To hear Arthur Brooks tell it, his life isn't really as random and unlikely as it first appears. Sure, at one time he was a professional musician playing the French horn in locales such as Barcelona, and now he's taking charge of one of the leading conservative U.S. think tanks. But for Brooks, an economist who writes about the secrets to happiness (hint: It's not money), pulling seemingly disparate ideas together into a cohesive, scholarly story line is all in a day's work.
Brooks is the new president of the American Enterprise Institute, which makes him a key player in the conservative movement at its most difficult moment in years. He stepped into this pivotal role January 1 just as a Democratic phenomenon was preparing to move into the White House and as many of the concepts nurtured by AEI over a generation—deregulation, smaller government, market-oriented innovation, muscular internationalism—are facing new scrutiny, if not outright rejection, by many politicians and voters.
Brooks acknowledges the political climate change in official Washington amid two ongoing wars, the financial markets meltdown, and a painful recession. But he says AEI's best hope is to remain a platform for policy choices that he asserts are still favored by the majority of Americans, such as a strong national defense and limits on government's reach. "It's time for intellectual leaders like AEI to say in this year and the next what the new set of ideas should be," he says, "what's going to help our country, what's going to bring us into proper balance."
Brooks expresses dismay at President Bush's expansion of the federal government's reach into education, healthcare, and, most recently, as the primary solution to problems in financial markets. The 2008 Democratic election sweep, he says, was not a repudiation of conservatism but punishment for "Republican mismanagement." Brooks rejects partisan labels—now a registered independent, he's been a Republican and a Democrat—and says that despite AEI's longtime connection to the GOP, he'll run it as a "post-partisan" idea factory.
Brooks had an unusual rise in conservative intellectual circles and not just because he advanced without Ivy League credentials. Following high school, Brooks played the French horn professionally in Baltimore and then Barcelona. He was teaching music in Boca Raton, Fla., when, in 1993 at the age of 29, he got his bachelor's degree in economics from a state college in New Jersey that offers remote studies for adults. He earned his master's degree in economics from Florida American University in Boca Raton and his doctorate from Rand's Pardee Graduate School four years later, in 1998.
While studying economics, Brooks picked up a book that he said "just completely changed the way I looked at things." The book was The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, a wonkish tome contending that a person's future success was determined by largely inherited intelligence rather than his or her social circumstances. Joining the age-old nature-versus-nurture debate, the book used statistical data to argue that genetics play a more dominant role than environment, and it raised controversial questions about the assumptions underlying the federal government's vast social-welfare programs. One of the book's authors, Charles Murray, Brooks saw, was from AEI.
Brooks began immersing himself in what he now calls "all this subversive public-policy stuff" on welfare reform, the culture wars, and free-market economics, much of it produced at AEI. Brooks was a Syracuse University professor of business and government policy when, in 2007, he was invited to join AEI as a visiting scholar.
Brooks's scholarly interests include the interrelationships of culture, politics, and economics. His book Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, showed in 2006 that low-income, churchgoing conservatives were far more generous toward religious and nonreligious charities than rich liberals. His second book, Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America—and How We Can Get More of It, details why a belief in God, marriage, and work—and not money—are the true paths to happiness (and why conservatives are happier in general than liberals). Newt Gingrich, the former Republican House speaker (and an AEI senior fellow), said in one review that Brooks "may be the most innovative and creative analyst of public policy in America today."
Brooks succeeds Christopher DeMuth, who rescued AEI from financial collapse and led it for two decades. Today, AEI has 145 resident scholars (along with 80 adjuncts) and a budget of about $30 million. "I don't want to sound like I'm sucking up, but I think Arthur was a brilliant choice," said Murray, who remains at AEI. Brooks brings new energy at what Murray describes as "both one of the most important and one of the most interesting times I have ever experienced at AEI."
AEI has been a hothouse for conservative solutions that often spark controversy before finding their way into policy. Murray, for instance, wrote in 1984 that the welfare system was oppressing, not helping, the poor. Such ideas were embraced by President Reagan but eventually also influenced President Clinton, who signed into law a major welfare overhaul. Scholars at AEI advocated ousting Saddam Hussein long before President Bush acted.
An administration change doesn't necessarily leave AEI out of the competition for policy ideas. Senior Fellow Karlyn Bowman, a politics and media scholar who has seen AEI's fortunes shift before during her 30 years at the institution, said AEI's best hope in changing times is to stay the course. "Think tanks," she says, "rise and fall because of product more than the current occupant of the White House."
AEI, Brooks says, is positioned to take part in shaping the debate over the conservative movement's next stage. "There is no turnaround that needs to happen here," he says. "The creativity is going to come in making sure that, in changing political and economic terrains, we can sustain success ."
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