U.S. a paradise for think tanks

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U.S. a paradise for think tanks

The United States is a country of think tanks. They propose policy ideas to the U.S. government and Congress, and create public opinion to influence government policies. So they are called the fifth estate. As of 2012, there are 1,823 think tanks in the United States, an overwhelming number compared to China’s 429 and Japan’s 108.

My visit to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) last month made me realize why the United States is a paradise for think tanks. Established in 1962 as a part of Georgetown University, the CSIS had been on K Street until it moved to a nine-story building on Rhode Island Avenue in Washington, D.C. During a tour of the new headquarters, I found a plaque titled “Inamori Asia Center” on the door to a conference room. The tour guide explained that the room was named after the honorary chairman of Kyocera, Kazuo Inamori, who is known as the “Living God of Management” in Japan.

Inamori is one of the co-founders of CSIS. Thanks to his involvement, the center, which influences policy based on its centrist orientation, speaks up on issues regarding Japan. In February, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a speech at the CSIS and said, “Japan is back.” A small conference room next to the Inamori Asia Center is named the “Doosan Room” in recognition of the donation made by Doosan Group’s Park Yong-maan. However, the difference in size between the two reflects the gap between Japanese and Korean companies’ investment on ideas.

According to section 501(C)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, nonprofit organizations receive a federal tax exemption, and think tanks also have tax-exempt status. Individuals and corporations gladly make donations to think tanks, and they encourage donations by naming rooms after benefactors. The Brookings Institution, the most influential think tank in the United States, operates on an annual budget of $88.9 million, and 80 percent of that comes from donations.

The think tanks also produce high-ranking officials in the United States. Former Vice President Dick Cheney was with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and National Security Adviser Susan Rice was a Brookings Institution fellow. The think tanks serve as an invisible link for lobbying.

How about Korea? Korea is the 12th-largest economy in the world, but Korean companies make little investment in think tanks. Compared to the country’s economic capacity, policy and research institutions are trivial. There are 35 think tanks, mostly under the government, including research institutes under conglomerates, similar to the level of Bangladesh. The Asan Institute for Policy Studies is a civilian institute that is expanding.

As an incubator of various ideologies and policies, think tanks contribute to the active debate culture in the country. The political contest in the National Assembly is far from healthy debates and discussions. The shortage of think tanks is related to the lack of a healthy discussion. New money can become a tycoon when it grows the scope of ideas, not just the size of wealth.

*The author is a Washington correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

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