The American Enterprise Institute is one of the best known of the numerous conservative "think tanks." On its rolls are 86 "scholars" and numerous "researchers" ready to tackle every subject imaginable -- economics, education, Iraq, health care -- you just name it. The kind of thinking that incubates there can been summed up in the names of the most prominent members: Gingrich, Wolfowitz, Bolton, Cheney. With that sort of "scholarship" at its heart, there's little surprise that AEI spends a lot of its time making studies that refute climate change, support massive military expenditures, cheer for preemptive conflict, and encourage deregulation of all sorts. In short, they're the purest distillation of the philosophy expressed in the Bush administration. The carriers of the neocon flame.
And if you think the utter refutation of all of these positions -- on every field from the laboratory to the marketplace -- would turn AEI into the kind of laughingstock that an organization proven wrong on every point deserves, you obviously haven't read a paper, turned on a radio, or glanced at a television.
You want someone to complain about feminists? You could bring in Christina Sommers, who has written numerous books about how feminists are just so damn feminist. Or maybe you'd prefer Harvey Mansfield come in to talk about the decline of "manliness" and how Ivy League colleges have been ruined by affirmative action. Or Desmond Lachman can drop by to tell you why the United States is becoming a third world nation. Alex Brill can explain how Democrats actually passed "the mother of all tax hikes" in 2007. You can even get insight into the polls from Karlyn Bowman, critical insight, such as how Katrina had no effect on Bush's popularity.
Just name the topic and the American Enterprise Institute has someone ready to go. The trouble is -- far, far too often, the media is ready to take them up on it.
After all, going out and finding an actual expert on a topic -- someone whose work is respected, someone who comes equipped with numbers and... what are they called... oh, yeah facts -- locating someone like that can be ... what's that term... work. Why should you try to find someone who knows what they're talking about when the AEI will deliver a bright and shiny conservative to your door, complete with the title "scholar" and a suitably vague area of expertise that's sure to stretch far enough to cover any topic?
How often does AEI succeed in getting the conservative message spread as "expert comentary?" It's hard to be exact. After all, some of their members include Newt Gingrich and Lynn Cheney, who turn up on the tube simply for their celebrity. Others, like former UN ambassador John Bolton, turn up in the news often enough that it's hard to pick out their on air appearances from discussion about their activities for the previous administration. So to be fair, let's just leave them out. No Newt, no lesbian fanfic writer, no walrus heartthrob. We'll even leave out characters like former Assistant Secretary of State, Roger Noriega, who frequently appeared in the media as a spokesmen for the W crew.
What do we get if we look at a media outlet, say the supposedly liberal-friendly NPR? Based on the information from NPR's web page, 70 of the 86 people currently listed as scholars at AEI have had air time on NPR over the last eight years. If you omit the people who were either members of the Bush administration, or elected officials you still have 63 AEI pundits got attention from NPR. Not only that, but 16 of them made over a dozen appearances. In total, they got their say on public radio over 600 times over that period. That's over 600 times that your tax dollars, and the contributions to your local station, helped AEI press the neocon message.
And that's far from all the programs that people generally think of as NPR. It doesn't include shows produced by American Public Media. It doesn't include the pundit chats on Dianne Rehm (whose show featured speakers from the American Enterprise Institute 181 times, all on its own). It doesn't include the corporate-friendly Marketplace where David Frum is a regular.
Let's take a look at just the last few weeks on a public radio station to see what kind of wisdom was provided by AEI alumni.
Why were France and Germany reluctant to up their stimulus spending? If you think it's because they already have strong safety nets for their people and tougher regulation of their industry, you're wrong. It's because they've learned that big government is bad and embraced conservatism! You only have to reference David Frum on Marketplace.
For 20 years, Europe has attempted to combat unemployment with very high levels of public spending. What they have got out of the experiment is crushing taxation, ominous debts and not much of a bite out of the unemployment problem. It baffles leaders in France and Germany that the United States would volunteer to inflict these policy errors on itself at just the moment when France and Germany are struggling to undo similar errors of their own. ... What the Obama administration is proposing for the United States is not a temporary stimulus but permanently higher spending, taxing and borrowing. Those who have tasted this medicine understand best how dangerous it is. At the G-20, perhaps President Obama should lecture less and listen more.
You may have the mistaken impression that American auto makers spent two decades trying to milk the most out of each vehicle sale by building huge SUVs, and failed to develop efficient vehicles that would interest consumers when oil prices became erratic. You might think auto execs were more interested in their golden parachutes than customer satisfaction. Wrong again. As AEI's Kevin Hassett was ready to tell you on Marketplace, it was the unions' fault the industry was in trouble and Democratic obeisance to the unions that's keeping us from fixing the problem.
President Obama has a huge political debt to the unions and that's why he's avoiding the obvious solution to the auto crisis. ... GM is in deep trouble mostly because the United Auto Workers have festooned the company with rigid work rules and extravagant costs. The 2007 collective-bargaining agreement, for example, required the automaker to pay up to $140,000 in severance to a worker whose position was eliminated. And that is nothing compared to the enormous health-care costs these companies are laden with. The average cost of employing a worker at the Big Three, including benefits, was nearly twice that of Japanese automakers. No wonder the automakers are hemorrhaging cash.
Over on Diane Rehm, you could listen to Frederick Hess opine on how to save education. Or Norman Ornstein on earmark reform. Or Joseph Antos tell you that Obama's proposals won't reduce health care cost. Or NPR go to guy, David Frum on the future of the Republican Party (that program included the balanced panel of Frum, David Keene, Byron York, and Richard Viguerie -- apparently Democrats have no insight into Republicans, something to remember the next time Republicans are called on to explain where Democrats are going wrong). That was just March on Diane Rehm, and it was a typical month.
Morning Edition got you quotes from Rick Hess on how veteran teachers fight reform, from Tom Miller on health care, from Vincent Reinhart on the plan to purchase toxic assets.
Talk of the Nation provided economist Charles Calomiris, who is listed on AEI's site with the wonderful title of "Codirector of AEI's Financial Deregulation Project." Calomiris came to defend the bonuses at AIG and in the process provided what has to be the best quote of the whole economic meltdown.
What we need is, we need to compensate them so they stop losing money for us.
Honestly, what did you expect from the guy still heading up a deregulation program?
Not a bad few weeks for AEI in terms of getting their message on the air... and that's only NPR. It doesn't cover their success in getting their voice on CNN, on MSNBC, on the networks, on local radio, in newspapers. And yes on Fox.
The truth is, the American Enterprise Institute isn't a think tank, not in any conventional sense. The thoughts of its members were frozen a decade ago, and no amount of evidence will cause them to change one jot or tittle of their rigid ideology. AEI is a booking agency. A PR firm tasked with providing Republican "names" to fit any gap in your programming schedule.
For a media producer, AEI means you don't have to find someone who really knows a subject, or someone who has something new to say, or someone who might provide an unconventional angle. Why bother? One press of the speed dial, and AEI will deliver faster than Tony's Pizza. They'll give you someone who you already know is an experienced talking head, so you don't have to worry that a knowledgeable economist or teacher or scientist might turn out not to be a sparkling "on air personality." They'll deliver familiar talking points, so you know your host and other guests won't be challenged. They'll deliver reliably pro-corporate hard-right content which will serve to "balance" any program where the facts start to have that devious liberal slant.
In simple terms, AEI is an excuse for producers to be lazy. Calling them means that you place a higher value on filling time than providing information. It means ignoring the many connections that the unscholarly "scholars" have to other organizations and corporations. It means not minding that you're balancing progressive views with views that are simply and demonstrably wrong.
For public radio, who leans on AEI more than any other outlet, it's time to go on a diet. Really, these guys make you look good.