A Review of the Brookings Center for Technology Innovation: Has Director Darrell West struck a Faustian Bargain?

Brookings Center for Technology Innovation was launched on June 25, 2010, less than a year ago.  Led by Darrell West, it has come roaring out of the gate with a series of timely and highly useful events on hot button technology policy issues.

Less admirably, these events—with their occasional accompanying policy papers–have often served primarily as a megaphone for reflecting elite consensuses and differences rather than moving public policy debates forward.  The overall feel of these events is of a panel discussion at an elite trade show that assembles the obvious and interested elites, is moderated by a trade industry reporter, and is primarily interested in what the powerful and successful plan to do next—except that whereas trade shows charge for admission, Brookings does not.

I have attended more than a dozen Brookings events on technology policy during the past year.  Consider the most recent one, A Framework for Innovative Federal Spectrum Policy, which discussed yet another important, timely issue.   It featured a star-studded panel of spectrum advocates cum experts: Brookings Fellow Adele Morris, an economist and the leading think tank spectrum analyst in Washington, DC today, discussed the ideas in her recent joint paper with spectrum engineer Robert Matheson.  Blair Levin, former broadband czar at the FCC, was, as usual, an informed and colorful speaker.  Jim Ciccioni (AT&T) and Rick Whitt (Google) ably represented the views of carriers and device makers.  And Roger Entner, rounding out this smart set, demonstrated why he has had an illustrious career doing research and consulting for the major telecom players who can afford his services.   What could there be not to like?

The catch is that being smart and influential doesn’t necessarily imbibe you with a thirst for truth, let alone a desire for publicly expressing inconvenient truths.   Of course, it may be argued that thirsting for the truth isn’t what we expect of the DC smart set, let alone individual think tank panelists.  But Brookings, as the convenor?  We may not, in general, expect much of think tanks in the truth seeking department, especially doing the hard work of basic, highly innovative research.  But isn’t Brookings—the Ivy League studded, veritas seeking think thank—supposed to set a higher standard?  Isn’t it supposed to ask the inconvenient questions that the powerful might prefer not to have asked?   Isn’t it supposed to research policy ideas without fear or favor?

Consider that this is the second Brookings spectrum policy event in a row where all the panelists have endorsed giving billions of dollars worth of spectrum rights away to incumbents in the name of spectrum efficiency and political expediency.   That does appear to represent the elite consensus in DC.  But I doubt very much it represents the informed public consensus.  Even worse, one gets the sense that the members of this smart set, like the Obama administration, Congress, and the FCC, want to pretend that giving multi-billion dollar spectrum windfalls to incumbents is a pure win-win with no hard political decisions to be made.

A related omission in framing the debate was the discussion why the broadcast lobby opposes incentive auctions.  The theory proposed by several panelists was that the broadcasters’ spectrum becomes more valuable over time, so the longer they hold out, the more valuable it becomes.  This is true, and I had no problem with this theory.   But the only explanation offered for this theory was the rising demand for mobile broadband services.  There was no discussion of all the little games the broadcasters (and almost all spectrum incumbents) continually play to quietly acquire additional spectrum rights as the clock clicks away.  In the case of Brookings, it’s quite possible that the problem is that Darrell West, the moderator and event organizer, didn’t know any better, as spectrum policy and politics hasn’t been his specialty.  But many of the panelists surely knew better, and they represented the spectrum incumbents’ lobbying strategy that such issues are best dealt with discreetly out of the public eye because what goes around comes around.

The sensibility Darrell West has brought to Brookings’s technology policy initiative is that of a highly skilled journalist.  On timely subjects, he identifies talented and influential policymakers and popularizes their insights for larger audiences.   But the best journalists also report without fear or favor, to echo the New York Times’s motto.    It’s an ideal that few journalists either achieve or seriously strive to achieve because speaking truth to power is, for most journalists, not a profitable line of work.   West, who as a highly regarded political communications scholar has studied these tradeoffs with more care and rigor than any other think tank analyst at Brookings, is surely wrestling with them.   But as illustrated by the countless politicians who rail against Washington while campaigning and then succumb to all its temptations while in office, temptation often overcomes principle.  The same is surely true in the work that think tanks do.

West is undoubtedly striving to achieve a reasonable balance between his concern for the underdog and truth while not ruffling the feathers of the powerful and smart set he needs to cultivate.  Those who observe Brookings Center for Technology Innovation should decide for themselves how Darrell West does his balancing.   But there is no question that whatever balance he has struck, it has helped position Brookings as a leader, perhaps THE leader, in this policy space.



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