Think Tanks in the Economics Profession (II)

Updating last year’s post, indicators via representation at the (now ongoing) Allied Social Sciences Association meetings.


Figure 1: 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 2013, 2012, 2011 and author’s tabulations.

Note that these are people presenting or presiding on panels, not just attending (and not “at the booths”).


Some patterns remain constant over time. The first is that Brookings* remains at the top of the list, with Urban and Peterson** coming up close behind. The second is that Heritage and Manhattan remain completely unrepresented.


The pattern could be explained by the fact that these institutions do not have the funds to support travel to conferences, as universities sometimes do. However, this does not explain the paucity of representation by Heritage (note I am referring to the nonlobbying arm of Heritage). As noted by Roll Call:

The Heritage Foundation also uses congressional travel to promote its polices, focusing in particular on the House Republican Study Committee, the conservative wing of the Republican caucus.
A representative described a retreat last January in Philadelphia as “a 50,000-foot extended dissertation” on the organization’s principles. It cost Heritage more than $50,000 to send 40 members and a handful of staffers on the three-day visit to the City of Brotherly Love, where they attended panels and visited the Liberty Bell.
In 2011, Heritage spent almost $125,000 to fly about 50 lawmakers and a few staffers — along with spouses and other family members — to a Simi Valley, Calif., retreat at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library.

For more on the blurring lines, see Bruce Bartlett.
Disclosures: * Employed by Brookings, 1983-84. ** PIIE Academic Advisory Board member.

25 thoughts on “Think Tanks in the Economics Profession (II)

  1. 2slugbaits

    You see this same thing in other disciplines, not just economics. For example, at last summer’s Military Operations Research Society Symposium (MORSS), many of the 1500 attendees were defense contractors and people from various defense think tanks. The defense contractors were big on booths and displays, but short on actual technical OR papers. Virtually all of the technical papers and the ensuing panel discussions came from military/civilian government analysts, or from professors at one of the military/naval academies, or from one of the well-known non-profit think tanks (Brookings, RAND, LMI, etc.). There were very few (if any) of the right-wing pseudo-think tanks that typically “inform” congressional staffers. They had their booths, but no real papers. Of course, it could be a case of selection bias since government analysts could only attend if they had a technical paper to present. Still, the gap in technical understanding was kind of hard to miss. I guess those right-wing pseudo-think tanks have to depend on C-SPAN coverage of their events.

  2. Rich Berger

    Would that the Obama administration were as prudent in its expenditures. I’d say this is a smart move on the part of Heritage and Cato.

  3. Mike

    EPI and CEPR should be combined into one, no? Plus, most of those research institutes don’t account for much. The Brooksings and Urban are “leading” research institutes, but hardly have the brass to tackle today’s economic and political problems.
    The only real institutes willing to tackle today’s economics problems is the EPI/CEPR.

  4. Mike

    My comment was not spam. It is funny that you allow Rich Berger to post his ridiculous ideas on spending while filtering out mine.
    I am getting tired of repeating myself, but we do have a spending problem. We are not spending enough on public infrastructure and state and local employment.
    In fact, our austerity measurements are harming us. Spending on goods and services is down since Obama took office.
    Total Spending has stagnated.
    But we do have a growth problem and austerity measures are largely self defeating by hampering economic recovery. Firing school teachers for a recession largely caused by the shadow banking seems foolish.
    Anyways, I am done rambling. However, I found it amusing that you considered me a troll at first that needed filtering while you give people like Rich Berger the freedom to post nonsense.
    Obviously, you have an agenda to push.
    Take care.

  5. Menzie Chinn

    A gentle reminder that Jim and I are not always able to approve comments promptly. Sometimes we sleep, sometimes we are in conferences, sometimes we are on airplanes without wireless. Hence, there may be times when your comments are delayed in posting. Rest assured we are not filtering; for my part, I have deleted only three comments in seven years, for the use of racist comments or expletives.

  6. Mike

    Then why are you acting irrational? The benefits of pursing this blog for almost a decade cannot exceed the the 3 comment you have deleted due to racism or expletives.
    Seriously, you have been monitoring this blog for seven years straight to pick up on one racist or expletive comment?
    While I have nothing against this fact, I would hardly claim it as a victory for neoclassical victory. In fact, it supports the Institutional school. Institutions matter.

  7. Ricardo

    Menzie and Jim have never deleted one of my posts and I am not their greatest supporter, just ask Menzie.

  8. Ricardo

    The pattern could be explained by the fact that these institutions do not have the funds to support travel to conferences, as universities sometimes do.
    Yahoo! Let’s hear it for your tax dollar at work. Our government has plenty of money for such conferences, just ask the GSA, you will probably find them in Las Vegas, and the CIA and Secret Service. Let’s see, the last time I saw them I think they were in Cartagena weren’t they? I mean, it is not like our government is running a deficit or something.

  9. pete

    Is there anything comparable on peer reviewed research by the guys at any of these institutes? Like in “A” level econ journals (AER, JPE, QJE, Econometrica, etc.)? A lot of them put out think pieces which they call research. E.g., Heritage is given credit for inventing the Affordable Care act, but that is not really “research”. Dean Baker writes some stuff, seems to be decent analysis, but I don’t think he tries to get it published these days.
    My impression of folks at these institutes is that they generally have a political agenda, rather than a genuine academic curiosity. That probably comes from the funding, whether it is the AFLCIO, George Soros, the Kochs, or whoever. More likely than not they cannot make tenure at quality academic institutions. The pay at these institutes is probably better than at a 4 year teaching college. Do the math. I always google- scholar search when somebody I have not heard of writes something controversial to see if they have any peer-reviewed credibility.

  10. 2slugbaits

    Steven Kopits Yes, even though friends and former professors of mine write for Reason maganzine, my advice is to take a lot of what they say with a grain of salt. Try this just hot off the press today:
    Report: U.S. Health Spending Grew At Record Slow Pace For Third Consecutive Year

  11. Anon

    I can’t speak for the right wing thing tanks, but I know salaries ford PhDs at left wing think tanks such as EPI, CAP, and CEPR are way under market rates (think 20-40% under).
    Also, having worked with many of these people, I can assure you that they can and did work at academic institutions, and would have had no problem making tenure – but they chose to work in policy. And a lot of them took pay cuts to do it.

  12. pete

    Anon: I think we differ on the pay interpretation. I suggested 4 year college pay, not a Phd granting institution pay, which probably differ a whole lot. In finance, e.g., 4 year college pay, or cal state u. pay, is about 50% of top rookie finance pay (over $200K). Top schools require 4 or even 5 “A” publications (limited to 3-5 journals) within 6 years for tenure. I have never seen anything like that in these institutional economists, or say bank chief economists. So, I agree, they probably do not make top pay, likely a bit over a 4 year college salary, and from what I have seen generally do not publish “A” level papers…and probably started in Academia and didn’t make the cut. It’s not a life for everyone and these institutional jobs offer security without publish or perish fear. My point was that it is hard to judge the credentials when the work is not subject to hard peer review, even if they do pop up at the ASSA or other meetings from time to time.

  13. Anon

    Agreed on the credentials/peer review point.
    More directly to my point, starting salaries for freshly minted PhD economists at progressive think tanks are under 100k.

  14. Menzie Chinn

    Rich Berger: Thank you for your remarkably anti-intellectual/anti-expertise comment. I believe that readers, upon seeing your comment, will now fully understand why you say the things you do. Once again, than you for your comment; it was (and remains) highly illuminating.

  15. Menzie Chinn

    Rich Berger: Your comment 1/4 12PM:

    Would that the Obama administration were as prudent in its expenditures. I’d say this is a smart move on the part of Heritage and Cato.

  16. Menzie Chinn

    Rich Berger: You suggest that attending professional conferences is a waste of money for economists. Would you say the same of engineers, and physicists, and biologists? That strikes me as anti-intellectual.

  17. Rich Berger

    No, Professor Chinn, I do not suggest that attending professional conferences is necessarily a waste of time, or a good use of time (and money). You pick and choose which ones are of interest to you. Looking at the program, I could certainly see sessions that would be of little interest to AEI/Cato/Heritage (e.g. Behavioral Approaches to Adoption of Green Technologies, Gender in Corporate Leadership), others that might (Housing Bubbles: Theory and Evidence). I pick and choose which professional conferences I attend, based on what I will learn, who I might meet and where the conference is being held. I also consider my employer’s expenses in choosing what to attend.
    My view is that economics is primarily about choices under conditions of scarcity. You try to use your resources wisely.

  18. Menzie Chinn

    Rich Berger: I agree that maybe Heritage already has the revealed faith so it need not attend these sessions: “Macroeconomic Aspects of Taxation Policy”, “New Perspectives on Optimal Income Taxation”, “Public Goods Provision and the State”, “The Federal Income Tax at 100”, “Measuring Poverty in the United States: The Supplemental Poverty Measure”, “Heterogeneity of Income Responses to Taxation”, “Estate and Gift Taxation”, “Optimal Taxation and Social Insurance”, “Taxes”, “Global Macro Policy and the Great Recession”.

  19. Rich Berger

    Will the transcripts/presentations/video/audio or the underlying papers for the sessions you cited be available after the meeting?

  20. Menzie Chinn

    Rich Berger: As far as I can tell, only a minority. See this link (by the way, that was not an exhaustive list — it was just the tax policy sessions; Heritage holds forth on many other economic topics). Only a few webcasts are available, none for the sessions I mentioned; see here.

    I know personally I have sometimes presented papers at ASSA that were never put online/published (to my chagrin). I certainly have never published my discussions of papers.

    I hope this places in context the point that the internet is not (yet) a substitute for actual in-person interaction.

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