Dr. Frederick M. Hess
Resident Scholar and Director of Education Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute; Hosted in Conjunction with the Curry School of Education
Dr. Frederick M. Hess, an educator, political scientist and author, gave a presentation to the Society on the role of think tanks in public policy, as well as sharing personal insights into life in general. He started his talk by discussing the many different audiences he had previously presented to, and recounted anecdotes about his travels to South Korea and Georgia. He then briefly commented on his career prior to joining a think tank.
According to Dr. Hess, there are three sets of key actors involved with public policy. First there are politicos themselves, and all their staff. In theory they are in Washington to accomplish big changes, but they also need to secure re-election. This means that the majority of their time is focused on constituent services, half-baked compromises and attempts to get things done. Secondly there are interest groups and lobbies, who essentially are spending their time making contact with congressional staff. They are getting paid by people to advocate for their interests, thus their work has nothing to do with ideas per say. Finally there is the media whose job is to show people what is going on. They cannot really focus on ideas since their job is to give an unbiased perspective. Dr. Hess, thus, argues that it is nobody’s job to fight for ideas, except for think tanks.
In principal, according to Dr. Hess, think tanks are the only place where people can advocate for ideas and principals, though there are, of course, certain people who have other agendas. He divides think tanks up into three different categories. Firstly there are places that are actually big chop shops for project evaluation. When there are large government projects whose evaluation needs to be supervised, university faculty will often do it, but it is more ideal to get people who will make it their life’s work. In the case of private clients, there is the issue that evaluations are usually very positive, because think tanks want to keep their clients. Secondly there are think tanks whose main task is advocacy. They are mainly staffed, not by researchers, but people who have connections on Capitol Hill or have a Masters in Public Policy. They have a specific agenda, and work to get money devoted to the public policy they agree with. They are not specifically politically affiliated, thus they are the think tanks that people can donate money too, and write it off on their taxes. Finally there are organizations that are tiny by university standards, but are composed of scholars and support staff that do the academic side of what academics do. They do not take sides, their job is to advocate for ideas. Unlike universities who, officially, are not interested in your ideology or views, these types of think tanks each have a certain way of thinking about the world, and only hire people with similar perspectives.  Dr. Hess commented that this different way of putting together a faculty produces an interesting cast of characters.
Dr. Hess then went on to say that the logic and power behind places like the Brookings Institute is that people are trained scholars who can have credibility, and can talk about ideas and how the world works. The trick is to do it in a way that does not upset people who think you are on their side, or you get boxed out, and lose connections. This, unfortunately, creates an incentive to tell people what they want to hear, in order to remain in good standing amongst those with power. This remains an ongoing struggle within think tanks.
Dr. Hess then entered into a discussion of the ability to feel empathy, as opposed to sympathy. He defined empathy as being the ability to understand why a reasonable person might feel differently about a subject than you do. Often people are so confident and arrogant in their “rightness” that they dismiss trying to understand the opposition’s arguments. There is, therefore, the danger of getting into the habit of only talking to people, who think like us. This makes us get moral and self-righteous, allowing the idea that there is uncertainty or different opinions escape us. According to Dr. Hess, having empathy makes the world a more interesting place, because you get to work with people who surprise you. Having different opinions does not mean you have to be mortal enemies. This also relates to policy, where people limit themselves, only talking to people who agree with them. He also warned against getting caught up in grand ideological arguments about how the world should be, as it is important to know how the world actually works in order to write successful public policy.
Dr. Hess ended his speech by giving some advice. First he stated that there are no general experts, only experts in small niche areas. Expertise is massively oversold.  Secondly he argued that you don’t need to have a life plan—in general most people have no idea what they are doing while they are living their life. You should do whatever you want, because if you want to do it, you will do it well. Thirdly he said that in order to do things well, you have to make sure you are not just the quiet one in the corner. The people who become truly successful find problems, even issues that people did not realize re problems, and solve them. Finally it is important to have humility, despite the fact that there is a certain premium for pretending you know more than you do. It is very easy to get an inflated sense of self-importance, so you must remind yourself how much knowledge you are actually faking.