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What's the Point of a Non-Partisan Think Tank?

by Conor Clarke

The non-partisan Urban/Brookings Tax Policy Center is my favorite think tank, so it's quite distressing to see my friend Brad DeLong argue that the TPC should "pick a party, support it, and work hard to make its policies the best policies possible," rather than support "bipartisan" legislation. But much to my relief I I see that Howard Gleckman of the TPC has written a nice response:

I think Brad’s biggest error is his belief that we are bipartisan. We are not. We are proudly non-partisan. This is not the same thing. [...] Our reputation for nonpartisanship is critical to what we do. It is why people across the political spectrum acknowledge our estimates are credible even as they sometimes grumble about what the results imply for their own policy views. If we lose that credibility by turning ourselves into DeLongian partisans, the data lose much of their value.

I think that's exactly right.

It might be the case that some people on the right dismiss TPC as a liberal think tank and some people on the left dismiss it as a conservative one. It might even be the case that the notion of "non-partisanship" is philosophically troubled: self proclaimed "non-partisans" do not have privileged access to the truth, and no "partisans" think of themselves as having insufficient fealty to the facts.

Non-partisanship might be becoming terribly passé. But it is nonetheless true that meaningful public discourse depends on a shared set of factual premises. And to the extent it is possible, I am grateful that organizations like TPC produce estimates that will be taken seriously by many people on both sides of the aisle and give us a little piece of geography to start the bickering.