really address each other. In energy, with which I am somewhat more familiar, the situation is even more disparate. Fereidoon Sioshansi, who is a good guy, let me stress, and many others at the USAEE Conferences, who are also very good, are not really trying to meet the arguments of the people at Platts’ Coal Marketing Days, and neither are really confronting the arguments of the people at the Carbon Capture and Sequestration conferences. So the conferences, in general, though as good as you are going to get in terms of a scientific approach, really aren’t similar to what you imagine when you read about the Solvay conferences in physics in the 1920s.

  29. Chris Banners

    Very interesting results and development. A small update: “The University of Pennsylvania “Global Go To Think Tank Rankings” places the Brookings Institution first among more than 6,300 think tanks evaluated worldwide. The annual report places Chatham House first in a separate category for the best think tanks in the world outside the U.S.
    “The Global Go To Think Tank Rankings,” launched in 2006, has become an authoritative source for the top public policy research institutes in the world. The newest rankings are based on a 2012 global survey of 300 scholars and experts. The panel nominated and ranked nearly 400 organizations.
    James G. McGann, assistant director of Penn’s International Relations Program and director of the Think Tanks and Civil Society Program at Penn, compiled the survey.”
    Though I’ve to confess I’ve never been a big fan if Mr. McGann.

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