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Does Affirmative Action Divide Us or Unite Us?
Think Tank Transcripts:Affirmative Action
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MR. WATTENBERG: Hello, I'm Ben Wattenberg. Affirmative action hastaken center stage in the current political debate. Now, isaffirmative action necessary to correct historical wrongs againstminorities and women, or is it a racial and gender spoils system thatis dividing America? Where do we go from here?
Joining us to sort through the conflict and consensus are: GlennLoury, professor of economics at Boston University and author of 'Oneby One from the Inside Out'; Ronald Walters, chairman of thePolitical Science Department at Howard University; Linda Chavez,president of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of 'Out ofthe Barrio: Towards a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation'; andChristopher Edley, Jr., professor at Harvard University School ofLaw, who recently headed President Clinton's task force onaffirmative action.
The topic before this house: Does affirmative action divide us orunite us? This week on 'Think Tank.'
Affirmative action as now practiced is under assault. Severalrecent Supreme Court decisions have limited the extent of affirmativeaction. But last week, President Clinton weighed in in favor ofaffirmative action, albeit with some Clinton-esque caveats, whichwill be discussed later.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: (From videotape.) If affirmative action hasworked and if there is evidence that discrimination still exists on awide scale in ways that are conscious and unconscious, then whyshould we get rid of it, as many people are urging?
We should have a simple slogan: Mend it, but don't end it.
But let me be clear. Affirmative action has been good for America.(Applause.)
MR. WATTENBERG: The president's speech sparked reactions, bothpositive and negative. First, the Democrats. Mr. Clinton was praisedby District of Columbia Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and by JesseJackson, sort of.
DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (D-DC): (From videotape.) Bill Clintonshowed that he had the guts to stand up and lead the American peopleout of their polarization.
REV. JESSE JACKSON (National Rainbow Coalition): (From videotape.)Today he stuck his finger in the dike, but the floodwaters arerising.
MR. WATTENBERG: As for the Republicans, presidential candidatesSenator Majority Leader Bob Dole and California Governor Pete Wilsonwere not impressed.
SENATOR BOB DOLE (R-KS): (From videotape.) You do not cure theevil of discrimination with more discrimination.
GOVERNOR PETE WILSON (R-CA): He says that he is opposed to quotas,but favors preferences. They are -- that's a distinction without adifference.
MR. WATTENBERG: Led by Governor Wilson, the California Board ofRegents, which oversees California's state universities, rolled backracial preferences for college admissions. The vote was met withangry protests led by Jesse Jackson.
According to most projections, if academic achievement were thesole criterion used for admission, the number of black and Hispanicstudents at the University of California at Berkeley would dropsharply; white students would increase a bit, and the number of Asianstudents would go up dramatically.
Lady and gentlemen, let us begin with one quick go-around on thissort of elemental question. President Clinton said that affirmativeaction has been good for America. Linda Chavez, is he right?
MS. CHAVEZ: I think he's wrong because affirmative action meansracial preferences today, and that most decidedly has been bad forAmerica.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Ron Walters.
MR. WALTERS: I think certainly affirmative action has been good.You really have to ask the people who have benefitted from it, themillions of women, the millions of minorities, and I think that theywould give you a resounding yes.
MR. WATTENBERG: All right. Glenn Loury.
MR. LOURY: What's been good for America is the concern aboutracial inequality. There was a time when affirmative action, I think,necessarily advanced that concern, but that time has passed.
MR. WATTENBERG: And Chris Edley.
MR. EDLEY: Well, I agree with what Glenn said except for the lastphrase. I don't think the time is over. We still do need affirmativeaction. But that doesn't mean it should be immune from reform or thatwe shouldn't fight abuses.
MR. WATTENBERG: All right, to those of you -- Linda, I guess,particularly -- was affirmative action important and useful when itwas originally conceived?
MS. CHAVEZ: Well, the original intent of affirmative action was tocast a wider net and to provide skills and training in order to allowthose who had been kept out in the past to be able to compete, tobring them up to speed so that they could compete under the samerules and standards as everyone else. And I think it was verynecessary. I think it was part of the whole change and shift thattook place, beginning in the 1960s, when we passed ournon-discrimination laws.
The problem was that it did in fact modify over the years, and bythe time that President Nixon was in office, you had affirmativeaction being turned into problems that granted preference on thebasis of race, and it employed numerical -- numbers in order to tryand essentially force employers and other sectors of our publicinstitutions to hire people by the number, to select people by race.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Right, wrong, what Linda says?
MR. WALTERS: Yes, I think she certainly is wrong. I knew SamJackson, who was the first director of the Equal OpportunityEmployment Commission, and I remember talking --
MR. WATTENBERG: Now, Linda, you were staff director of the --
MS. CHAVEZ: I was director of the Civil Rights Commission underPresident Reagan.
MR. WATTENBERG: -- of the Civil Rights Commission.
MS. CHAVEZ: Mm-hmm.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, I'm sorry. Go ahead, Ron.
MR. WALTERS: And I remember talking to Sam, and he wascommiserating that this first commission had very few teeth to doanything, and that the first time he got a chance, he was going to goback to Congress to see if they couldn't get it. So I'm happy that aRepublican president, Nixon, came along and said, well, we have aprinciple in Title XII. What we need is an implementation mechanism.And if you hadn't had successive presidents to issue executive ordersand to do those kinds of things to actually make it work, it wouldhave been very similar to what we have in Brazil, a principle whichreally would be meaningless.
MR. WATTENBERG: Glenn.
MR. LOURY: Well, I think there are a couple of things here. One isto distinguish between anti-discrimination enforcement efforts, whichsometimes of necessity, in my opinion, require attention to numericalinformation, on the one hand, andevery-group-deserves-their-proportionate-piece-of-the-pie thinking,which is clearly what's behind the set-aside of governmentprocurement to businesses identified by the color or the sex of thepeople who own a majority interest in them. It has become quitedivisive and costly, costly politically, costly to the interests ofAfrican-Americans, and I think costly to this Democratic president,as he's going to learn in due course.
MR. WATTENBERG: All right, speaking of this Democratic president,he too has dealt with these criteria and the nuances. Let's just cutfor a moment to one more bite of President Clinton's recent speech,and then let's talk about that.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: (From videotape.) Today I am directing all ouragencies to comply with the Supreme Court's Adarand decision, andalso to apply the four standards of fairness to all our affirmativeaction programs that I have already articulated: No quotas in theoryor practice; no illegal discrimination of any kind, including reversediscrimination; no preference for people who are not qualified. Anyprogram that doesn't meet these four principles must be eliminated orreformed to meet them.
MR. WATTENBERG: Chris Edley, let me ask you a question, because somuch of this whole discussion and argument going on about affirmativeaction in the country is in how you define various terms.
Suppose this very speech was delivered by Governor Wilson or byBob Dole or by Pat Buchanan, the same speech. Would you fear for thecontinued use of affirmative action?
MR. EDLEY: That's a great question.
MR. WATTENBERG: Thank you. Thank you.
MR. EDLEY: No, really, it is. And I think -- let me answer it thisway. I've been asked by some reporters and talk show callers in thedays of this speech to try to elaborate some a little on at least myunderstanding of what the president has in mind.
When he says, for example, a program should end or be reformed ifit creates reverse discrimination, the question is, what does he meanby reverse discrimination?
MR. WATTENBERG: And what does he mean by ending?
MR. EDLEY: Right. What he means by reverse discrimination isessentially the same test that the Supreme Court discussed in theAdarand case, so that there is built into that, sort of incorporatedby reference, this issue of justification -- for example, is there apredicate of prior discrimination -- as well as narrow tailoring.
The difficulty with some of the harsh opponents of affirmativeaction is that they are not where seven out of nine justices of theSupreme Court are on the issue, but they are instead where JusticeThomas and Justice Scalia are, namely, feeling that any kind ofdistinction based on race is constitutionally prohibited, rather thanrecognizing that there are some distinctions that may be critical, atleast for remedial purposes, and possibly for purposes of inclusionas well.
MS. CHAVEZ: One of the things I find myself frustrated aboutwhenever these discussions begin is that we talk in very theoreticalterms. We have some real knowledge about how these programs work inspecific institutions. The University of California at Berkeley, forexample, has had an affirmative action program in case for manyyears. Now, the original University of California system of quotaswas in fact struck down by the Bakke decision back in the late 1970s.And since then, they've moved towards a diversity standard, takinginto account Bakke and saying that they could in fact make race afactor in selection.
How is that operated? Well, I'll tell you how it's operated. AtCal, you have students who are Asians who are being admitted --
MR. WATTENBERG: At Cal meaning?
MS. CHAVEZ: University of California at Berkeley.
MR. WATTENBERG: Right.
MS. CHAVEZ: -- are admitted with SAT scores that are 300 pointshigher than those black students who are admitted under affirmativeaction programs. Moreover, the Asian students have to have a gradepoint average which is half a point higher. They come in with a 3.9average; black students come in with a 3.4 average.
And there are similar disparities between whites and Hispanics.Hispanics are midway, sort of, between where whites and blacks are onthis scale.
What that means is that we are applying double standards, andthose double standards are being applied on the basis of race.
MR. WALTERS: I think what you've got here really, though, when youlook at this at the end of the day, these four principles whenapplied probably would mean that there would be very few of theseprograms eliminated because there are no quotas, and on and on and onand on.
MS. CHAVEZ: That's right.
MR. WALTERS: So I think that what the president has done is to setout a standard which meets the public dialogue and the problems thatthe public has with these programs. But at the end of the day, theseprograms are going to stand. With respect to the California system, Ithink what we -- she talks about, this has created sort of a problemof double standard. There is no university in the United States thatadmits strictly on the basis of these scores because universitieshave different objectives.
MR. WATTENBERG: Neither would the University of California underthe Wilson standard.
MR. WALTERS: Absolutely.
MR. WATTENBERG: You'd still have about 50 percent of the people,40 percent --
MR. WALTERS: Right, absolutely.
MR. WATTENBERG: Right.
MR. WALTERS: So this is not a situation where the objectives ofuniversities and looking at the diversity of their student bodies canbe achieved simply by reference to these scores.
MS. CHAVEZ: But, Ron --
MR. WALTERS: There are super-ordinate objectives here in Americanhigher education, and I think we ought to keep that in mind.
MS. CHAVEZ: But, Ron, let me just make one more point. Thedistinction is that we ought to have one set of rules, and it oughtto apply to all persons without regard to their race, their color ortheir gender. And if the university wants to take into account otherthings, including socioeconomic conditions -- MR. WALTERS: Which itdoes.
MS. CHAVEZ: -- I think that's fine.
MR. WALTERS: Which it does.
MS. CHAVEZ: But it ought to be the same rules, and race and colorand gender ought not to be the basis for different rules and doublestandards.
MR. WATTENBERG: All right, let's bring Boston into it.
MR. LOURY: I want to say something here.
MR. WATTENBERG: Let Boston give a shot here.
MR. LOURY: I think the problem here is that we're not beingentirely honest about what's at stake. From my point of view, someconcern for racial diversity in a college class is a legitimateinterest of the institution.
MR. EDLEY: Hallelujah.
MR. LOURY: If they were going to have zero black, Hispanic, or 1/2of 1 percent at Berkeley if they went strictly by test scores, sothey said, We can't live with that because we're really doing adisservice to our students by constituting a community sounreflective of the world in which they'll have to function, I wouldregard that as a reasonable statement.
Now, the question becomes this: What price will I pay to indulgemy legitimate interest in diversity in terms of a disparity in themeasures of academic ability of the students that I admit? Fiftypoints on an SAT when the average score is 1200 is a reasonable priceto pay. That's comparable to the price that universities pay in orderto indulge the sons and daughters of alumni in their admissionsprocess, in order to ensure that they get geographic diversity, thatthey recruit athletes and musically talented youngsters into theircommunities. Why not also that degree of indulgence after thelegitimate interests of racial and ethnic diversity? Two hundred andfifty, 300 points, that's too big.
MR. WATTENBERG: And that's what it is now, according to --
MR. LOURY: That's what it is, and if you indulged a 50-pointdifference, you might end up with 4 percent instead of 10 percentminority in a class. We can live with that, and you've still got somediversity.
MR. WATTENBERG: Let me be the skunk at the garden party here, andbring up the 'p' word, which is politics. Now, the president said inthe middle of his speech that it's just dreadful to play politicswith this, and one paragraph later, he was there pounding on theRepublicans for being bad guys and starving children and whatever.
Ron Walters, you used to be an adviser to Reverend Jesse Jackson.Now, inside this particular beltway, as people look at the politicalspin of this particular speech, they are saying that what thepresident really was doing politically was to freeze Jesse, which isto say, I'm going to come out with a speech that everybody is goingto interpret to be very much pro affirmative action. That takes JesseJackson's issue away from him. He cannot -- should not -- would notstart a third party to run against me, which would ensure theelection of Pete Wilson or Robert Dole or whoever. True or not true?
MR. WALTERS: Well, I think that Jesse may be thawing, but he'scertainly not frozen. (Laughter.) I think -- because when you look atsome of the problems, I think, that he has with the administration, Ithink they're valid.
As we sit, we are just about to go in the 1996 elections. We stilldon't have an urban policy of any dimension. When you look at thenature of his crime bill, it's still a 'lock 'em up, throw 'em away,build prisons, a hundred thousand police on the street, lock 'em up.'
MR. WATTENBERG: All things I approve of.
MR. WALTERS: All of the things that you approve of, yes.
MR. WATTENBERG: Right.
MR. WALTERS: And so it really does sound kind of 'Republocrat.'And so I think that what we really do need is a Democrat in the WhiteHouse who respects the political coalition that elected him, and Idon't think we're quite there yet with this president. And so I thinkthe viability of that party option is still very real.
MR. WATTENBERG: I see Chris in Boston is smiling. Now, you wrote apiece in the 'Outlook' section that said heaven forfend that therewas any politics whatsoever involved in the actual creation of thereport. And if you said it, I'm sure it's true, but would you saythat, the report notwithstanding, this particular White House wasparticularly attuned to the political impact?
MR. EDLEY: Not true. Well, what do you mean 'attuned to thepolitical impact'? I mean, do people pay attention to politics? Ofcourse. But do -- were political calculations at work in crafting thepolicy or the report? The answer to that is --
MR. WATTENBERG: Or the speech?
MR. EDLEY: Or the speech? The answer is no. What was at work, Ithink, was -- I know --was moral calculation, not politicalcalculation. What was at work was a sense that unless the presidentcould speak clearly about this issue, it would be impossible to tryto lead the national conversation.
MR. WATTENBERG: Then why was he --
MR. EDLEY: I must say, Ben, you disappoint me deeply.
MR. WATTENBERG: Well --
MR. EDLEY: I mean, I think -- I know inside the beltway, Iunderstand that it's a one-industry town, but -- but -- and I knowit's more difficult to talk about what's right and wrong versus who'sup and who's down, but --
MR. WATTENBERG: Well, we just did talk about what's right andwrong. But --
MR. EDLEY: (Laughing) -- Oh, we settled that.
MR. WATTENBERG: But a couple of months ago, the spin coming fromthe White House is, Boy, we are really going to reform affirmativeaction, and the angry white male and all that kind of stuff. And thenthere were all the stories of the Congressional Black Caucus and thecivil rights community coming in and banging up on PresidentClinton's head. And then out comes his speech, and you're saying norelationship.
MR. EDLEY: No, look. What -- first of all, the spin wasmisreported. None of the people, the handful of people who weremeeting week in and week out with the president and the vicepresident discussing this policy, formulating the report, weresitting around in the Oval Office discussing polls or focus groups orwho the Republican nominee is going to be or what Jesse Jackson'sreaction's going to be.
MR. WATTENBERG: No, that's what Richard Morris was doing after youleft -- (laughter) --with the president.
MR. EDLEY: Look, it's -- the fact of the matter is, for exactlythe reason that you pundits like to talk about the politics so much,the politics is indeterminate here. The arrows point in everydirection. It's a waste of time.
MR. LOURY: Ben --
MS. CHAVEZ: Ben, I have to tell you, I think that Chris Edley'smotives were absolutely pure. I think Bill Clinton played an almostMachiavellian role here. I think the speech a couple months ago,basically dangling out the prospect that he was going to take awaythese programs, was done to make people nervous. And then he putChris Edley in charge and others in charge who were very much proaffirmative action. He knew exactly where he wanted to end up. Andwhat he did was he had all of the civil rights community very nervousand now very beholden to him because he saved their program.
MR. EDLEY: But it was the right thing to do. Everybody was nervousbecause we were asking at the president's insistence hard questions,and they were the right questions.
MS. CHAVEZ: A majority of Americans don't agree with you.
MR. EDLEY: But the answers are what they are.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, hold on.
MR. LOURY: The political problems that Jesse Jackson has and thatRon Walters has with Bill Clinton are really not problems with BillClinton. They're problems with the American people. I think thepresident probably will pay a political price for what he has done inthe general election, although he probably got some political benefitout of it in terms of shorter-term Democratic Party politicscalculation.
But the bottom line here is that affirmative action is unpopular.Pete Wilson has got an issue. I would much rather be in his positionas a political operative than in the position of trying to paint himas a demagogue for using the issue, when in fact most people agreewith him on the fundamentals here.
MR. WATTENBERG: Now, as the ranking Machiavellian here, let megive you one more twist on this, which is as follows:
Everything plays out as you all just said, and then about a yearfrom now or 9 months from now or 13 months from now, when you getinto the general campaign, particularly if Reverend Jackson is not inthe race, at that point, President Clinton pulls out these fourpoints. He says, Remember, I was going to police this stuff, and Ihave eliminated more phony-baloney affirmative action. You shouldhave seen what Reagan and Bush -- when Linda Chavez was in the CivilRights Office -- you should see the abuses that they allowed, and Iam the guy who cleaned up affirmative action.
That -- how does that ring for some politics?
MR. WALTERS: Well, I think one of the reasons why some of us --
MR. WATTENBERG: And then you're going to cry betrayal.
MR. WALTERS: I am going to cry betrayal, and that's one of thereasons why I'm not dancing in the street -- (laughter) -- becausethis is more than a one-issue proposition. It's beyond one speech. Iwant to look and see what the White House does with these fourprinciples. I want to see what the agencies do at his direction withthese programs, so we've got a long way to go before even theaffirmative action chapter is over.
MS. CHAVEZ: If Bill Clinton --
MR. LOURY: Can I make a point here, Ben?
MR. WATTENBERG: Wait one second. Let Linda go.
MS. CHAVEZ: If Bill Clinton wants to move to my right on thisissue, I will move over and give him room. (Laughter.) I'd be happyto have him there.
MR. LOURY: We're talking only about the presidential politics.What about the politics of the interests of poor black people? Ithink those interests have been very poorly served by what amounts todeal-making on behalf of an elite black business class who want tokeep their sine cure with the federal government's trough, and who indoing so are alienating the possibility of any kind of cooperation onbehalf of issues that affect the basic livelihood and lives ofwork-a-day black folk.
MR. EDLEY: Well, you know, that analysis is a little bit stale fortwo reasons. Number one, with regard to the contracting and minoritybusinesses and so forth, the Supreme Court has spoken. It is nowconstitutionally impermissible for these programs, if they ever wereracial spoils, proportionality --if they ever were that, you know,which can be sharply disputed, that is now constitutionallyimpermissible. These programs must meet a constitutional test thatrequires that they can only exist where there has been and wherethere continues to be discrimination, and that the programs have tobe narrowly tailored. Those programs are remedial, they are notracial spoils.
MR. WATTENBERG: Let's just stay in Boston because I don't --
MR. LOURY: That's double talk because when that --
MR. EDLEY: No, it is not xx double talk, Glenn. (Inaudible.)
MR. LOURY: -- because when that Richmond decision came down, everytown that wanted to give business to black people went out and hireda consulting firm, sometimes the same firm in Atlanta, Georgia, toprove that they had been discriminating all along so that now theycould hand out their sine cure to the people that they wanted to giveit to.
MR. EDLEY: But, Glenn --
MR. LOURY: That's hokum. It's a shell game.
MR. EDLEY: No, Glenn --
MR. WATTENBERG: Glenn, let him --
MR. EDLEY: -- that's embarrassing. You're a social scientist. Theyhired social scientists, like Ray Marshall, like Andy Brimmer, whowent out and did studies that are as thick as telephone books, thatdid the econometrics, that did the statistics, that did depositions,to try to create a factual predicate that could be examined by --
MR. WATTENBERG: All right, all right.
MR. LOURY: But they knew the answer they wanted to get before theystarted.
MR. WATTENBERG: Hold on for one minute.
MR. EDLEY: -- that could be examined by a federal jury. xx
MR. LOURY: They knew the answer they wanted to get before theystarted.
MR. WATTENBERG: Hang on, guys up in Boston.
MR. EDLEY: But that's tested in court.
MR. WATTENBERG: Hold on one minute. I have just appointed each ofyou president, Congress and Supreme Court. It's your call. You aredictator for the next 10 years. What would you do about thissituation, Chris Edley?
MR. EDLEY: I think the president has charted the right course.It's a course that says we have to continue to make progress, userace, ethnicity, gender where needed, use it carefully. But mostimportantly, I think the need is to try to have a discussion thatgrapples with the heart of the issues, that focuses on the facts, noton the politics, that recognizes that there are moral conflicts herethat have to be balanced delicately.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, 'President Loury,' your turn.
MR. LOURY: Well, we get rid of the preferences in the main, withvery few exceptions.
MR. EDLEY: What's a preference?
MR. WATTENBERG: Now, let him finish.
MR. LOURY: We focus attention on the development of basic skillsand human capacities in the disadvantaged population. We end thisstuff about immigrants. Immigrants are not eligible for affirmativeaction. We kill off the preferential treatment for women -- makes nosense in the contemporary social context. We invest in K-thru 12education, we invest in community colleges. And we enforce theanti-discrimination laws vigorously. But we back way off.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, 'President Chavez,' yeah.
MS. CHAVEZ: First of all, I would go back to the original languageof the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which says, 'It will be illegal todiscriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, or sex.'And it also said, 'Nothing in this act shall require preference onthose bases either.' That would be my non-discrimination policy.
Then I would spend a lot of money and a lot of effort to try toimprove education K thru 12, so the kids who go to school in barriosand inner cities across America have a chance to compete on the samestandards as everyone else.
MR. WATTENBERG: 'President Walters' -- how does that sound,'President Walters'? It's got a nice ring to it.
MR. WALTERS: It does have a very good ring to it. I would notconfuse the things that have gone wrong with affirmative action, suchas firms that are not truly minority firms. I would prosecute thoseto the limit of the law. They are fraud, not affirmative action. So I-- yes, I would reform it and I'd take the problems out of it, but Icertainly at the end of the day think we need some regime.
Americans have not been kind, I think, in this area. We are notable yet to depend upon the volunteerism of our institutions. So westill need something.
MR. WATTENBERG: Okay. Well, I want to thank our four presidents.In Boston, Glenn Loury and Christopher Edley, Jr. Here in Washington,Ron Walters and Linda Chavez.
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