last updated: November 28, 2006
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The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research is a largely rightist organization that publishes materials to influence opinion on national and local (New York) issues. Left-center critiques of the power of right-wing think tanks typically focus on such Washington, DC institutions as the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. Often overlooked, perhaps because of its location far outside the Beltway, is the Manhattan Institute.
But neither the George W. Bush administration nor top Republican figures make the same mistake. For example, Vice President Dick Cheney delivered a major foreign policy speech on the Iraq War at the Manhattan Institute on January 19, 2006. In his introductory marks, Cheney commended the institute as a "place of tremendous creativity, of original thinking, and of intellectual rigor." He continued: "The scholars of the Manhattan Institute have shown, time and again, the power of good ideas to shape public policy and to have an impact on the lives of people here in New York and across the nation . I congratulate you for building such a fine reputation, and for maintaining it over the years."
Six months later, President Bush also chose the Manhattan Institute for his speech on restoring the line-item veto to the presidency. Bush thanked the Manhattan Institute for supporting "pro-growth economic policies-policies that really send a clear signal that we are still the land of dreamers and doers and risk-takers." Bush had previously visited the Manhattan Institute to deliver a major policy speech in 2002.
The Manhattan Institute's mission is "to develop and disseminate new ideas that foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility." In its first incarnation, the institute was known as the International Center for Economic Policy Studies. The center was founded in the mid-1970s as part of an Anglo-American circle of ideologues and operatives who were establishing right-wing institutes in Britain and the United States to promote "free market" and socially conservative philosophies. In 1978, the center took the name "Manhattan Institute." The cofounders were William Casey and Antony G.A. Fisher. Casey was a Wall Street speculator who later became President Ronald Reagan's spymaster. He served as the first chairman of the International Center for Economic Policy Studies, was a longtime conservative, was the lawyer who drew up the founding papers for the National Review, and was a founding director of the National Strategy Information Center. Fisher, a British economist, was serving as chairman of the Institute for Economic Affairs in London, when he encouraged counterparts in the United States to set up a similar institute. He was a devotee of the University of Chicago school economists Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman and became a close adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
In 2006, presidential hopefuls Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Rudy Giuliani both spoke before Manhattan Institute audiences. Giuliani, who as mayor of New York City tapped the Manhattan Institute for policy ideas, has high praise for the right-wing think tank. Prominently displayed on the institute's website is this Giuliani blurb: "Many of the institute's emblematic ideas-from the notion that low taxes encourage businesses to the concept that police should be treated with respect-were originally greeted with skepticism but have since been embraced by well-run cities everywhere. Congratulations on a quarter-century of making a difference."
Perhaps no other think tank has been so assiduously dedicated to the "ideas have consequences" mantra of traditional conservatism. The Manhattan Institute's long history is testament to the truth of this political maxim and to its corollary: money and marketing are essential for ideas to have consequences in the post-modern world. The institute's slogan is: "Turning intellect into influence."
Summarizing the institute's strategy, institute President Lawrence Mone said in a 2002 speech to the conservative Philanthropy Roundtable: "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."
To turn "intellect into influence," the institute employs a three-step strategy. Mone described the process. "The first vehicle," he explained, "is an aggressive book-publishing and marketing program, which redefines debates on national issues." Rather than publishing books itself, as do many think tanks, the institute demands that its scholars "pass the 'market test' of commercial trade houses." Secondly, the institute publishes the quarterly magazine City Journal, which is aimed at New York elites. And thirdly, the institute holds "Manhattan Forums," which "bring together cross-sections of the nation's elites-from the worlds of government, business, journalism, and philanthropy."
The New Yorker conceit that New York City is the center of the world abounds at the institute, where the notion is less a case of pride than a calculation that if its ideas take root in the New York polity and media, then Washington and the rest of the world will surely follow.
When asked in 1998 about the influence of the Manhattan Institute, Harvey Robins, deputy to NYC mayors David Dinkins and Edward Koch, told the Boston Globe: "The Manhattan Institute clearly has become the force, and there is no progressive force to counter it. There isn't even a debate" (Boston Globe, February 22, 1998).
The Manhattan Institute's policy ideas have traveled far beyond city limits. A New York Times article observed in 1993: "Despite its focus on New York, the Manhattan Institute has had its greatest influence in other cities. Mayors in Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Jersey City, and Phoenix have praised it and adopted some of its advice." And through its Inter-American Policy Exchange program, the institute takes its ideas on urban policy reforms to Latin American municipalities. The institute runs several other programs and projects, including: the Center for Medical Progress, Center for Civic Innovation, Safe Cities Initiative, Education Reform Initiative, Welfare Reform Initiative, Crime Reduction Initiative, Social Entrepreneurship, Center for Rethinking Development, Race and Ethnicity, Center for Legal Policy, and the Center for the Digital Economy.
The institute's influence extends into the Bush administration; for a short period, John J. DiIulio, a senior fellow of the institute, was head of the administration's Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
The ideological character of the Manhattan Institute was underscored when Heather Mac Donald, an institute fellow, commented on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's new program to provide monetary incentives, including offering a child-care tax credit and raising private funding, to reward the poor whose children stay in school. Mac Donald said that the mayor's new program constituted an implicit acceptance of the view that "it is the underclass poor who need to change more than society or capitalism" (New York Times, October 8, 2006).
The Manhattan Institute, along with other right-wing think tanks, has joined in the political fray about Wal-Mart. As unions and Democrats team up with local activists in criticizing the company's buying and labor practices, the company has turned to the Manhattan Institute and other conservative think tanks to mount a counter-attack. A recent New York Times article noted that "the company has discovered a reliable ally: prominent conservative research groups like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Manhattan Institute" (New York Times, September 8, 2006). The institute's ideas on education, private enterprise, and government regulation mirror those of the retail giant. But in addition to the confluence of ideas, there is a financial connection. The Walton Family Foundation is a donor to the Manhattan Institute, giving $221,000 to the institute from 2000 to 2005.
Steven Malanga, a contributing editor at the institute's City Journal, seems to be a high-profile ally of Wal-Mart in the retailer's battle to shape public opinion about itself. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Malanga opined that "Wal-Mart has led a productivity revolution in retailing which supercharged the American economy" (Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2004). According to Malanga, "Non-union Wal-Mart represents the leading edge of this American business revolution," supposedly improving the living standards of U.S. workers by bringing them cheaper consumer goods. In his view, the debate about Wal-Mart pits "left-wing groups" and "elite" sectors against the "common folk" who shop at Wal-Mart.
On immigration, Manhattan Institute scholars sometimes strike a moderate conservative tone, one that seems inspired in part by the pro-business stance of the institute and is at odds with hardline anti-immigrant activists. For instance, in the November/December 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs, the institute's Tamar Jacoby criticized "naysayers" of immigration reform who are committed to denying all forms of legalization to undocumented immigrants and desire to build a fence between the United States and Mexico. Although she argued that stronger enforcement against illegal immigration must be a central part of reform, Jacoby emphasized that providing citizenship to undocumented workers was the only reasonable way forward. She wrote: "[S]urely, once policymakers agree that it is unthinkable to deport these workers or allow them to remain here in legal limbo, it should be possible to agree on a compromise-one that signals the nation's seriousness about enforcing its laws but does not preclude long-term residents from earning citizenship . Of all the naysayers' concerns, the most serious have to do with assimilation: fears that today's newcomers cannot or will not become Americans. Certainly, a lot more should be done to encourage and assist immigrants to assimilate. But it does not help to pretend that they are not arriving or to fantasize that tough enforcement can undo the laws of supply and demand. On the contrary, such denial and the vast illegal world of second-class non-citizens it creates are among the biggest barriers to assimilation today. That is all the more reason for Americans to open their eyes and face up to the facts of the immigrant influx" (Foreign Affairs, November/December 2006).
The institute's board of trustees reveals its deep financial pockets and ideological leanings. Many of its board members are leading investors, attorneys, and corporate leaders, including: Board Chairman Dietrich Weismann (Weismann Associates), Byron Wien (Morgan Stanley), Charles Brunie (Brunie Associates), Robert Appel (Appel Associates), Christopher Browne (Tweedy, Browne, Inc.), Peter Flanigan (UBS Warburg), Mark Gerson (Gerson Lehrman), Maurice Greenberg (CV STARR), Bruce Kovner (Caxton Corporation), James Piereson (Olin Foundation), Robert Rosenkranz (Delphi Financial Group), Andrew Saul (Saul Partners), Paul Singer (Elliott Associates), Thomas Smith (Prescott Investors), and Bruce Wilcox (Cumberland Associates).
Political luminaries William Kristol and Peggy Noonan also sit on the institute's board of trustees. (For the full board, see the institute's list of trustees.)
The institute has three dozen scholars who staff the City Journal or work in institute programs or centers. Among the most prominent are Jacoby, Heather Mac Donald, Myron Magnet, Steve Malanga, Sol Stern, and Abigail Thernstrom.
From 1985 through 2005, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research received $18.9 million, largely from right-wing foundations, according to MediaTransparancy.org. Among the major funders in this 20-year period were Sarah Scaife Foundation, Smith Richardson Foundation, Bradley Foundation, Olin Foundation, Earhart Foundation, Carthage Foundation, William Donner Foundation, and Gilder Foundation. Other major grants came from foundations including: the John Templeton Foundation, William Simon Foundation, Castle Rock Foundation, Shelby Cullom Davis Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, Jaquelin Hume Foundation, and Claude Lambe Foundation.
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SourcesDick Cheney, "Vice President's Remarks on Iraq and the War on Terror at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research," Address to Manhattan Institute, January 19, 2006.
Steven Malanga, "The War on Wal-Mart," Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2004.
Michael Barbaro and Stephanie Strom, "Conservatives Help Wal-Mart, and Vice-Versa," New York Times, September 8, 2006.
Fred Kaplan, "Conservatives Plant a Seed in NYC," Boston Globe, February 22, 1998.
James Traub, "Pay for Good Behavior?" New York Times, October 8, 2006.
Janny Scott, "Turning Intellect Into Influence: Promoting Its Ideas, the Manhattan Institute Has Nudged New York Rightward," New York Times, May 12, 1997.
Norman Solomon, "The Manhattan Institute: Launch Pad for Conservative Authors," Extra!, March 1, 1998.
"Ideas Matter," New York Post, January 30, 2003, http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/_nypost-ideas_matter.htm.
Lawrence J. Mone, "How Think Tanks Achieve Public Policy Breakthrough," May 29, 2002, www.manhattan-institute.org/html/lm_pr_address.htm.
Tamar Jacoby, "Immigration Nation," Foreign Affairs, November/December 2006.