Think Tank of the Future

(Editor's note: This commentary is a slightly edited version of a letter recently sent to Mackinac Center supporters.)

The Mackinac Center is not your father's think tank, to paraphrase the Oldsmobile ad slogan. While Oldsmobile failed to change with the times, we are building on our core strengths and adding powerful new capacities to advance free-market policies that are being challenged like at no time in recent history.

But first, let me share some exciting, breaking news with you. One of our signature ideas is the very title of a new novel destined for the bestseller list. Popular and controversial talk show host Glenn Beck's novel, "The Overton Window," is due to be released today. The title comes from a theory of policy change developed in the 1990s by the Mackinac Center's late vice president, Joseph Overton. Joe's "Overton Window of Political Possibility" represents the narrow range of policy options acceptable to policymakers at any point in time. Contending ideas shift the window toward, or away from, liberty. We didn't have anything to do with the content of Beck's book, but we're certain the publicity it will generate will provide us many opportunities to explain the power of our ideas to advance sound public policy.

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

My colleague Darryl White and I just visited all seven of our regional boards of advisors throughout Michigan to explain three of our new strategic thrusts — public-interest litigation, government transparency and "being the media." These amplify the impact of our foundational work — public policy research, analysis and educational programs.

We've steadily been rolling out these new approaches over the last two years as you've read in Impact and our other publications. 

Public-interest litigation, through the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, places our ideas squarely in the courts. We've always worked to inform policymakers in the legislative and executive branches of government, and now our outreach to all three branches is complete. Bringing the right question before the courts puts muscle behind our ideas even as we continue to steer clear of direct lobbying and partisan political advocacy.

When unions and state officials devised a scheme to stuff union coffers with nearly $3 million taken from home-based day care providers who watch the children of low-income parents, we sued on their behalf. Now the Michigan Supreme Court is considering their plight, and lawmakers have introduced five bills to end the abuse.

Government transparency is all about making government data more visible and easy to use, whether it's lawmakers' complete voting records on our website or public school checkbook registers through our "Show Michigan the Money" project.

A mildly embarrassed official at the Michigan Department of Education recently called us for critical school data that simply is not available anywhere in that $100 million bureaucracy. When the Michigan Education Association states that school employees in a particular district have made self-sacrificing concessions, we provide local media with detailed, eye-popping data on those employees' union contracts, their ever-increasing wages, their generous health and pension benefits, and work rules that tie administrators' hands but don't help children learn.

"Being the media" means the Mackinac Center no longer relies exclusively on old-line, legacy media outlets — often staffed by reporters who favor big government — to get our message out. For two years, our Michigan Capitol Confidential newspaper has brought to your mailbox stories you won't read in the newspapers that are slashing their capital press corps. Now, Capitol Confidential is available every day, online, at We're especially proud when we publish a story in the morning and find the legacy media covering the same story by afternoon. It happened when we broke the story that filmmaker and crusader against corporate subsidies Michael Moore applied for his own subsidy from the state's film office.

We now have the best public policy blog in the state, "The MC," at Reporters and residents pull charts, facts and figures from our blog every day without having to wait for the release of one of our lengthier reports. Our video production project, Mackinac Media, is of such high quality that major news networks download and broadcast our footage.

We continue looking to the future as well, especially through deepening the economic understanding of young people. Our debate workshops and MichiganScience magazine reach junior- and senior-high students and their teachers. Our Students for a Free Economy project touches college students on 22 Michigan campuses.

All this adds up to impact. We've combined our steady, dependable policy analysis with new-media strategies and nimble distribution systems to introduce a free-market perspective into what was too often a one-sided debate. Our multimedia, detailed analysis coupled with swift dissemination is making it virtually impossible for public debate to be fact-free.


Joseph G. Lehman is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.