Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

RE: Washington State's so-called "progressive think tank deficit"

Yesterday at HorsesAss, David Goldstein wrote a short post lamenting an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer about tolling that he said basically turned into a discussion between two guys who work at local conservative think tanks.

In his post, titled "Washington’s progressive think tank deficit", he wrote:
I’m not saying that Matt and Michael don’t make any reasonable arguments, but really, is this the best we can do? Two conservative think tanks duking it out over creating state transportation policy that will largely impact the predominantly progressive Puget Sound region?
What David didn't mention is that there are progressive think tanks in Washington that Seattle P-I reporter Aubrey Cohen could have consulted for his article. Namely, this think tank (which is uniquely built and sustained by activists). Or Sightline Institute. Or the Economic Opportunity Institute. Or the Budget & Policy Center.

I think it's safe to say that staff at any of those four would have been happy to give Cohen background and quotes for his article if he had asked. (We at the Northwest Progressive Institute certainly would have been).

So we've got progressive think tanks. What we haven't got is progressive think tanks with comparable resources to our counterparts on the right (like the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, Discovery Institute, Washington Policy Center).

And that's partly because progressive donors and foundations (especially historically) have been loathe to invest in the political machinery and infrastructure that are needed to develop and refine ideas. As George Lakoff wrote in his 2004 book Don't Think of An Elephant:
The right wing think tanks get large block grants and endowments. Millions at a time. They are very well funded. The smallest effective think tanks on the right have budgets of four to seven million dollars a year. Those are the small operations. The large ones have up to thirty million dollars a year.

Furthermore, they know that they are going to get the money the next year, and the year after that. Remember, these are block grants - no strings attached. Do what you need. Hire intellectuals. Bring talent along. One of the think tanks is putting up a new building. It is going to be an eight-story building with a state-of-the-art media auditorium, and one hundred apartments for interns who cannot afford apartments in Washington.


There are very few grants like this from progressive foundations. Progressive foundations spread the money around. They give twenty-five thousand dollars here, maybe fifty thousand, maybe even a hundred thousand. Sometimes it is a big grant. But recipients have to do something different from what everyone else is doing because the foundations see duplication as wasting money. Not only that, but they are not block grants; the recipients do not have full freedom to decide how to spend the money. And it is certainly not appropriate to use it for career development or infrastructure building or hiring intellectuals to think about long-term as well as short-term or interrelated policies.
Lakoff also notes:
On the left, the highest value is helping individuals who need help. So if you are a foundation or you are setting up a foundation, what makes you a good person? You help as many people as you can. And the more public budgets that get cut, the more people there are who need help.
One of the reasons conservatives are so enthusiastic about cutting taxes is that they know the resulting budget cuts will constrain the amount of money that progressive donors and foundations are able to spend on infrastructure. In other words, conservatives relish the thought of forcing progressive nonprofits to spend their resources helping people who should be getting assistance from our common wealth and our social safety net. (Lakoff refers to this as privatization of the left).

It's fine to want to help people who have been cut off and have nowhere else to turn. But if progressives don't invest in infrastructure - especially think tanks - we'll never have the ability to bring about the political change we want.

We'll never have the capability to make our government as effective and useful as we know it could be and should be.

We've already seen that big Democratic majorities in the state Legislature don't translate into bold progressive policy directions.

This past session was a disappointment on almost every front except for civil rights, which don't really cost money to expand.

We need infrastructure to make the infeasible feasible. Merely pleading with lawmakers to address the causes of our most challenging problems won't work. Especially if there's a perception that solutions will be politically unpopular.

The groundwork has to be laid first. Particularly at the state level, asking the Legislature and the Governor to take action must be the last step.

The first steps are to hone the ideas, gather expertise, and build public support. That takes infrastructure. Well developed and well funded infrastructure.

It's just really, really hard for progressive think tanks to go on offense when resources are scarce. There's always some right wing attack that needs fending off. For example, the right wing is working on two ballot measures at the moment: Initiative 1033 and Referendum 71. It remains to be seen whether either will make the ballot but chances are very good that at least Tim Eyman's I-1033 will be.

As far as resources go, we at the Northwest Progressive Institute can be pretty effective with very, very little. That's because we know how to strech our dollars; we've always had to do that out of necessity.

But we can't broaden the scope of our work, afford new equipment, or even keep what we've already built going without some seed money.

If you're as hungry as we are for real political change in the Pacific Northwest, we invite you to make a donation to support us.

Make an investment in the future of Washington's progressive movement, and help erase that resource deficit that's tilting the field in the right wing's favor.


Blogger Aubrey Cohen said...

While the Discovery Institute surely is as conservative as can be when it comes to teaching evolution, the Cascadia Center is progressive with regard to transportation policy. Tarring the Cascadia Center as conservative because of the Discovery Institute’s views on evolution makes no sense and is a disservice to progressives.
Thanks for reading.

June 3, 2009 10:11 AM  

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