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What do think tanks think?

Auguste Rodin’sThe Thinker is universally regarded as a symbol of science and philosophy. But Rodin originally called it The Poet as a detail of a larger work known as The Gates of Hell to be used as an entrance to a Parisian museum. Neither the museum nor the bronze doors — the Gates of Hell — were built.

Rodin was born in 1840 and died in 1917. In 1848 eight years after his birth, Karl Marx wrote The Manifesto of the Communist Party. In the year of Rodin’s death in 1917, communism swept away the Romanov dynasty and changed the world forever.

For more than a century scientists, philosophers, poets and artists – like The Thinker — pondered these and other events. But a strange phenomenon which evolved in the 1970s, irrevocably changed the way citizens think.

A coterie of American business people came up with an idea to outsource critical thinking. Though not new, the notion was informed by free-market philosophy. Decades on and think tanks impact our lives almost without our knowledge.

George Lakoff an adviser to the U.S Democrat Party published a book entitled Don’t Think of an Elephant. Lakoff has also penned at least seven other books, but Don’t Think of an Elephant goes to the heart of the conservative think tank movement.

Lakoff traces the history of modern think tank to Nixon-era America. The US was wracked by the obscenity of the Vietnam War, and capitalism in genuine peril. During this seminal time, America’s best and brightest turned away from traditional conservative business pursuits.

Lewis Powell, a doyen of the conservative movement, wrote to the US Chamber of Commerce encouraging the business community to endow professorships and institutes at major American universities. Powell also called for the establishment of lavishly funded private foundations for hand-picked scholars. These foundations would provide their ‘fellows’ the tools to conduct research for subsequent publication in journals and magazines. Powell argued the US business community should own the means of publication and take control of media and communications. Sound familiar? The model has boomed over the last 50 years.

So how does a think tank work? As a cognitive scientist, Lakoff is an expert in the mechanisms behind the framing of public discourse. Consider a ‘frame’ as a conceptual structure. Lakoff uses the simple notion of a bottle. Look at one and you think liquid. No real effort involved. Next, frame a public discourse, let’s say, ‘we must follow the law,’ or as Malcolm Turnbull said, “and the court shall so hold”. But before the discourse is unleashed, a phalanx of media and communications strategists, book expensive TV and radio airtime and ensure acres of coverage in the slower print media. Behold. The rationale is rolled out to an unsuspecting public. Consider programmes such as Q&A and The Drum on ABC TV, talk shows on 2GB in Sydney and its equivalents around the country, or The Project on the TEN Network, not to mention different radio programmes on ABC Radio National and Sky after Dark.

Nowadays the media is awash with think tankers. Gerard Henderson, Parnell McGuinness, Georgina Downer to name a few from the right. From the left, we have Jenny Hocking, Stephen Fitzgerald, and Margaret Wilson, and in the centre, Ben Oquist of the Australia Institute There is the Sydney Institute, the Whitlam and Chifley institutes and Tom Switzer of the Centre for Independent Studies. But the stellar performer of Australian think tanks is the Institute of Public Affairs led by its Magister Ludi, John Roskam.

The IPA website proclaims it, “accepts no government funding, and is supported by thousands of individual members and donors; your tax-deductible donation to IPA research will ensure the IPA remains a loud voice for freedom in Australia”.

The IPA which, like its American counterparts, recruits the best and brightest, (IPA staff list here ) is in my opinion, a defacto policy arm of the state and liberal governments. Over the years Liberal government sacked independent public servants who routinely applied SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis to policy development.

The IPA is the antithesis of Rodin’s vision of science and philosophy. If you are sceptical about my claim, read Jennifer Marohasy’s critique of the Bureau of Meteorology. This clap-trap is just one missile in the institute’s arsenal of weapons deployed in the on-going war against climate change science.

The nation’s greatest publicly funded think tank the Australian Broadcasting Corporation remains in the crosshairs of the right. And Australian universities are not far behind. Somehow the Australian National University managed to survive a right-wing onslaught led by Tony Abbott on behalf of the Ramsay Centre, to establish a degree course in western civilization.

Expect more of the same.

If think tanks continue to presume to dictate the national philosophical and scientific agenda, it is only fair their financial backers are exposed to public scrutiny. Thus if the IPA’s Darcy Allen is prepared to argue The Case for Personal Income Tax Cuts (IPA, 5 December 2015) it follows the status of think tank tax-deductibility should be scrutinised by the Australian Tax Office. Consider this gem by Darcy Allen, albeit out of context; Australia would do well to make our income tax system more simple and transparent – clearing out our attic of special interests. Special interests indeed!

The time is at hand for Australians to think for ourselves rather than outsource our cognitive discourses to privately funded institutions, which do the bidding of unnamed and unseen patrons.

Henry Johnston is a Sydney-based author. His latest book, The Last Voyage of Aratus is on sale here

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  1. paul walter

    Geez, just noticed the pic. Quintessential preppie
    idiocy on stilts.


    There have many comments over the years as to who funds rubbish like the IPA and the names mentioned are all big-time oligarchs with a vested interest in keeping this country as dumb as possible and ever riper for plunder even when this threatens the very viability of our nation.

    Sounds a bit like GB or the USA in miniature, doesn’t it, something they might have cooked up over a few tinnies at the end of Davos barbecue.

    They could well split this country in two, given the control they have over WA and QLD and the rest is really just a neolib privatised wasteland anyway.

    Australia is under attack from something equating to a foreign power, but what and who this is is only dimly unconscious guessed at by the public.

  2. Miriam

    IPA: Insidious Polarizing Arseholes

  3. Kyran

    “So how does a think tank work? As a cognitive scientist, Lakoff is an expert in the mechanisms behind the framing of public discourse. Consider a ‘frame’ as a conceptual structure.”
    That’s the part that confuses me no end. Two competing principles are interwoven, then sold as one entity.
    A ‘think tank’ is not new and its purpose is not complicated. It is meant to be a forum in which thoughts and ideas are tested, refined, improved upon. It is meant to be rigorous testing, devoid of ideology. The general concept being to transition from an idea to a practice. The origins go way back, but not merely decades. As always, it was the conflict between ‘church’ and ‘state’ that needed rigorous testing.

    “Soll notes that “in Europe, the origins of think tanks go back to the 800s, when emperors and kings began arguing with the Catholic Church about taxes. A tradition of hiring teams of independent lawyers to advise monarchs about their financial and political prerogatives against the church spans from Charlemagne all the way to the 17th century, when the kings of France were still arguing about whether they had the right to appoint bishops and receive a cut of their income.”
    “The oldest American think tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was founded in Washington DC in 1910 by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie charged trustees to use the fund to “hasten the abolition of international war, the foulest blot upon our civilization”.”

    Almost without exception, the groups referred to in your article are not think tanks, but PR firms that have no higher ambition than to ‘frame public discourse’. It is the very antithesis of thought. It is little more than an extension of what is laughingly referred to as the Canberra Press Gallery (PG), a group that seeks to embed themselves in the reporting of their political bedmates. It is interesting that many of the conveners of the think tanks mentioned also regard themselves as journalists.
    H.L. Mencken is quoted as saying “The relationship between the journalist and the politician should mirror that of the dog and the lamp post.” Whilst it allows for a certain contempt, it ignores the obvious, that the two are mutually reliant upon each other in a transactional environment.
    There are many different types of journalists in the real world who, like a good think tank, will question everything rigorously. There are remarkably few in the PG. This link is a handy compendium of journalistic attributes, not so much their merits. Such diversity is absent in our PG, being mostly occupied by sycophantic mendicants.

    Like the think tanks, the media works by ‘framing’ a story, shaping how it is covered when it is first published. The way it is projected initially stays in peoples minds to a large degree and, to that extent, it can be controlled. The problem with that historical reality is this internetty thingy that has enabled a story to travel in different directions after its release. That is the power that the MSM are losing and have been incredibly slow to deal with.
    First Dog had a bit to say on it this morning.

    What do think tanks think? Regrettably, most of them don’t. They merely exist to tell everyone else what not to think. You’re spot on the money, Mr Walter.
    Thank you Mr Johnston. Take care

  4. Kaye Lee

    IPA: Ignominious Puerile Amateurs? Irrelevant Political Aspirants? Ideological Parroting Acolytes?

  5. DrakeN

    Kaye, my homebrewed IPA (India Pale Ale) is much more palatable,- no dregs (of society) and a decent ‘head’ with it 😉

  6. Bracket Creep

    IPA ? Equals Instigative Ploying Avariciousness

    Ignorant Parroting Evasives

  7. Kronomex

    What do think tanks think if think tanks could think thinks?
    Got it, they think one party rule over a country because only THEY know what is good for the lower classes and peasants.

    “Intensely Posh Arseholes”?

  8. Kronomex

    “Inbred Political Aberrations”

  9. Zathras

    Most so-called “Think Tanks” are mainly the mouthpieces and PR fronts for their financial sponsors.

    Contrary to belief, these don’t look at solutions to problems, they look at ways they can implement their intended strategies and make them fit the problem at hand.

    Groups like the IPA are there to primarily promote smaller government, less taxes and more deregulation and tend to sit quietly until they can announce those as remedies to whatever problem is at hand. If they don’t fit as answers, they usually remain quiet. is a good overview of the local players in the game. Some are just subsidiaries of overseas ones.

  10. Andrew Smith

    New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, author of ‘Dark Money’, has become an expert on think tanks and done numerous panel discussions including the following, ‘The Koch Brothers and the Weaponizing of Philanthropy’ via Ethics in Society at Stanford

    While the focus is contemporary and especially on the Kochs, one of the panelists Lucy Bernholz describes in more historical terms the ‘architecture of influence’ that has informed the Kochs including Rockefeller, Ford, Carnegie, Morgan et al. Mayer has especially recognised the Rockefeller Foundation role in manipulating government:

    ‘While much of Dark Money is focused on the activities and lives of the Kochs, Mayer also takes a wide lensed, historical view of the origins of the financial takeover of US politics. After John D. Rockefeller unsuccessfully lobbied President Teddy Roosevelt’s early twentieth-century administration for amendments to federal tax law, changes at New York’s state-level legislature in the 1920s eventually led to the creation of the Rockefeller foundation.

    Rockefeller’s changes meant that ‘philanthropic’ activity became a tax-deductible expense: if a US citizen wants to donate $1 million to a ‘charity’ of their choosing, they can then deduct this amount from their tax bill. The definition of philanthropic activity is so broad that in effect it becomes a choice between paying taxes or donating to a cause, creating what Mayer describes as ‘weaponised philanthropy’.

    Book Review: Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer

    While one may never hear of or pay much attention to the Rockefellers et al. nowadays, there is still quiet influence beyond Exxon Mobil (whose local subsidiary is ‘alleged’ to have supported the IPA), related to fossil fuels, ‘sustainability’ (& ‘resilience’), environment, urban design, and influence on city and local councils.

    Regarding the latter, both Melbourne and Sydney City Councils have ‘Resilience Managers’ funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and involves RMIT University

    Further, there is ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability also supported by Rockefeller Foundation, which includes up to 30 councils in Australia. Begs the question, what influence does this network offer to philanthropists, at best it seems to be PR or green washing?

  11. lawrence winder

    IPA …..The Coots-With-Queer-Ideas-From-a-Parallel-Universe… An answer in search not only of the question but its ethics and morality.. a signal failure of democracy!
    And a correction: The Gates of Hell was cast (although the Musee Decoratif which it was commissioned for was never built) and one copy is in the Musee Rodin Paris, with two others in America and Japan…

  12. Kerri

    I would hope Darcy Allens “special interests” would include not only think tanks but religions as well.
    Special interests are in the, often idealogical, eye of the beholder.

  13. Winston

    IPA Iniquitous. Psychopathical. Ignoramuses

  14. Kerri

    @Paul Walter consider this?
    Australian population close to 25,000,000
    IPA membership 4559
    Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting donated $4.5 million to the organisation over a two-year period.
    Gina’s donations amounted to one third in one year and close to one half for the other.
    So who owns the government?
    @Kaye Lee Institute of Paid Advocacy?
    @Zathras spot on.

  15. John Hermann

    In a nutshell, so-called think tanks are not about thinking, they are about propaganda.

  16. Diannaart

    John Hermann

    Think Tanks; Repositories of Rhetoric, places where ideas either die or are transmuted, not into gold, but hyperbole.

  17. John Wilson

    I am suspicious of the think tanks of today. Usually funded by a vested interest who want to find a way to establish a certain outcome.

    On the other hand they cannot be considered as brain storming that also is looking at a certain outcome, e.g. the best result using the skills and knowledge without bias of all who provide input.

    I used that process in a business I was involved. As the business relied on its workers; people who knew the day to day work involved. The workers relied on the success of the business to ensure security and satisfaction of thei employment.

    One chap started to say “I’ve a good idea…ahhhh….. no it is stupid”. I suggested that we make a rule and that was there were no stupid ideas. Maybe not viable in the present format but throw them into the ring for discussion. Maybe someone will see it and say well it may not work that way……. However, if we change this or that it can work. That is the concept of brainstorming; an exchange of ideas and views that can be discussed, debated and finally refined to produce a good outcome.

    Do Polticians do that? Doubtful.

    Besides polticians have outsourced policy and authority to unelected people behind the scenes who have a different agenda than working for the lawful government; the people.

  18. paul walter

    Andrew Smith’s comment is a gem and pairs with Kyran’s earlier posting.

    Kerri, It is true that there are darker, longer shadows more involved with IPA over a very long time. Rinehart is a fellow traveller of folk even more powerful than she is.

  19. stephengb

    On several occasions I have highlighted the Lewis Powell memorandum of the 23 Feb 1971, to the American Chamber of Commerce. I did this in conjunction with the phrase “Neoliberal Agenda”, because having read the memorandum I recognised the historical rise of think tanks dedicated to the so called “Free Market”.

    Thank you Mr Johnston for articulating what I could not.

    Meanwhile I found a Facebook discussion to which I responded as follows:
    There are two absolutely fundamental issues prevalent in at least the US, the UK and Australia and these are:
    1. Party politics and their drive for power at all costs.
    2. Corporate greed and the any length they will go to influance government policy.

    I recall being involved in a number brain storming sessions, to discover (to my shame) that the leader of the brainstorming session steered the ideas of the participants to a predetermined outcome! I have been wary of such tools ever since.

    Incidently I am aware of the so called Risk Management tools (brainstorming risk factors) where input facts were manipulated to reduce the output risk factor, to that suited to management’s preferred intentions.

    As stupid as it inevetably is,Think Tanks, Brain Storming and Risk Management have little to do with anything other than manipulation for an intended outcome.


  20. paul walter

    The ABC report from Andrew Probyn last night gave is a glimpse of the country is actually run anyway with Stokes and Murdoch as two individuals behind the undermining of this country by powerful people pulling strings in the shadows.

    Background influences and shadowy treaties involving offshore interests mentioned in the Guardian report this morning on Labor consternation at the leaking of FTA details, details one might have thought Australians need to know about first and foremost their lives emphasise just how feeble politics is in this country.

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