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Mar. 26 2010 - 9:23 am | 7,668 views | 2 recommendations | 18 comments

Actually AEI Folks Have Been Weighing in On Health Care

I am usually a great fan of Bruce Bartlett’s work, and if rumors are true that the American Enterprise Institute now associates itself with Marc Thiessen, I question the judgment of the specific people there who recruit and approve new personnel, given that devastating critiques of his poorly reasoned book prove it to be factually inaccurate.

It is for these reasons that I took note when Mr. Bartlett wrote the following (emphasis added):

As some readers of this blog may know, I was fired by a right wing think tank called the National Center for Policy Analysis in 2005 for writing a book critical of George W. Bush’s policies, especially his support for Medicare Part D. In the years since, I have lost a great many friends and been shunned by conservative society in Washington, DC.

Now the same thing has happened to David Frum, who has been fired by the American Enterprise Institute. I don’t know all the details, but I presume that his Waterloo post on Sunday condemning Republicans for failing to work with Democrats on healthcare reform was the final straw.

Since, he is no longer affiliated with AEI, I feel free to say publicly something he told me in private a few months ago. He asked if I had noticed any comments by AEI “scholars” on the subject of health care reform. I said no and he said that was because they had been ordered not to speak to the media because they agreed with too much of what Obama was trying to do.

It saddened me to hear this. I have always hoped that my experience was unique. But now I see that I was just the first to suffer from a closing of the conservative mind. Rigid conformity is being enforced, no dissent is allowed, and the conservative brain will slowly shrivel into dementia if it hasn’t already.

I know almost nothing about AEI. Though I am predisposed to believe that every Washington DC based think tank is somewhat intellectually corrupt, I’m pretty sure Mr. Bartlett’s experience wasn’t unique, and I am certain that the conservative movement as a whole handles dissent poorly, followup reporting persuades me that the particular boldfaced passage above is inaccurate (whether it accurately quotes Mr. Frum or not I have no idea), and is unfair to AEI.

For example, AEI Scholar Glenn Hubbard co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed on health care as recently as February. The AEI blog has tons of health care writing, much of it recent and discussing the reform effort that just succeeded. I could cite TV appearances and other articles too, but why bother? It’s already evident that there were plenty of comments from AEI folks on the subject of health care (more are linked below).

To sum up: The implication in Mr. Bartlett’s piece is that lots of people at AEI favored most aspects Obamacare — so many people, in fact, that AEI scholars were ordered against commenting on the subject at all. But lots of people at AEI did write publicly on the subject. Put another way, even if a few pro-Obamacare scholars had been silenced, Mr. Bartlett’s piece would be inaccurate as written. Perhaps he misheard Mr. Frum, or else Mr. Frum was mistaken or speaking imprecisely. I’ve followed the work of both men, and I’ve never known either to lie, so I presume there is some good explanation for the mistake.

Were any AEI scholars told to shut up about health care? Was there unspoken pressure? I sent an e-mail to all the folks listed on the think tank’s Web site, offering anonymity to anyone who requested it. I remain willing to expose even a partial vindication of Mr. Bartlett’s charge.

As yet, however, I’ve gotten only a lot of replies like this one from Charles Calomiris:

In all the years of my association with AEI no one ever suggested, much less ordered, that I say or not say anything. Quite the opposite; I was specifically told never to expect any guidance and I was guaranteed it in advance, which is why I was comfortable being involved with AEI for many years. The culture of AEI is completely contrary to attempts at control of academic thinking or speech. Freedom of thought is sacrosanct. I can tell you from personal knowledge that in many other think tanks in Washington that is not the case. At AEI, however, it is hard to imagine that these accusations could be true.

Or this one from Jack Calfee:

I have long admired Frum’s work, although I confess to not having paid much attention to his critiques of Republicans and conservatives. Speaking as one of the AEI health policy scholars, however, the notion that we have been muzzled on health care reform is bizarre. So many op-eds, so many AEI pubs, so many media appearances and interviews and quotes . . . I have to wonder whether David was quoted correctly on this point.

Or this one from Sally Satel:

I have never, ever been instructed/hinted/cajoled on what to say or write.

Or this from Edward Blum:

It has been my experience that AEI does not censor, discourage, or micromanage the work of its scholars and fellows or how they communicate with the press.

Or this from Rick Hess:

i’m curious about the sourcing of the Bartlett claim. i certainly never heard any such thing.

i do know that in my own field (K-12 and higher education), no one at AEI has ever attempted to steer, stifle, or influence my writing or speaking. this is particularly relevant, as much of my own work has been flagged over the years as heartburn-inducing by Bush administration proponents of No Child Left Behind and conservative proponents of school choice. indeed, AEI scholars writing on questions of education– including Charles Murray, Lynne Cheney, Christina Hoff Sommers, Mark Schneider, Andy Smarick, and myself have consistently reflected diverging and oft-contradictory views regarding policy, practice, and aims in our written and spoken work.

indeed, i’ll simply say that in my eight years at AEI I have felt far less intellectually constrained (through formal clearance mechansims or informal social norms) than i did in my previous role as a professor of education and government at the University of Virginia.

Does anyone at AEI have a different experience to relate? The offer of anonymity remains, even if you’re someone who already wrote me expressing a different opinion on the record. Meanwhile, all the folks who ran with the Bruce Bartlett angle — I’m looking at you, Howard Kurtz — should note that whatever else happens at AEI, good or bad, it is undeniably the case that various folks there have been commenting on health care.

Incidentally, the think tank is foolish to lose the talents of David Frum.

UPDATE: Just before the health care vote an AEI staffer sent this e-mail to the organization’s media contacts:

The following AEI health policy scholars will be available to comment on health care vote developments over the weekend (for additional
information, please contact Veronique Rodman at vrodman@aei.org or 202.841.8295):

Joseph (Joe) Antos is the Wilson H. Taylor Scholar in Health Care and Retirement Policy at AEI. He previously served as Assistant Director
for Health and Human Resources at the Congressional Budget Office. Mr. Antos’s research focuses on the economics of health policy, including Medicare reform, health insurance regulation, and the uninsured. He can be contacted at jantos@aei.org.

John E. (Jack) Calfee is an economist who studies health care policy, the pharmaceutical industry, and the Food and Drug Administration
(FDA). He previously worked at the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Economics. Mr. Calfee also writes regularly for AEI’s Health Policy Outlook series. He can be contacted at jcalfee@aei.org.

Scott Gottlieb, M.D., a practicing physician, has served in various capacities at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and as a senior
policy adviser at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. At the FDA, Dr. Gottlieb was a senior adviser for medical technology;
director of medical policy development; and, most recently, deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs. He can be contacted
at scott.gottlieb@aei.org.

Robert B. (Bob) Helms has served as a member of the Medicaid Commission as well as assistant secretary for planning and evaluation
and deputy assistant secretary for health policy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). He has written and
lectured extensively on health policy and health economics, including the history of Medicare, the tax treatment of health insurance, and
compared international health systems. He can be contacted at rhelms@aei.org.

Thomas (Tom) Miller is a former senior health economist for the Joint Economic Committee (JEC). While at the JEC, he organized a number of hearings that focused on reforms in private health care markets. He studies health care policy, health insurance, and regulation and has
testified before Congress on issues including the uninsured, Medicare prescription drug benefits, and health insurance tax credits. He can
be contacted at tmiller@aei.org.

ANOTHER UPDATE: I have confirmation from a couple people at AEI that Marc Thiessen will indeed be blogging there. This is remarkable. Seriously, anyone who cares about intellectual honesty at AEI should inform themselves about the substandard, factually inaccurate work produced by this man. I am not talking about simple mistakes in op-eds or blog posts. I am talking about even his book length work, which is devastatingly rebutted here and here.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: David Frum writes, “Did AEI muzzle healthcare scholars? I fear that in reproducing in print a private conversation from some months ago, Bruce Bartlett made a transmission error. I did not report as fact that scholars were laboring under any restrictions. What I did say was that AEI was punching way below its weight in the healthcare debate. I wondered, not alleged, wondered, whether AEI scholars were constrained by fear of saying something that might get them into trouble. To repeat: this was something I asked many months ago in private conversation, not something I allege today in public debate.”

That solves that.

Do read Mr. Frum’s full statement if you’ve followed the larger story about his being fired from AEI.

Finally, Mark Steyn writes, “Jonah, Stephen, Charles, John et al: A reader accuses me of not having ‘the guts’ to weigh in on the Frum/AEI split. Actually, life’s too short to get caught up in a dispute between Bruce Bartlett and Conor Friedersdorf, and that would still be true if I live to 112.” I note the remark only because it is bizarre to characterize the Frum/AEI question as a dispute between Bruce Bartlett and I. What does that even mean?


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  1. collapse expand

    If there was ever any question about AEI’s response regarding self critical opinion, the message is now loud and clear. After what appears to be Frum’s Trotsky treatment, you can be sure few associated with AEI will now be spouting anything other than the party line.

  2. collapse expand

    At the beginning of this century AEI was in full bloom its ideas and fellows in positions of power in the Bush Administration and the results of their intellectual studies regarding capitalism, individual freedom and tax policy and national defense were all implemented. Do they stand by their theories? Had something reality revealed some flaw? Did the studies somehow contradict one another? We certainly did not arrive at smaller government or a less intrusive government. Will they self-evaluate? Seems not.

  3. collapse expand

    It’s not explicit, but could it be that the conversation referred only to expressing favorable opinions of HCR or certain parts of it by AEI scholars? That’s how I read it anyway. And the content of the links seems to bear out this impression- for example, one post was by an author who normally doesn’t pray about policy initiatives, but was praying against HCR. In fact, I didn’t see one favorable post.

    This requires a creative interpretation based on Bartlett’s retelling of a casual conversation from a few months ago, but addresses the core accusation of enforced orthodoxy and keeping on message.

    Clearly if Frum suggested there was an unqualified gag order and that every scholar at AEI favored some or all of HCR, he was wrong. But Frum himself has sporadically written about HCR and even recently endorsed voting against the bill, while admitting it has some virtues http://www.frumforum.com/obamacare-nay.

    Maybe Frum himself forgot that he had been writing about HCR, but I have to agree with Calfee that Bartlett has misquoted or left out some necessary context of the conversation.

  4. collapse expand

    I haven’t seen any evidence that Frum’s or Bartlett’s accusations are true. It doesn’t seem likely that Frum was let go because of his ideas — why would AEI put themselves in such a position? It seems like this would have been a controversy long before now if AEI was attempting to get all the writers to follow a party line.

    • collapse expand

      What do you think of the timing of his departure- a few days after a controversial article?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        From everything I’ve read, including the explanation from AEI that Frum resigned because he refused their request to come to the office more and earn his salary, I’d say Frum is using this controversy for self-serving reasons. I’m a pretty good judge of character, and everything I’ve seen and read from Frum is self-serving, attempting to build his own little power base — he’s a political animal and acts as such. Many people in D.C. are building their own franchises — more power to him, but don’t pretend he’s a victim acting on principle.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
        • collapse expand

          I only meant to cast doubt on Bartlett’s accuracy in recalling the conversation and to suggest what he might have meant so that his account did not contradict easily verifiable facts.

          Frum has since given his version of the conversation, which bears little resemblance to Bartlett’s- to the point of irrelevance, even. http://www.frumforum.com/so-what-happened It is also different from my guess.

          Your explanation of Frum wanting to form his own sphere of influence in conservatism makes sense to me, but leaves my question unanswered. Was his termination after the Waterloo article a mere coincidence, a decision based on that article alone, or the proximate cause in an asymmetrical relationship?

          As you can tell, I think it played some role.

          In response to another comment. See in context »
          • collapse expand

            From what I can tell, Frum could have stayed if he had agreed to do more work to earn his salary — I imagine AEI felt like if Frum was going post all this controversial stuff, he should at least post it at AEI — Frum might have brought attention to himself at AEI and then AEI saw he was doing very little for them, especially $100,000 worth, so they tightened down on his lack of production. Frum used this situation to get his name moving around again, then placed the blame on AEI — it’s all rather banal to me, except I think the defense of Frum and the trashing of AEI are both undeserved. If Frum had been producing at AEI and wrote this article, it might have raised a few eyebrows, but they would have let it slide — others at AEI who produce have written more controversial articles. I believe Frun is an opportunist, and I don’t know why this has to grow into a huge story of rightwing close mindedness — it’s about Frum and AEI paying him a damn good salary to produce having an irreconcilable disagreement. Frum saw an opportunity to exploit the situation and took it.

            In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    “Incidentally, the think tank is foolish to lose the talents of David Frum.”

    Are they, though? The bulk of what I have seen from Frum over the past couple of years seems to be light on actual intellectual policy discussion and heavy on positioning himself as more intellectual than the conservative wing of the GOP. Which is certainly his right as a writer, but hardly warrants a hundred-grand gig at a conservative think tank.

  6. collapse expand

    This health bill, the center piece of obama’s life…is the worse, most punishing piece of legislation ever written….this is as if Hitler wrote a health care bill for Jews….only worse

  7. collapse expand

    Conor: I commented on this post over at the Bh.tv forums, if you’re interested.

    http://bloggingheads.tv/forum/showthread.php?p=156230#post156230

  8. collapse expand

    “I note the remark only because it is bizarre to characterize the Frum/AEI question as a dispute between Bruce Bartlett and I. What does that even mean?”

    First, one should have learned in grade school that after a preposition “me” is used, not “I”…thus, “between Bruce Bartlett and me”.

    Second, I presume Steyn intended to communicate with that statement that there isn’t much to say about the Frum/AEI situation that wouldn’t boil down to speculation and allegation (what Bartlett has provided, for example) and someone else (you, for example) calling them out on their false allegation. Steyn gets it correct I think when he goes on to say that the crux seems to be that Frum was let go because he didn’t do anything for AEI and thus wasn’t entitled to 100K in salary. Frum, ever the self-promoter, is trying to make it into a big deal, when it isn’t (or shouldn’t be), except to him.

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    About Me

    Conor Friedersdorf is a writer, a Californian by upbringing, and a nomad at present. Refresh his page often.

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