AEI’s Muzzled Scholars: An Apology and Clarification

I wrote this morning that I would apologize to the American Enterprise Institute if it turned out that I misheard or misunderstood something I said that David Frum told me about its scholars not being allowed to publicly comment on elements of Obama’s health plan with which they agreed. Since then David has had this to say about our conversation:

Did AEI muzzle healthcare scholars? I fear that in reproducing in print a private conversation from some months ago, Bruce Bartlett made a transmission error. I did not report as fact that scholars were laboring under any restrictions. What I did say was that AEI was punching way below its weight in the healthcare debate. I wondered, not alleged, wondered, whether AEI scholars were constrained by fear of saying something that might get them into trouble. To repeat: this was something I asked many months ago in private conversation, not something I allege today in public debate.

Based on this clarification, I am now prepared to say publicly that I was wrong to claim that AEI was muzzling its scholars. It would have been much better if I had put my point the way New York University law professor Daniel Shaviro, who has been affiliated with AEI in the past, did:

Some rebuttals of the claim that AEI could have been muzzling its healthcare scholars note that, for example, [Columbia University economist] Glenn Hubbard has frequently and recently opined in print about healthcare reform. But, while Glenn has a long history of writing about healthcare in relation to the fiscal system, he would not have been among the people Frum would have had in mind. I won’t name AEI’s healthcare specialists here, but you can find their names on the AEI website, and I don’t think they’ve had much to say publicly on the topic in the last couple of years, which is interesting and indeed surprising.

I’d also note that (a) when I met and talked with these individuals in connection with my Medicare book, it was clear they are serious people and straight shooters, not political hacks, (b) I would be surprised if they were NOT sympathetic to the approach of mandating health insurance coverage, given this idea’s deep roots in (without restriction to) conservative, Republican, and generally pro-market circles, along with the fundamental argument in support of the mandate as a response to adverse selection (a central problem in promoting the general availability of adequate medical treatment).

In short, I see a compelling circumstantial case in favor of the claim of muzzling that Bartlett reports. (Emphasis added)

With the benefit of hindsight I should have left the charge of muzzling out of my original post because it distracted people from the larger point I was making about the rigidity of thought at conservative think tanks and adherence to the Republican Party line, which I still believe to be the case. The fact that David was fired and the way he was fired is sufficient proof of that. Here is what he now says about the circumstances:

Was the firing political? Obviously I cannot enter into people’s minds, and at my termination lunch AEI President Arthur Brooks insisted that politics had nothing to do with the decision. So let’s just follow the time line. Waterloo piece is posted Sunday March 22. Wall Street Journal editorial denouncing me appears March 23. Summons to lunch arrives mid-morning of March 23. At lunch I am told that AEI wishes to terminate my salary, office, benefits, and research assistance. I am however at liberty to continue to consider myself part of the AEI family. I declined that offer and wrote a letter of resignation.

Was the firing in response to donor pressure? At lunch, Arthur Brooks explained that AEI was facing a new kind of donor environment, in which donors were becoming much more specific about where they wanted their money to go. Arthur expressed extreme personal distress at having to terminate me. It’s possible that those words were pro forma, and that my own affection for Arthur led me to attach more weight to them than I should have. It’s very strange that Charles Murray would denounce me as a liar because I wished to think better of my former boss!

I believe that every scholar associated with AEI has had their credibility and respect diminished by the organization’s shameful treatment of David Frum. People who work there have long believed that they worked someplace equivalent to a university except without the teaching. And the media have historically treated AEI’s work and comments by its scholars as a cut above groups like the Heritage Foundation that have long been more politically-oriented and had much less prestige among academics and journalists.

Those days are over. Henceforth, AEI’s work must be viewed much more skeptically; not as equivalent to press releases from the Republican National Committee, perhaps, but more like the studies that come from, say, the Republican staff of a congressional committee. It may still be good work, but there will no longer be a presumption that it is balanced, objective or reliable, and more than likely reflects a political bias.

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About Bruce Bartlett 76 Articles

Affiliation: Forbes

Bruce Bartlett is a columnist for, the online side of Forbes, the nation’s premier financial magazine.

He served for many years in prominent governmental positions including executive director of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, Deputy Assistant Secretary for economic policy at the U.S. Treasury Department during the George H.W. Bush Administration, and as a senior policy analyst in the White House for Ronald Reagan.

Bruce is the author of seven books, including the New York Times best-selling Impostor: How George W. Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, and thousands of articles in national publications including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, New Republic, Fortune and many others. He appears frequently on CNN, CNBC, C-SPAN and Fox News, and has been a guest on both the Daily Show with Jon Stewart and the Colbert Report.

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