Time Magazine recently ran a story about my favorite think-tank, the libertarian Niskanen Center.
In an era where the categories “conservative” “libertarian” and “liberal” are slapped onto politicians and pundits whose opinions predictably hew to stereotypical expectations, Niskanen’s scholars look at policy proposals through a thoughtful lens that shatters preconceptions about what to expect from people wearing those labels. For example, Niskanen scholar Samuel Hammond co-authored “The Conservative Case for a Child Allowance,” arguing that giving cash to parents would strengthen families, bolster the institution of marriage, and reduce abortions, while at the same time boosting the economy and lessening dependence on the state.
As the Time article notes,
It’s tempting to think there’s no place for serious policy discussion in today’s Washington. Politics is all about culture-war theatrics, Congress seems hopelessly stalemated, and the President can’t even give a State of the Union address without it devolving into a yelling match.
The innovative output of the Niskanen Center is a counter to the belief that no one is interested in serious policy development.
The Time article tells us that Niskanen’s founder came from CATO, where he had harbored increasing concerns about that organization’s approach to libertarian ideology.
He made common cause with an emerging cohort of thinkers who questioned libertarianism’s traditional home on the right side of the political spectrum. Libertarian values could just as easily lead to an embrace of left-wing causes like same-sex marriage and drug decriminalization, but organizations like Cato tended to ignore those issues in favor of a relentless focus on shrinking government.
I first came across Niskanen when I was researching arguments for and against a universal basic income, and came across a paper written In 2016 by Samuel Hammond.
In his analysis, Hammond had enumerated what, from his and the Center’s perspective, he saw as the “ideal” features of a UBI: its unconditional structure avoids creating poverty traps; it sets a minimum income floor, which raises worker bargaining power without wage or price controls; it decouples benefits from a particular workplace or jurisdiction; since it’s cash, it respects a diversity of needs and values; and it simplifies and streamlines bureaucracy, eliminating rent seeking and other sources of inefficiency.
What I found so refreshing about that perspective–and since then, several other analyses produced by Niskanen–is the absence of what we might call ideological rigidity. Investigations of policy by the Center’s scholars reflect a set of values–values that are libertarian in the original sense of the word.
Today, when we hear “libertarian” we think of the Koch brothers and the rigid, anti-government “let them eat cake” approach of politicians who claim that label. But Niskanen scholars inhabit the real world.As a result, the Center has been able to escape the dreary predictability of the multiple rightwing think tanks that were created to advance pre-ordained political goals, and continue to crank out “scholarship” that is indistinguishable from partisan talking points
.At a time of polarization, Niskanen has become a home for heterodox thinkers from left and right alike. In its D.C. office suite, a former Bernie Sanders campaign staffer is working on proposals to increase access to health-care and disability benefits by simplifying regulations; at the same time, a former staffer at the libertarian Cato Institute is mapping out new ideas for copyright reform. Niskanen’s head of immigration policy is a Republican former national-security lawyer; its head of climate previously worked for an environmental group that was accused of racism for supporting a revenue-neutral Washington state climate initiative. The influential center-left writer Matt Yglesias is a Niskanen fellow; the Times columnist Ezra Klein’s embrace of “supply-side progressivism” echoes many Niskanen ideas. “Niskanen is one of the most provocative, original players in the think-tank world and the ideas space overall,” says Zach Graves, executive director of the Lincoln Network, another heterodox new institute that focuses on technology and innovation.
What I found so encouraging about Niskanen is that, at a time when ideologues of both the Left and Right seem mired in ideological platitudes and automatic, knee-jerk defenses of preordained policy positions, its output and influence demonstrate that new ideas–rooted in libertarian values moderated by thoughtful evaluation of real-world evidence– can bridge governmental gridlock.
“Liberal democracy is in the balance, right?” says Niskanen’s president, Ted Gayer, an economist who served in the Treasury Department under President George W. Bush. “If our government institutions fail, people lose confidence in them. You’re left with populism or you’re left with authoritarianism, but you’re not left with a governing philosophy that is going to help promote public welfare and help government operate more effectively.”
I count myself a fan. Visit the Center’s website and see what you think.
12 thoughts on “My Favorite Think-Tank”
Before looking at their website, how close are they to power? Seeing they get a plug from Times Mag, I’m guessing their Left of Center (the center has moved far to the right due to all the other oligarch influenced “think tanks”) analysis is weak and benefits the oligarchy because they have all the money to influence politics while claiming hands off. LOL
The NYTs are just a mouthpiece for the State Dept. Same with WaPo but adding “sources inside intelligentsia.”
Would Bezos or Musk recommend cutting oligarchs from owning media or donating to the government? LOL
These are members of the oligarchy making decisions within the oligarchy. CATO and Heritage is a Koch vestibule, along with ALEC, all the state policy centers in red states, and over 150 universities.
Trust is not high with these institutions for a good reason, but they don’t care about trust when they have the tools to prevent our democracy from working properly. When the Democratic Party works against the people by siding with the rich and powerful oligarchs, we don’t have a democracy. Period.
“In his analysis, Hammond had enumerated what, from his and the Center’s perspective, he saw as the “ideal” features of a UBI: its unconditional structure avoids creating poverty traps; it sets a minimum income floor, which raises worker bargaining power without wage or price controls; it decouples benefits from a particular workplace or jurisdiction; since it’s cash, it respects a diversity of needs and values; and it simplifies and streamlines bureaucracy, eliminating rent seeking and other sources of inefficiency.”
This is founded on the assumption that the UBI handout would be used by all recipients to cover the daily needs referred to above…or would the UBI handout come with the disclaimer requiring specific use of the cash or lose it.
“For example, Niskanen scholar Samuel Hammond co-authored “The Conservative Case for a Child Allowance,” arguing that giving cash to parents would strengthen families, bolster the institution of marriage, and reduce abortions, while at the same time boosting the economy and lessening dependence on the state.”
The above quote immediately took me to the private/religious school voucher system which is based on the blatant lie that the money from public education budgets can legally be used to support private/religion based schools because it goes to the parents…which it does NOT. The entire voucher system is based on ignoring the Constitution of the United States of America and State Constitutions which requires separation of church and state. Indiana Legislature is seeking a Universal Voucher System which has NO qualifying requirements which appears to be what UBI is based on. “Strengthen families, bolster the institute of marriage and reduce abortions” sounds to me as coming straight from the demands of the Catholic religion and it’s control over congregants lives. Whose “real world evidence” is this based on?
I found this recommendation on their website:
“Even in “good” election cycles, Democrats struggle to translate their typically impressive aggregate vote totals across the country and within states into seats in government. Its weaknesses with rural and working-class voters are core to the party’s struggles. If left unaddressed, the party will not only become irrelevant throughout most states in the country, but it will also continue to face difficulty – and maybe increasing difficulty – in winning the presidency and congressional majorities.”
Might be my favorite think-tank!
JoAnn makes some very valid points.
Methinks one should separate relevant issues brought up into:
1. Where “win-wing” strategies can be implemented
Example: Flat payments such as a “child allowance” – can benefit all – disproportionately those who are lower income, while Flat Taxes – do exactly the opposite,
2. Compromise – vs. buying off/tokenizing people – healthcare can be caught in the middle of these – the Republican tax cuts of 2017 – obviously the latter
3. Places where we/one must make principled stands – even when it “loses” – as in at times confronting – a Manchin or Sinema – and simply say: “you’re in or Not” – and call their bluffs – as they give in and give in – or more likely manipulate and manipulate and
4. Not be intimidated by the lies and deceptions and both confront them – and perhaps more importantly – shape the narrative – dealing with peoples’ fears – and relating facts To The Fears – rather than trying to “drown those people with facts” – where nothing is heard
No, JoAnn, it’s “Time Magazine,” not the NYT.
CATO, Heritage and the entire Koch network do, indeed, not give a damn about anything but
the Koch agenda.
A quick perusal of the Niskanen Center’s website leaves me with good feelings about it.
In have read about a research project that has provided UBI and found it to have no negative
effect on anyone, while helping everyone involved.
Sheila’s effort today in quoting carefully crafted praise of a thoughtful slice of libertarianism conflicts with my long held bias against that bias in which we are given prairie schooner political cover for the worst forms of terminal capitalism and hands off government until, as we are seeing with the current banking mess in which lack of gummint regulation played a large part, their libertarian oxen are being gored, when suddenly, gummint regulation is and always was a necessity to keep the world afloat. Rand Paul didn’t really mean it, you all.
I’ll try to keep an open mind to the possibilities laid out by today’s thread, but the proof of the pudding is in the pudding and I think there is little if any potential to see such idealism laid out in the real and hostile world for evaluation of such new socioeconomic order with the result that my bias is protected and relatively intact absent such proof by thinking of such libertarian lite as an academic exercise, as in, where’s the beef? How can we even test such thoughtful ideas in the real world of greed these libertarians have themselves concocted but some libertarian apologists now wish to amend? Color me dubious.
Mitch D; I did NOT mention Time Magazine or NYT in my comments.
My concerns with UBI are that it does not take into account the wildly different costs of living in places. Also, it is a “bare crutch” for living today. I prefer “baby bonds” which build lives for tomorrow.
It’s not a great achievement to out-think the average or even exceptional politician or lobbyist or social influencer. That fact that it is rare is because just doing effective policy is hard to monetize because it favors no particular one over everyone.
It actually is like the human version of AI. It requires a balanced cadre of humans with diverse backgrounds and education with the balance held together on a base of collaboration and open mindedness.
In fact I would argue it’s what our founders envisioned for government as they applied the same principles in crafting the Constitution.
I dipped into the web site. I, too, like the parts I sampled. I believe strongly in the value of finding balance among competing viewpoints and avoiding “ideological rigidity.” I also appreciate Gerald’s combination of skepticism and willingness to keep an open mind.
One small nit to pick with Hammond’s conclusions. How can the States’ giving money to people lessen their dependence on the State? I don’t think we need to claim that is true in order to make a case for UBI. If one of the legitimate functions of a modern government is to keep money circulating through society for the health of the economy, then we all depend on the government to do that. The problems that result from the intense concentration of wealth resulting from under regulated capitalism seem well understood by most of the contributors to this platform.
Sharon, when pursuing a degree in economics before going to law school I recall the debate we were having about the role of money in economic growth, whether it was determined by its volume or its velocity of exchange. As a budding Keynesian, I argued that economic growth depended upon aggregate demand and that the volume of money available did nothing for economic growth unless exchanged many times over in the marketplace rather than hidden under some mattress where it was just paper, whatever its volume.
UBI’s broad distribution of money to the vast majority of us who would or must spend it ends the volume and velocity argument and I, though formerly opposed to such universal largesse, am now in favor of such a program since both revenues to government and economic growth are assured as a dollar exchanged ten times becomes ten dollars and many more dollars will be available for exchange and thus introduced beyond their face value into the marketplace, a marketplace as a result likely to achieve a state of perpetual boom in which all of its participants prosper.