The Left-Leaning Think Tank

17 November 2005

The Left-Leaning Think Tank
Peter Kovler
Change (The Magazine of Learning), Vol. 10, No. 5, May 1978

It is axiomatic these days that "the Movement" is dead. Liberalism and radicalism are becoming passé and neo-conservatism is making an overwhelming philosophic debut. But this national development has had little influence on the Institute for Policy Studies, the left-leaning Washington think tank. IPS - as demonstrated in its associates' papers - has resisted the fashion; it continues to espouse such progressive causes as nuclear disarmament, limitation of arms sales, and community control of public capital. Such issues, hopes IPS' new chief, Robert Borosage, "will play a leading role in resurrecting the flagging spirits of liberals and the left".

IPS was formed in 1963 by Marcus Raskin, a graduate of the University of Chicago law school and aide to McGeorge Bundy, and by Richard Barnet, an aide to the State Department's John McCloy. The two men had seen government from the inside and concluded that the military dominated most of national policy making, and that to counter this influence the government needed independent advice. They arranged funding from Philip Stern, heir to the Sears fortune, and James Warburg of the international banking family. Once they had the money they were able to recruit several academic and political people to hold seminars or do research. Among the more well-known are Hans Morgenthau and Hannah Arendt from the University of Chicago, counter-culture authors like Allen Ginsberg and Paul Goodman, and military strategists like Paul Warnke and Jerome Wiesnet.

Throughout the middle sixties, the institute unhesitantly backed the civil rights and antiwar movements. At the time of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, for instance, when even leaders like Senator Fulbright were supporting President Johnson, the institute provided a forum for Bernard Fall - the former State Department official who was predicting that the United States would copy France's experience in Indochina. During that period IPS published some important books and organized seminal local movements. For example, Raskin coedited The Vietnam Reader, which was to become the basic text for the teach-in movement. And Richard Barnet wrote Global Reach, one of the first books to expose the power of multinational corporations. Several associates worked with the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party while others were organizing neighborhood governments in big northern cities.

But not all has been prescience and success. Within its 14-year history IPS has been frequently beset by internal problems. Perhaps the most critical was in 1973 when several associates, declaring that IPS was elitist, sexist, and racist, quit and formed their own organization, the Public Resource Center (PRC). The basic cause of dissension, said the splinter group, was a difference in political philosophies: The PRC wanted to emphasize work with Movement and citizen groups while IPS was more interested in influencing Congress.

But within the last two years the Institute has been struck by probably its greatest loss. One of the Institute's divisions, the Transnational Institute (TNI), had Orlando Letelier, former Chilean ambassador to the United States, as an associate. On September 21m 1976, Letelier's car was blown up and he, along with another IPS associate, Ronni Moffitt, was killed. The assassination saddened and angered institute fellows, some of whom believe the CIA colluded with the FBI and Justice Department to prevent a thorough investigation.

But the institute seems to have recovered from that tragedy now. "As in the past", says a confident Borosage, "our job is to pursue intellectual work that is connected to ongoing political questions. We are having continuous political discussions from which will evolve our priorities and projects. What we'll probably come up with is a mix of things we're good at and which seem crucial".

At present, the Institute - located on four floors of an office building just off Dupont Circle - has 30 associate scholars who come from a variety of backgrounds. They're selected from a vast number of applicants - about 10 per day. Some are PhDs, some have worked in the government, and some were active in the antiwar movement. "The mix", says Borosage, "gives the institute the needed balance between practice and theory". The new director also has a definition of what the institute should do: "One of our difficulties has been to try to pick up where the movement left off. There was a question after Vietnam as to what stage was next. There was fatigue. It is our task to develop a progressive movement".

Asked whether he thinks this sort of work could be performed by an academic institution, Borosage says, "I doubt it. In the history of intellectual thought there are periods when ideas are in universities - when there are intellectual changes from the inside and you have younger academics who are doing the questioning. That doesn't exist now. Instead, in economics the European radical political economists are the first ones to have seriously challenged the Keynesians, the first to stress the significance of oligopolies. They're not squelched by academia: They've organized outside of it. I think you may even have the same thing in psychology, although, of course, that's not our expertise".

Borosage sees the institute moving in three principal directions. The first is the development of the Conference of Alternative State and Local Public Policies. This program, says Borosage, "is an attempt to set up a network of progressive state and local officials who are trying to develop practical programs. For example, we're looking into the possibility of state or community development banks which would be more responsive to the needs of poorer citizens". A recent conference newsletter goves a good notion of the kinds of domestic problems IPS will be addressing. There are articles about how consumers, as opposed to utilities, should own on-site solar heating systems; an article about "upbeat" Hartford, Connecticut, where publicly capitalized winterization and solar heating research are being conducted; and a series of short pieces on progressive legislation: Tough antiredlining laws in California; a "delawyerizing" movement in Maryland (an attempt to simplify legal procedures so lay citizens can handle their own cases); and news of an artists' resale act whereby artists would get a cut of the profit when their works are resold.

A second area concerns investigations of international human rights violations as well as studies on the new economies order and the power of multinational organizations. Most of this work is done under the auspices of the Transnational Institute - what might be thought of as the State Department of IPS. Scholars and authors there are publishing books and pamphlets about the power of US corporations in the thirds world, about US meddling in the economies of third world governments, and about world hunger "caused by plunder and not by scarcity". In brief, says founder Raskin, "We're looking at the whole new relationship between corporations and the third world and trying to develop a definition of an equitable economic order".

TNI's viewpoint was recently expressed in an article by Howard Wachtel, a professor of economics at American University and fellow at TNI, and Michael Moffitt, the husband of the woman who was slain in the September bombing. "In the ornate boardrooms of multinational corporations and banks in New York, Bonn, and Tokyo, and in the austere conference rooms of the United Nations in Geneva, decisions are being made that will determine the shape of the world economy for the remainder of the century. The old international economic order erected after World War II has collapsed, leaving in its wake an economic and political instability that rivals the conditions of the thirties. The fifties and the sixties are now nostalgically recalled as the age of prosperity in marked contrast to our time of simultanous unemployment and inflation, bloated debt structures, and the worldwide stagnation of economic growth... The third world is the victim".

A third major area of study for IPS is arms control and national security. According to Borosage, "The country is in a precarious state. Kissinger uses weapons as bargaining chips and the result is increasing proliferation. For the first time in a while I think we're getting another red scare. The notion is now popular that the Soviet Union is superior in arms strength and, so the argument runs, we have to build up ours. It's really just more arms race. Most important, we can't help the poor if we're spending money on weapons. We're trying to bring this to the attention of legislators and the public".

Michael Klare is one of the institute's authorities on arms control and has been the author of some of IPS's most provocative work. Recently, Klare wrote an article telling how the US, via Italy, is supplying arms to South Africa. Klare has demonstrated that despite President Carter's announced adoption of a new policy of arms restraint, there will be "a continuing flow of advanced US arms to an ever growing number of countries abroad".

Other issues being studied are governmental accountability to citizens and employees. A recent IPS effort has been aimed at whistle blowers - federal employees who witness abuses, mismanagement, or waste and are punished for reporting it. Last fall the institute sponsored a national conference of these federal employees, declaring in a policy statement that "if Americans learned nothing else from Watergate they learned what federal employees have always known: The professional civil service is American democracy's last line of defense against those who could corrupt our institutions... When federal employees point out wrongdoing, they are rarely rewarded. Often they face the threat of penalty. Federal employees who speak to a supervisor, testify before a congressional committee, or write to a newspaper often risk sacrificing their careers". IPS is trying to get legislation passed that will protect federal whistle blowers.

Pne of the most significant questions now facing IPS is how many issues it should pursue. The institute has always prided itself on being ahead of the mainstream - able to diagnose problems before they receive widespread public attention. But some have argued recently that because IPS is contantly hunting for bright new issues, its energies have become too scattered. Writing in Esquire in 1971, journalist Gary Wills said, "The institute has tended to ride off in too many directions at once. A reason for its comparative obscurity has been the failure to stake out one area, work persistently on it, and achieve widely recognized results". But Raskin denies such a weakness. He says: "Instead of looking at the institute that way, people should be judging the work. They should look at the national security work of Barnet and at the civil rights efforts of the sixties".

Another critical question confronting the institute is whether to accept government money. It has tradionally been IPS policy to stay away from government grants. Advisors, it has been felt, must maintain their financial independence if they are to examine federal policy on its merits, rather than its political possibilities. But money-raising problems have forced a reconsideration of this option. Some fellows perceive no obstacles, pointing out that dozens of other think tank consulting groups have accepted money and maintained their integrity and independence. Others, however, insist that cooption would be inevitable. Raskin seems to favor the latter viewpoint, noting that "the general feeling is that the institute should be supported by individuals and foundations".

At present, IPS seems to have lost some of its audience. During the sixties, campuses were welcoming radical and progressive ideas; now there is no simple category of people who can be regarded as an IPS public. So in order to get its research more widely known, IPS has had to rely more heavily on Washington and regional conferences, and on work specifically aimed at the Congress. For instance, at the request of 56 members of Congress, IPS has just completed an alternative national budget for 1979. In it are recommendations for amounts to be spent in all areas of the federal government, emphasizing what the government can do in housing, education, and medical care. Twenty-three institute fellows and resarchers worked on the budget.

Since life at IPS is less tumultuous now than in the sixties, one may be inclined to believe that the institute has had its heyday. Indeed, a recent article in The New Republic described IPS as a place "Where left-wing issues and left-wing thinkers grow old together". But Raskin is not flustered by such commentary. He says, "We've been in operation for 14 years and we're better off than ever. Talk that it has been tough to raise money is nonsense. The institute has been established on the principle that it will exist for the next 20 years and beyond". And he adds, "I think there is still a great deal of the left in the Democratic party and in the nation. Thousands of projects that we helped to start have continued. Too, there has been acceptance in much of the country that our foreign policy should be noninterventionist and antiwar. The best example of this was in Angola.

One senses a quiet determination among IPS fellows to try to make the "Me Decade" aware of political problems. "The country is in a dangerous situation", remarks Michael Moffitt. "We aee at a crucial point", declares Borosage. Throughout IPS there is a sense of urgency. Such expressions, of course, at first seem almost anachronistic, a form of Movement nostalgia. But if one recalls how wild IPS's warnings seemed in the early sixties, one has to concede the think tank more credibility. Clearly, IPS is not suffering from academic dementia. As founder Richard Barnet describes it: "What we're doing is pointing out what's irrational in our society - before it becomes part of the conventional wisdom".