Salaries are skyrocketing for the Scrooge McDucks—a.k.a the CEOs—of the think tank sector of Conservatism, Inc. But their work and influence doesn’t come close to matching such outsized pay.
Over at American Affairs, there’s a very interesting piece showing the salaries of think tank CEOs—especially those of conservative think tanks—rising “faster on average than for-profit executive compensation.” They are “dramatically outpacing general economic indicators” such as U.S. wages, nominal GDP growth, inflation, and direct compensation for S&P 500 CEOs, with some (Arthur Brooks of AEI, for example) even outpacing the S&P 500 itself.
This, of course, would be less of a problem if the heads of these think tanks were making a notable impact on the American mind. But they aren’t. As the pseudonymous author (who, I assume, used to or currently works at one of the DC think tanks mentioned in the piece) points out, the “performance metrics” they use “have no significant correlation with executive compensation.” And over time, there is “no significant correlation between the change in an organization’s impact…and growth in executive compensation.”
For example, Heritage Action, the 501(c)(4) political arm of the Heritage Foundation, graded Donald Trump the worst of the 17 Republican contenders vying for the presidency in 2016. They claimed Trump’s economic nationalism would “damage the American economy,” he was “sympathetic to left-wing rhetoric,” and his national security positions “raise questions of significant consequence.” We know exactly how much reading from the hymnal of checklist conservatism mattered to Americans in 2016. Zero.
Here I thought conservatives were all about letting the free market take its course. Or least that’s what they say when it doesn’t affect them directly. Then, they want security and the biggest paychecks possible. Insulation from the market seems to matter more than anything else.
As the author concludes, these think tanks function as way stations for their employees, who usually go on to positions in Congress or the executive branch. Overall, think tanks selling themselves as a “marketplace of ideas” are actually lobbying firms driven by donor demands rather than conducting original research. Check out the encomiums in sotto voce to free trade as a principle across the conservative think tank world and you’ll see what I mean.
These organizations, which float all different kinds of welfare reform proposals, should apply such reforms to themselves first. Putting some skin in the game would surely bring some credibility they currently lack. And I’m sure the donors would be happier too.