May 29, 2002
How Think Tanks Achieve Public Policy Breakthrough
Lawrence J. Mone
President, Manhattan Institute
I’m honored to be here today alongside such distinguished colleagues. And I’d like to thank the Roundtable for giving me the opportunity to briefly discuss what the Manhattan Institute is and how we go about our business.
Since our founding in 1978, the Institute’s mission has been to develop and disseminate ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility. When The New York Times published a feature-length story on the Manhattan Institute, it described what we do as “Turning Intellect into Influence.” Nothing could better sum up our mission.
How does the Institute go about this persuasion? We do it through a number of carefully crafted vehicles that have proven to be very effective over the years in moving ideas through the intellectual food chain:
1) The first vehicle is an aggressive book publishing and marketing program, which redefines debates on national issues. And what makes this vehicle truly unique is that, rather than publishing books ourselves, we demand that our authors pass the “market test” of commercial trade houses. This guarantees wide distribution and prominently placed book reviews, so that we’re not just preaching to the converted. After all, as Peter Drucker has noted, “A think tank’s job is to change minds.”
2) Second, while we use books to change minds on national issues, we also publish a magazine which engages local elites. This magazine -- City Journal -- combines first-rate scholarship with outstanding journalism, and covers issues which impact the daily quality of life here in New York.
3) Finally, our Manhattan Forums, local events hosted herein New York, bring together cross-sections of the nation’s elites -- from the worlds of government, business, journalism, and philanthropy.
The philosophy which guides these efforts has two principles.
Our primary belief is that talent comes first. When we’re looking for scholars to tackle an issue, we’re always trying to identify individuals who can “cut through the noise.” To be sure, they must be experts in their fields. But they must not only inform; they must also persuade. For that reason, they must be outstanding communicators. In our view, the messenger is as important as the message.
Second, we target strategic audiences. We aim to influence the influential. Who really has the leverage to effect change? In his best-selling book, The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell calls it “The Law of the Few”. In any process of social change, some people matter more than others. That’s our constituency. It’s different in every case. Often it’s the press. Sometimes it’s policymakers. Sometimes it’s a corps of professionals -- leaders in business, health care, or the courts. But there’s always someone who can effect change. We make sure our ideas cross the radar screens of these key people.
I thought I’d illustrate these Manhattan Institute principles with three examples of where we were able to make significant policy breakthroughs.
First, WELFARE REFORM. It was back in 1984 that we sponsored what was to become a landmark book: Losing Ground, by Charles Murray, which was published by Basic Books. Charles, at the time, was a not very well known social scientist, but his analytical and writing skills impressed us greatly. Prior to Charles’ book, others had said that antipoverty programs hurt the poor. But no one had drawn together, critically, all the data let alone, in a way that could capture the strategic audience. In this case, that audience was journalists, who could reframe the terms of the debate. Charles targeted this audience, and his book hit the bull's eye. As The New Republic put it: “The best indicator of Losing Ground’s success is not how many people have read it, but who has read it.” The book was the subject of countless editorials, columns and articles. Slowly, but surely,over the course of the next ten years, it totally flipped the conventional wisdom on welfare. And that flip led ultimately to the Welfare Reform bill of 1996. President Clinton himself acknowledged this, when he said, in an interview with Tom Brokaw, and I quote: "[Charles Murray] did the country a service... his analysis is essentially right."
The second success I want to talk about is our role in helping to bring about the dramatic drop in crime, which transpired here in New York in the 1990s. In 1989, I was asked to organize a conference on crime in London, an issue which at that time the Institute was not involved in. In looking for prospective ideas, I came across George Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s seminal 1982 article in Atlantic Magazine entitled, “Fixing Broken Windows.” The authors argued that the incidence of major crimes could be dramatically reduced by the enforcement of comparatively minor offenses. Their idea was to create a general climate of law and order, in which criminals would not feel safe to operate.
Their thesis fit perfectly with the Institute’s then new interest in reforming and reviving America’s cities. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom of the time, we argued that cities were, in fact, governable if the right policies were put in place. I asked George Kelling to become a contributing editor of our then fledgling magazine, City Journal. In the very first issue, George interviewed the then Transit Police Chief Bill Bratton, a disciple of Broken Windows policing, on his plans to reduce crime in the City’s subways. We then highlighted George Kelling and his ideas at a special Quality of Life conference called “Rethinking New York.” As circumstance would have it, mayoral hopeful Rudy Giuliani was in attendance, scribbling notes. The rest is history. When Giuliani became mayor, he made Bratton his first police commissioner. The Kelling Broken Windows principles became policy, and between 1990 and 1998, the murder rate in the City declined by over seventy percent. What’s especially encouraging, as recent newspaper articles indicate, is that Mayor Bloomberg has embraced the Kelling philosophy as well. That means we’ve brought about a permanent sea-change in public thinking on this critical issue.
The final success I want to talk about is in the area of LEGAL REFORM. It was in the 1980s that the Manhattan Institute first identified the problem of excessive litigation and the growing power of the trial lawyers. It’s still a serious issue, but the Institute helped to at least take one weapon out of the hands of the trial lawyers, and that is the use of what’s been called junk science. Courts were admitting testimony by so-called scientific experts, which would never pass muster in the scientific community.
The one who identified the issue was our senior fellow Peter Huber. A lawyer and a scientist by training, as well as a brilliant writer, Peter made the case against junk science in his book, Galileo’s Revenge. We took Peter around the country, and hosted a series of judicial forums with both federal and state judges who were the key decision makers in shaping what was valid scientific testimony. He sat down to dinner with the judges, and explained his point of view. He wasn’t pushing for any particular verdicts or policies; he was just making them aware of the implications of their decisions. And as these judges became more aware, the legal system became more rigorous. Some key court decisions imposed higher standards for scientific testimony. In particular, the 1993 Supreme Court decision Daubert versus Dow Corning, which cited Peter’s book, instructed lower courts to eliminate mere speculation posing as science. And as a result, as The New York Times has recently reported, the number of cases filed by trial lawyers in federal court has been cut in half.
These are just three examples of how, with the support of our benefactors, we apply our resources to achieve real breakthroughs. And we continue to succeed, I believe, because we consistently apply our operating philosophy. We make sure we have the right messenger; people like Charles Murray, George Kelling, and Peter Huber, and then, we market our message to the right people through our books, forums, and City Journal. It takes time and it takes money but in the end we know we are making a difference.