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Washington Thinktanks in the Twenty-First Century: A Modest Proposal

At lunch over the weekend I rashly opined that it seemed to me that over this past decade the Center for American Progress [CAP] had greatly overperformed--had had an enormous positive and favorable impact on America and the world for the amount of funding that had been devoted to it. I went on to say that, by comparison and in contrast, in a purely relative sense of course, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities [CBPP] and the Brookings-Urban Tax Policy Center [TPC] and the Brookings Hamilton Project had underperformed--very good people, very hard work, very long hours, excellent policy analysis products produced, yet far less influence and far less bang-for-buck than CAP. Note: THIS IS NOT A CLAIM THAT CBPP AND TPC HAVE UNDERPERFORMED, GIVEN WHO THEY ARE AND WHAT THEY HAVE AND WHAT THEY DO: THIS IS A CLAIM THAT CAP HAS OVERPERFORMED.

I then had to frantically try and justify this offhand opinion. Things got uncomfortably warm for a while...

I do, however, think I am right.

Podesta has proved to be a genius and CAP a huge win--an organization that produces an awful lot of paper on (a) these are what the good policies are, (b) this is how to build a coalition from the left in to enact these good policies, and (c) here is how to convince voters that legislators who support these good policies are worth electing. And it is read. And it is listened to. CBPP (and, now that I come to think of it, the Economic Policy Institute [EPI]) make the same kinds of arguments but I have the sense that they have less impact--I actually think both of them would do better if they were folded into CAP as subunits because a bunch of what makes CAP effective is its well-run outreach and message machine.

With Hamilton and TPC, however, I think something different is going on: enhanced media training for thinktank fellows won't solve the problem. And then I came across a piece by Howard Gleckman of TPC, and it crystalized in my mind what the problem is:

Here is Howard Gleckman of the Tax Policy Center:

The Wall St. Journal Editorial Page: Done In by the Facts Again: What would I do without The Wall Street Journal editorial page? I come to work on a slow summer’s day, not sure what I’m going to blog about, when I find this in the morning Journal:

A piece in The New York Times over the weekend declared in a headline that ‘the Rich Can’t Pay for Everything, Analysts Say.’ And it quoted Leonard Burman, a veteran of the Clinton Treasury who now runs the Brookings Tax Policy Center, as saying that ‘This idea that everything new that government provides ought to be paid for by the top 5%, that’s a basically unstable way of governing.’ They’re right, but where were they during the campaign?

There are merely three factual errors and one wildly incorrect assumption in this short paragraph.... [T]here is the implication that TPC is a Democratic organization. Or a nest of liberals. We hear it all the time. And it ain’t true. We’ve got Democrats. We’ve got Republicans. We’ve got folks whose political affiliation, if any, remains a mystery to me. Len worked in the Clinton Treasury. Rosanne Altshuler, our new co-director, was a senior staffer for George W. Bush’s tax reform commission, chaired by well-know lefties John Breaux and Connie Mack. Our other co-director, Bill Gale, was a senior staff economist for George H.W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisers.

Note to Journal editorial page: Get over it.

Finally, the Journal wonders “where they were during the campaign” in the matter of Obama’s enthusiasm for raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for new government spending. Well, we were pretty much where we are now. In our multiple analyses of both the Obama and McCain tax plans throughout the election season, TPC was the first to quantify the impact of Obama’s proposals on both the middle-class and the rich.... “His plan would drastically alter the distribution of tax burdens.... Households in the middle fifth of the income distribution would receive an average tax cut equal to 2.6 percent of income ($1,118).... The top 0.1 percent would face an average tax increase of nearly $550,000...” "Senator Obama's plan would add $3.6 trillion to the national debt over ten years..." “Obama’s effort to make the highest income Americans pay for more of government through higher tax rates will not come without a price...” “The other problem is that Obama will not have the money he needs to pay for all of his campaign promises….He can't cut taxes for everyone making $250,000 or less (the new middle-class in Obama land) and, at the same time, expand government programs for health care, the environment, education, and infrastructure. There are just not enough rich people to tax or Chinese to borrow from...”

Once again, the Journal editorial writers have been done in by those pesky facts. Gets ‘em every time.

What Howard Gleckman ought to say is something like: "Yes, WSJ editorial page. Len Burman was and is an Obama supporter. I am one too. There were problems--big problems--with the long-run fiscal sustainability of Obama's plans. Those problems remain. We never sugarcoated them: we were always out front pointing them out. But the problems with Obama's fiscal plans were orders of magnitude smaller than the problems with McCain's, and McCain was the rational one among Republicans. We support the lesser evil (or, more optimistically, the greater good). If the WSJ editorial page wants us to approve an endorse the candidates it prefers, it needs to work to push their tax-and-spending plans to a place where we can honestly say that they are best for America!"

But that's not what Howard does.

Howard, instead, goes into a defensive cringe, covering his organs of generation with his hands while he whimpers:

the implication that TPC is a Democratic organization... nest of liberals... ain’t true. We’ve got Democrats. We’ve got Republicans. We’ve got folks whose political affiliation, if any, remains a mystery to me. Len worked in the Clinton Treasury. Rosanne Altshuler, our new co-director, was a senior staffer for George W. Bush’s tax reform commission, chaired by well-know lefties John Breaux and Connie Mack. Our other co-director, Bill Gale, was a senior staff economist for George H.W. Bush's Council of Economic Advisers...

The reason Howard gets so defensive is that the TPC views its mission as (a) figuring out what the good policies are, (b) building a coalition for those policies from the center--starting with one Democrat and one Republican each of whom wants to be in the position of winning applause for putting policy substance above partisanship--and then building out from there, and (c) arguing that supporting bipartisan initiatives is a good way for legislators to raise their chances of reelection. To say "yes, right now the Democrats are being a lot more sensible than the Republicans" spoils the first step of that, and so is not something that TPC can say and remain true to its mission.

Now the problem with TPC's strategy is twofold. First, for the Republicans (c) is wrong: supporting bipartisan initiatives calls forth well-funded primary challenges from the wingnutsphere. Second, the whole start-in-the-center-and-build-out strategy no longer works.

Paul Krugman's line is that bipartisanship as a legislative and an electoral strategy could work only as long as the ideological lines of party cleavage were blurred, which would be the case only as long as there were (a) a larger number of relatively liberal northerners who voted Republican because Lincoln freed the slaves, and (b) a large number of relatively conservative southerners who voted Democratic because Lincoln freed the slaves. Once the parties realigned, zero-sum partisan loyalties would dominate: centrist legislators would think hard whether it was more important to vote for a bill because it was good for America or vote against it because then you could paint the opposite-party president as a failure and pick up seats in the next election, and make their decision. Influence over policy can no longer be found by placing yourself in the center: you wind up lying next to a squashed armadillo with a yellow stripe painted down your back.

We saw this in 1993, when Clinton's centrist bipartisan deficit-reducing budget--half tax increases, have spending cuts--attracted not a single Republican vote. We saw this in February, when Obama's centrist stimulus package--2/3 spending increases, 1/3 tax cuts (Clinton was Mr. 43%, Obama is Mr. 54%), and 2/3 the size that would have been appropriate--attracted zero Republican votes in the House and only three in the Senate. We are seeing this on cap-and-trade, where the number of Republicans willing to sign on to do something about global warming if they can then shape the bill in the direction of economic efficiency is close to zero, and now on health care too.

In this environment, the ability to shape policy in better directions comes not from being bipartisan or nonpartisan but rather from being partisan. People who seek influence should then: pick a party, support it, and work hard to make its policies the best policies possible that don't get you thrown out of the party by the ideologists.

So if I were running the TPC today, I would split it in two--or, rather, I would have two different entrances to its offices. One entrance would be to the Center for an Efficient, Fair, and Egalitarian Tax Policy--and everyone who visitors met in that waiting area would be a convinced liberal certain that a more redistributionist and pro-equality tax policy was what America needs. The other entrance would be to the Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence through Tax Policy--and everyone who visitors met in that waiting area would be a convinced conservative certain that America's entrepreneurial energies are on the point of being excessively hobbled and damaged by unfairly progressive tax structures. Behind each reception area, of course, you can have the same computers, the same models, the same distribution and economic impact tables. Think of the main West Wing conference room: during Republican administrations it is the Theodore Roosevelt conference room. During Democratic administrations it is the Franklin Roosevelt conference room.

That's the idea.

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