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AEI's Muzzled Scholars: An Apology and Clarification

26 Mar 2010
Posted by Bruce Bartlett

I wrote this morning that I would apologize to the American Enterprise Institute if it turned out that I misheard or misunderstood something I said that David Frum told me about its scholars not being allowed to publicly comment on elements of Obama’s health plan with which they agreed. Since then David has had this to say about our conversation:

Did AEI muzzle healthcare scholars? I fear that in reproducing in print a private conversation from some months ago, Bruce Bartlett made a transmission error. I did not report as fact that scholars were laboring under any restrictions. What I did say was that AEI was punching way below its weight in the healthcare debate. I wondered, not alleged, wondered, whether AEI scholars were constrained by fear of saying something that might get them into trouble. To repeat: this was something I asked many months ago in private conversation, not something I allege today in public debate.
Based on this clarification, I am now prepared to say publicly that I was wrong to claim that AEI was muzzling its scholars. It would have been much better if I had put my point the way New York University law professor Daniel Shaviro, who has been affiliated with AEI in the past, did:
Some rebuttals of the claim that AEI could have been muzzling its healthcare scholars note that, for example, [Columbia University economist] Glenn Hubbard has frequently and recently opined in print about healthcare reform. But, while Glenn has a long history of writing about healthcare in relation to the fiscal system, he would not have been among the people Frum would have had in mind. I won't name AEI's healthcare specialists here, but you can find their names on the AEI website, and I don't think they've had much to say publicly on the topic in the last couple of years, which is interesting and indeed surprising.

I'd also note that (a) when I met and talked with these individuals in connection with my Medicare book, it was clear they are serious people and straight shooters, not political hacks, (b) I would be surprised if they were NOT sympathetic to the approach of mandating health insurance coverage, given this idea's deep roots in (without restriction to) conservative, Republican, and generally pro-market circles, along with the fundamental argument in support of the mandate as a response to adverse selection (a central problem in promoting the general availability of adequate medical treatment).

In short, I see a compelling circumstantial case in favor of the claim of muzzling that Bartlett reports. (Emphasis added)
With the benefit of hindsight I should have left the charge of muzzling out of my original post because it distracted people from the larger point I was making about the rigidity of thought at conservative think tanks and adherence to the Republican Party line, which I still believe to be the case. The fact that David was fired and the way he was fired is sufficient proof of that. Here is what he now says about the circumstances:
Was the firing political? Obviously I cannot enter into people’s minds, and at my termination lunch AEI President Arthur Brooks insisted that politics had nothing to do with the decision. So let’s just follow the time line. Waterloo piece is posted Sunday March 22. Wall Street Journal editorial denouncing me appears March 23. Summons to lunch arrives mid-morning of March 23. At lunch I am told that AEI wishes to terminate my salary, office, benefits, and research assistance. I am however at liberty to continue to consider myself part of the AEI family. I declined that offer and wrote a letter of resignation.
 
Was the firing in response to donor pressure? At lunch, Arthur Brooks explained that AEI was facing a new kind of donor environment, in which donors were becoming much more specific about where they wanted their money to go. Arthur expressed extreme personal distress at having to terminate me. It’s possible that those words were pro forma, and that my own affection for Arthur led me to attach more weight to them than I should have. It’s very strange that Charles Murray would denounce me as a liar because I wished to think better of my former boss!
I believe that every scholar associated with AEI has had their credibility and respect diminished by the organization’s shameful treatment of David Frum. People who work there have long believed that they worked someplace equivalent to a university except without the teaching. And the media have historically treated AEI’s work and comments by its scholars as a cut above groups like the Heritage Foundation that have long been more politically-oriented and had much less prestige among academics and journalists.
 
Those days are over. Henceforth, AEI’s work must be viewed much more skeptically; not as equivalent to press releases from the Republican National Committee, perhaps, but more like the studies that come from, say, the Republican staff of a congressional committee. It may still be good work, but there will no longer be a presumption that it is balanced, objective or reliable, and more than likely reflects a political bias.
 
Note: Further comment here.

Many of us never had a

Many of us never had a presumption that AEI was balanced, objective, reliable, and didn't reflect a political bias. I guess us liberals are right again. And again, and again, and again. . .


Think Tanks

"People who work there have long believed that they worked someplace equivalent to a university except without the teaching."

Oh come on. All of these think tanks, whether left-leaning or right-leaning, are funded by wealthy patrons who want to see a particular world view supported. That's not to denigrate the intelligence of the people who work for them, but to compare them to a University is just absurd.


People are terminated from

People are terminated from employment for an innumerable amount of reasons in America everyday. Most people in the economy are "at will" employees and as the last 18 months has demonstrated they have been terminated in the private sector with a vengeance. I find it a little hard to swallow yours and Frum's belly-aching. You were both fired and it doesn't really matter why because people aren't entitled to jobs, unless you're lucky or clever enough to work for the government or a union. Perhaps Frum's termination could have been handled better, but his blog postings and the accompanying inferences that are to be drawn from them ensured that this whole issue would get messy. He was fired from an "at will" employment situation and that's that. It is fine that he thinks he shouldn't have been let go or that the firing should have been handled more to his liking, but in the end if AEI wanted him out, then he had to hit the bricks. His constant whining is becoming insufferable and is quite effeminate.


AEI balanced and objective?

.....You have to be kidding Bruce....I know they have respectable individuals in their line up (Ornstein for example) but the notion that their main thrust is not advocacy of right wing positions doesn't really withstand scrutiny.


Frum

David Frum an expert on Health Care?


Apology

This is quite the non-apology.


AEI's Muzzled Scholars

Frum, born a Canadian, comes from a far different conservative background than many US Citizens using that label.

I don't think it's merely coincidental that the original name of Canada's Conservative Party was "Progressive Conservatives." Their attitudes and rhetoric are far more moderate than what we see here in the states from our right wing.

AEI's actions, however, have reinforced my belief that, in the U.S. at least, the term "Conservative Think Tank" is an oxymoron.




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