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Heritage 'destroying its own usefulness'

To her great credit, Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) held a hearing yesterday on the negative effects of austerity. The Washington
Heritage 'destroying its own usefulness'
Heritage 'destroying its own usefulness'

To her great credit, Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) held a hearing yesterday on the negative effects of austerity. The Washington Democrat, whose underappreciated skills are starting to generate more attention, reminded lawmakers that it is clearer than ever that now we need to focus above all else on our fragile economic recovery, and that the case for austerity in a time of economic weakness is simply wrong."

Committee Republicans had a witness on hand to say the opposite.

Countering them was Selim Furth, an economist at the Heritage Foundation. Furth argued that (a) tax increases harm the economy (b) spending cuts help economic growth and (c) permanent spending reform permanently increases growth. So far, so conservative. But the most interesting part of his testimony was Furth's claim that most of Europe isn't experiencing austerity at all."Just ten OECD countries have tightened their cyclically adjusted deficits since 2006–2007," Furth writes. "Despite major crises, even Ireland, Iceland, and Spain have increased their cyclically adjusted deficits."

As Dylan Matthews explained, all of this was quickly exposed as wrong. Indeed, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) pointed during the hearing that Furth's claims about OECD numbers are largely the opposite of the figures from the OECD itself.

"I am concerned that your testimony to this committee has been meretricious," Whitehouse told Furth. "I am contesting whether you have given us fair and accurate information."

For a Senate Budget Committee hearing, that's pretty tough language. Indeed, the senator was effectively accusing an economist from the nation's preeminent conservative think tank of presenting deliberately misleading information on an important issue.

And this, in turn, renews fears about what's become of the Heritage Foundation.

Paul Krugman had a good item this morning on the "nonsense" Furth pushed on the Hill.

One does wonder ... whether Heritage may at this point be destroying its own usefulness. Its purpose was never to do real research; it was always a propaganda arm of the movement. But it was supposed to create a plausible illusion of intellectual rigor, good enough to take in gullible journalists.But is there anyone not a committed right-winger who, at this point, believes anything coming out of Heritage? And in that case, what's the Foundation for?

That need not be a rhetorical question.

The Jason Richwine incident didn't do Heritage's reputation any favors, but even if we put that humiliation aside, the once-notable think tank appears to be reaching a point of no return.

Matt Yglesias recently said, "[E]ven ideological movement-oriented think tanks do their movements a disservice when they do bad work.... You actually want to have a team of people 'on your side' who you can trust to do good work."

That's true. If there are any Republican policymakers left who care about quality scholarship and reliable data, they'd no doubt like to rely on an institution like the Heritage Foundation as a go-to source for credible research. But as Heritage transitions from its traditional role as think tank to its new role as an activist group, and the intellectual infrastructure on the right deteriorates, GOP lawmakers no long have such a resource.

Heritage hiring Jim DeMint away from the Senate was clearly a turning point. As we discussed in January, when policy organizations conduct "research," they're supposed to rely on experts, scholars, and all-around wonks to look at a problem from different angles, relying on rigorous academic study to better understand the nature of a problem and how best to solve it.

DeMint believes research is about, in his words, "good marketing." The Heritage Foundation doesn't intend to focus on policy; it intends to focus on "messaging" and "communicating."

The goal isn't to publish scholarship, it's to provide talking points that have been carefully tested for their persuasive efficacy. DeMint doesn't intend to lead a think tank; he intends to use his think tank to become a message strategist for like-minded politicians.

The consequences are becoming increasingly obvious in the quality (or lack thereof) of Heritage's work. For the Republican Party, this is not at all good news.