The new thinking on the think tank

Policy: New America, flush with Silicon Valley cash, promises its fresh brainstorms can steal the thunder of the traditional foundations.

June 03, 1999|By Neil A. Lewis | Neil A. Lewis,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- In Thinktankland, the main attractions are by now wearyingly familiar. The conservative Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute and the liberal Brookings Institution along with several others have for years competed to convert their ideas about taxes, foreign policy, the environment or whatever into policy in the real world.

But since the beginning of this year, a new entry in the public-policy community, the New America Foundation, has been trying to provide something different.

Led by Ted Halstead, its president, New America has ensconced itself in handsome quarters near Dupont Circle and hopes to change the think-tank landscape. Halstead boasts that New America will introduce younger voices, break out of the traditional liberal and conservative categories and produce unconventional ideas.

Yet no matter how many innovations New America offers, none may be as brilliant as the one associated with its founding: getting money from the cyberbarons of Silicon Valley. New America's board includes Eric Schmidt, the chairman and chief executive of Novell, and Eric Benhamou, chairman and chief executive of 3Com Corp. Halstead and James Fallows, the chairman of New America, are courting other leaders in Silicon Valley, most notably Andrew Grove, the head of Intel.

Schmidt of Novell said in an interview that New America was attractive to him and his fellow high-tech entrepreneurs because it was trying to escape the classic liberal vs. conservative divide.

"I thought that here is a place in which new ideas can flourish which are not aligned with any partisan view," he said. "A large number of people out here are tired of the left-right debate, which exists largely because it makes for good television."

High-tech entrepreneurs have been so busy making money, he said, that they have ignored government and public-policy issues. "But the government is no longer ignoring us," he said, "so we have to get organized, to have vehicles for this, and this -- New America -- is one."

Schmidt said that typically when a corporate leader in Silicon Valley meets with a member of Congress, the talk invariably ends with the congressman's disingenuous interest in the businessman's ideas and a naked pitch for campaign donations.

New America, he said, will not be obliged to champion the broad tenets of Silicon Valley, which some loosely define as meritocracy, individual incentives and as little government interference as is feasible. "The ideas that come out may well include some I might not agree with," Schmidt said.

For nearly two decades, the center of gravity in Thinktankland has tilted to the right. The Heritage Foundation, brash and aggressive, and the American Enterprise Institute, its more staid cousin, have been able to wield influence in the Reagan and Bush administrations and more recently in the Republican-dominated Congress. They have outpaced their counterparts on the left in both influence and money.

The success of places like Heritage -- and perhaps New America -- also underlines the remoteness of universities from real policy-making, which has stirred some ambivalence in the academic world about whether this should change.

Just as Silicon Valley has embraced a youth culture, so does the New America Foundation. Halstead, who thought up the idea for New America with a few friends, is 30 years old and already on his second think tank. When he was 25 he founded Redefining America, a San Francisco-based foundation that specializes in environmental and economic programs.

In a coming article in the Atlantic Monthly, Halstead argues that people his age have removed themselves from politics and policy in overwhelming numbers, largely out of distrust of political leaders and institutions as well as impatience with the constricting right and left labels.

At the American Enterprise Institute, the term "senior fellow" applies to people like Jeane Kirkpatrick, the chief U.S. delegate to the United Nations in the Reagan administration, and Herbert Stein, the chairman of economic advisers in the Nixon administration.

At New America, senior fellows are in their 30s and mere fellows are in their 20s because, as Halstead said in an interview, they have not acquired the seasoning to have made a name for themselves.

One of the Heritage Foundation's strategies has been to produce a report to promote an idea and hold a news conference or distribute the report to the press, but New America's approach is to subsidize the journalists directly.

"The new way, we think, is to get people to write and place their ideas in newspapers, magazines, and to discuss them on talk shows," Halstead said.

The senior fellows this year, Debra Dickerson, Michael Lind and Margaret Talbot, are being given annual grants of $50,000 apiece, health benefits and an office, plus whatever fees they earn from publishing their writings. Five fellows are given $25,000 each plus an office and benefits.

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