I’ve gotten used to it, over the years — that look people get just before their eyes glaze over and their polite smile freezes in place, as I begin to answer the ubiquitous Washington DC question that everyone asks everyone upon first meeting. In New York it’s “Where do you live?” In the south, where I’m from , it’s “Who are your people?” In Washington DC it’s “Who do you work for?” or “Where do you work?” or “What do you do?”
I know before I start to answer that question, I’m probably going to lose people before I’m done. It was true back when I told people I was “blogmaster.” It’s true now that I tell people I blog for a progressive political think tank.
“Think tank?” their faces say. “What the hell is a think tank? What do you do all day at a think tank.” Yes, even in Washington in they are something of a mystery to some people. So I hope lots of people read this description of what goes in a think tank, by Slate’s Katy Waldman.
Charles and David Koch staged an attempt to take over leadership of the Cato Institute, the prominent libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., last week by claiming a majority of seats on its governing body. What do people who work at think tanks do all day, aside from thinking?
Lots of reading and writing, with occasional breaks for coffee. Think tank employees pore over studies, articles, and history books and issue policy briefs and reports on a bevy of topics. In global-oriented institutes such as AEI, scholars focuses on specific hotspots like the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Think tank workers must cultivate an extensive network of connections, so coffees, lunches, and meetings also eat up a large part of a scholar’s day. There are also plenty of TV appearances and phone interviews. Like college professors, think tank scholars are always traveling to conferences and joining in panels.
Life at a think tank tends to be stratified: There are the scholars, and then there’s everybody else. The former are treated very well, because they purvey the ideas and analysis that fuel the think tank’s operations. At the Carnegie Endowment, scholars get to stretch out in large offices. Senior fellows at Cato are paid salaries of about $160,000. Most think tank members get plenty of help from their own research assistants and administrative aides.
I have to add some caveats. I’m not a scholar, by any stretch. I’m lumped in with “everybody else.” I’m not a “fellow.” I’m staff. So, I don’t make $160,000 a year, or anywhere close to six figures, and I have other duties that don’t necessarily require much “thought.” Nor do I spend much time networking and gong to meetings. I occasionally travel to conferences and speak on panels. I’ve been on several radio shows and made one television appearance. I don’t have an administrative aide or research assistant, but I do get some help from our interns (when we have them).
That said, the bits about “lots of reading and writing,” and “[poring] over studies, articles and history books and policy briefs on a bevy of topics,” describes a good bit of what I do every day as part of the writing team at work.
Come to think of it, I think I stick with my current default answer, and just tell people “I’m a writer.” It’s so much easier.
At least until they ask, “What do you write?”