Will Atlantic's Big Bet on the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities Pay Off?

No think tank commands more respect among liberal policy wonks and Capitol Hill Democrats than the D.C-based Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, founded over 30 years ago by the indefatigable Robert Greenstein. The center is revered for its analytical rigor, its rapid response time, and its sheer relentlessness. The place is like a machine: Any time a proposal appears that whacks the poor, you can use a stopwatch to clock how it long it takes the center to whip out a scathing critique, often written by Greenstein himself. Does the guy sleep? 

Yet CBPP has always had a major weakness: It's never been so great at generating new policy ideas or reframing debates over the long term. It's been more a finger-in-the-dike operation than an effort to redirect the river, even as places like Heritage and Cato focused on doing just that. In this way, CBPP has mirrored the broader struggle of liberalism in recent decades to move past a defense of New Deal/Great Society programs to develop fresh approaches to improving life prospects for low-income Americans. 

Now, thanks to a big gift from Atlantic Philanthropies, the center will shift more to offense, with a new institute that will focus on proactive policy development. In the video below, Greenstein says this new arm of CBPP "is going to look at the longer term," and will complement the fire-fighting work that the center does every day. 

Greenstein says the institute will seek to deal with the major fiscal challenges ahead, driven by rising entitlement and healthcare costs as the boomers retire, in a way that actually reduces poverty, as opposed to just dodging the most Draconian of cuts. 

Atlantic isn't saying exactly how much money it's giving to CBPP, which Atlantic has backed over many years, but it's surely a big number. Remember, this is a foundation that needs to move hundreds of millions of dollars out the door by 2016.

Stephen McConnell, who directs U.S. Programmes for Atlantic, explains that the mega gift to CBPP is part of a broader strategy by Atlantic, which is spending down, to invest heavily in a few "champion organizations" that "have the capacity to not only fight today's battles, but to be strong and fight those battles in the future."

Atlantic's strategy of doubling down on leading organizations makes a lot of sense, and scale matters in shaping public policy. The Heritage Foundation can play both the near-term and long-term game because its budget is three times as large as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Heritage can deploy legions of wonks to analyze breaking policy proposals and still have resources left over to pay senior fellows who write books and think long term. 

That said, is Atlantic placing the right bet in investing big in CBPP? 

[Here, I should pause for the disclaimer that I co-founded and previously worked at Demos, another national policy shop.]

I can see both the pros and cons of betting heavily on CBPP. 

The center looks like the right vehicle for shaping long-term debates if you believe that fiscal choices will be all-important in determining living standards for many Americans in coming decades. At stake in looming budget battles is not just the survival of safety net programs, but the ability of government to address common problems at all

That's because spending on entitlement programs for seniors and interest on the debt threatens to crowd out spending on most everything else that government does a few decades from now, unless revenues substantially increase and/or projected public healthcare spending is sharply reduced. The squeeze is already on, with domestic discretionary outlays on a steady downward slope. 

If you want to win the brutal multi-decade fiscal war that lies ahead, you can see the appeal of scaling up the left's premier budget outfit. 

The argument for investing elsewhere is that the fiscal and economic choices by policymakers are merely a reflection of who has power in American society and what values ordinary people embrace. If U.S. politics remains dominated by corporations and the affluent, and if a great many Americans embrace libertarian ideas about the economy and safety net, than all the wonks in the world won't turn things around. 

Conservative philanthropy has been so been successful since the 1970s because the right's funders have focussed huge resources on shaping meta debates over values and the economy. They've pushed moral arguments about individual responsibility and bashed social programs as harmful while teaming up with business and the wealthy to promote laissez-faire ideas about the economy and regulation. Separately, a powerful message machine emerged on the right with the muscle to shape public opinion on a large scale. And of course, vast amounts of new money poured into our democracy, tilting policy outcomes toward the 1 percent. 

In the face of this juggernaut, many liberal funders remained steadfast in their faith that reason and analysis would prevail, and the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has long been a magnet for foundation dollars as the gold standard in this department. 

But to me, the lesson of recent decades is that equity-minded funders need to invest much more heavily in institutions that are thinking at a deep level about both the economy and values, and can connect this work to movement building. The center isn't a leader in these areas and it's hard to see it becoming one (even if it did hire Jared Bernstein a few years back, who's great on the big picture stuff).

So what the bottom line in all this? Ultimately it's not clear there's an either/or choice here in terms of where to invest, and Atlantic can't really go wrong in giving CBPP a big pile of money.

Even in an America far more receptive to the ideas of collective obligation and a mixed economy, the coming budget battles will be brutal as the boomers retire and interest soars on the debt. An expanded CBPP with more capacity to think a few moves ahead can only be a good thing. 

And let's not forget something else: Atlantic is still not done choosing the "champion organizations" that it plans to shower with "culminating grants" as it moves toward closing its doors.

I'll be writing more about Atlantic's end game strategy in coming weeks and months.