Swans Commentary » swans.com September 12, 2011  



Are We Drowning In Think Tanks?
While the Environment Careens Inexorably to the Point of no Return


by Raju Peddada





[Author's preface: I live in the chicagoland area skirting the O'Hare airport. As I drive around on errands and business all I see are these huge hills, like extra large Indian mounds, in Des Plaines, Rosemont, Bensenville, Elk Grove village, and Mt. Prospect. These large mounds are covered in Prairie grasses that look very pleasant, but with pipes sticking out. What are they? Garbage dumps, I counted 16 of them in our region alone. Not too far in the distant future, these hills will be sold as prime real estate with "views." We are a species whose byproduct is garbage. We create garbage by our very existence. And there are 6,305 Think Tanks servicing a population of 6.8 billion... Are their policy solutions working? Are we better off today then we were a generation ago?]


(Swans - September 12, 2011)   We are a species whose main products are strife and garbage. Even our orbit is a floating junkyard. There are 22,000 objects large enough that officials can track from ground-based monitoring stations, and over 150,000 pieces of small debris, moving ten times the speed of sound in orbit that pose a deadly threat to any manned space program or the satellites up there. Here on earth, the open-pit mines could each swallow 100 Olympic stadiums; every metro region is surrounded by "green" garbage dumps, an optical oxymoron; enough oil is spilled into the environment every year that could fill up several Ultra Large Crude Carriers; and corporations create a pound of refuse for every ounce of consumable sold. In addition to all of this, we have to contend with industrial waste and runoffs, nuclear and coal power waste, industrial farm waste, post consumer waste, and our own stink, the non-recyclable human waste.

Can we really afford to be a consumer society? What are we coming to? To solve our problems, we also have 1,815 think tanks -- TTs (public policy research institutions) -- in the U.S. alone, with various research missions in policy guidance and formulation, or do we?

This started out as an inquiry into our environmental commitments, but during my research I stumbled on to an astounding report that after reading made me giggle at first, then made me double up with laughter by its Shakespearean farce. I only wished that laughter could be my medicine, but this spontaneous mirth soon turned into dismay. It was the "The Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program," a global ranking of leading public policy research organizations in the world issued by the University of Pennsylvania under the authorship of Dr. James G. McGann. The report itself is not the cause of my laughter; rather where and who had these think tanks, which I am sure you will find funny as I did. Before I delve into the environmental issues, let us explore what TTs are about.

Public policy research institutions, or think tanks, have their use in highly literate industrial societies like the U.S. and Western Europe, where they become information-conveying apparatus and agents of change by aggregating and creating new knowledge through collaboration with diverse private and public sectors. TTs are sieves and synthesizers that facilitate the identification of policy issues, the formulation of policy solutions, and the implementation of, and feedback on, policy decisions. But there is one serious flaw in the way TTs are constituted: they are mostly academic scholars with hardly any real world exposure. Their policy design could be perfect in a utopian or a hypothetical scenario, but implemented in real time, with unpredictable human factors, these policies end up alienating the very folks they are meant for or are total disasters on a grand scale.

We do need TTs, but we also need "Action Streams" that are staffed with empiricists, pragmatists, and practitioners in real time implementation and policing. Allen McDuffee, an independent journalist, says "Think Tanks, in case anyone was wondering, are bodies of academics who answer the questions nobody asked. Governments listen to them, in preference to thinking for themselves." * I think he is being facetious to some extent, but in all seriousness, TTs must staff empiricists, field experts, to really offer "applicable" guidance in policy research and ideation, not just academic scholars who are theorists, white-paper artists, and hypothesis purveyors, who sit cocooned in their University environs and draw $250,000 a year. And for that matter, I cannot find one policy that has been hailed as a public policy masterpiece.

The National Parks System was created by two pragmatic empiricists: John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. Did Roosevelt ever rely on a TT for busting the monopolies? The interstate system was a direct result of President Eisenhower's "Redball Express" supply-chain-logistics experience in WWII, with dual goals in mind: to solve the employment problem for the returning soldiers after the war, and to develop and speed up the interstate commerce and communication. On the opposite spectrum, The League of Nations was the egg laid by a scholar, Woodrow Wilson, and his elitist cohorts -- it unfortunately hatched Adolf Hitler, who then ignited WWII.

The human being is a creature that is intrinsically manipulative. We are wet wired for subterfuge, intrigue, and finding loopholes for exploitation. We are an opportunistic species that is keyed into exploitation mechanisms for survival, like other animals. The Social Security System was FDR's great idea, which today stands utterly corrupted by both the federal government borrowing against it and users' fraud. How about the food stamps fraud in the current economic environment, the fraud perpetrated by the very individuals it was created for? The Indian Caste System was abolished decades ago, but it continues today as an instrument of financial exploitation. Every public policy is replete and rife with fraudulent practices, not only by the implementers, but by those it was meant to benefit. Every policy addresses only special groups and segments of populations, and every policy is exploited and violated for its weak design, sooner or later.

The difference between the word policy and police is only one letter, the key letter being "e" for effectiveness. Research, synthesizing information, and policy drafting is all great, but implementation is another whole battle. Implementation and policing of policies could be very expensive -- ask the UN. A policy is meant for policing a certain segment or an entity and any policy that requires excessive policing is an expensive proposition and is a failed policy. Look at all the ineffective UN policy resolutions against the Saddam Hussein regime, or the present Iranian and the North Korean regimes. Are there ways or solutions where policing expenses could be minimized by motivating or penalizing mechanisms built into a policy design and diffusion? Nobel Laureate George Stiglitz challenged policy makers to "Scan globally and reinvent locally."

The McGann report issued forth some startling facts that left me scratching my head. The civilized, yet the economically-imploded regions of the world sport the highest concentration of TTs: Europe at 28% with 1,751 TTs, and North America at 30% with 1,912 TTs; but, the messiest regions, Africa and the Middle East, not surprisingly had only 273 TTs at 4% of the total, which leads me to the conclusion that TTs really make no difference. The McGann report also had an interesting graph that showed the most peaceful and prosperous decades in North America, the 1950s and '60s, had the fewest TTs. The proliferation of TTs can only be inversely measured by the mess we are in today, since the '70s.

Invariably, effective policy research, design, and formulation is dependent on the amount of "independence" a TT has. This is why some TTs are euphemistically called lobbies or special interest groups with political agendas, linked with certain financial entities or political parties. The biggest challenge TTs face is how to achieve and sustain their independence, so they can speak "truth to power." Not all TTs have that financial, intellectual, and legal independence. Here's what I found painfully amusing.

I found these on the list of countries with the highest number of TTs. India with 261 TTs... they'll need another 600 TTs to solve their security, sanitation, and corruption issues; Mexico with 55 TTs; Romania with 54 TTs?!; Bolivia with 52 TTs -- Bolivia?!; Taiwan at 52 TTs... an island nation; Israel at 52 -- for a population of 7 million, or is it mostly for other countries?

Here's another joke: four of the worst run states in the nation have the biggest number of TTs: California at 167 TTs with $20 billion-plus in deficit; New York with 144 TTs; Illinois dials up 55 TTs, with two governors in jail and billions in deficit; and Michigan with 31 TTs, with its largest city, Detroit, as a collection of ghettos.

This here is sadistically funny indeed. Cameroon has 20 TTs; Ethiopia at 20 TTs -- why don't they dissolve their TTs and distribute those funds to the starving? Ghana rings up 30 -- are these TTs operating tax-free or they guiding other nations? Kenya has 56 TTs -- counting cattle? Namibia with 11 TTs... in that desert? Uganda dials up 23 TTs; Zimbabwe at 21 TTs... do they all work for Mugabe? Pakistan has 19 TTs... for what? Don't they have Islamic policies? Sri Lanka with 14 TTs; Cuba rings up 18 TTs... Raul Castro's bodyguards? Egypt at 29 TTs?!; Iran with 24 TTs... women's rights? Iraq... Iraq with 28 TTs?!; Jordan with 14 TTs... is the king hiding behind them? Lebanon with 11 TTs, perhaps mostly American; Palestine... the PLO has 19 TTs!; and the funniest: Greece at 35 TTs... they must have statues of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle chairing these think tanks, as most contemporary government officials have fled the nation into Switzerland with their money, and most scholars there are only good at what they do: Greek culture and history, why dabble in economics or politics? Or are these sun-drenched isles haven for the American and European TTs, great place to think, while on permanent sabbatical?

These are just specific nations with their "problem solvers." How about the collective global environmental issues? Will our TTs draft any of their brilliant solutions? Our life source, the forests, are being razed systematically by the colluding developers and governments; the oceans are getting over fished and dumped into... we are dumping into our own food source; rain water harvesting and existing water conservation is virtually nonexistent; garbage is piling up everywhere, from the space to the ocean bottom and everywhere in between; religious land waste with burials; junk yards full of mothballed ships and planes that can house millions of homeless; and corruption...enough said. Since the days of the naturalist John Muir and his friend, President Theodore Roosevelt, over a century ago, every leader had paid fancy lip service to the environmental issues. Making promises while campaigning, and cursory attention once in the White House, leading us into the abyss.

We, the "super species," deserve what is sure to be careening our way, environmental dissolution, the Easter Island Syndrome, to be precise. Now, would you listen to me if I was from one of these financially or politically affiliated think tanks, or would you listen to the next presidential candidate? I hope not. But you would listen to the sanest, most reliable source of information and alarm, yourself. Yes, you, and your gut instincts. I feel in my gut that something is seriously wrong with this consumer waste society. Something is irreversibly wrong with our immediate surroundings, our environment, and our planet. And this comes from the heart and mind that long ago had weaned themselves away any ideological tits. I am just like you, the next door guy, working away without a parachute, and don't know where to turn, yet, knowing full well that we have mismanaged our resources, and our last haven of existence. By the way, where is the John Muir University?


[*ed. note added September 12, 2011: In the fifth paragraph the author refers to a quote by Allen McDuffee. This was not a quote by McDuffee, but a sentence from a British News & Star opinion piece that McDuffee quoted in his Washington Post blog on May 24, 2011. Mr. McDuffee is not an independent journalist, but a reporter/blogger for the Washington Post. (back)]


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About the Author

Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published September 12, 2011