You’d think that, for liberals, this decade would be one of boundless happiness. After all, when Barack Obama, the most liberal president since Lyndon Johnson, was elected in 2008, Oprah Winfrey informed us that he was the One. Obama himself promised that, under his watch, the planet would heal, everyone would be nice to each other, and everyone would have good jobs at good wages.

Instead, the economy is spluttering, Obamacare is slowly wheezing like a deflated balloon, and we are in the middle of what is the nastiest presidential contest in my lifetime. As for the left, they spent two years screaming in the Occupy movement and then found an unexpected champion in Sen. Bernie Sanders, a man too old to be a Baby Boomer.

Now they’re trying to come up with new ideas—and have found a vehicle in the Roosevelt Institute. (In 2014, I wrote a piece about the Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal’s critique of conservative positions on welfare.)

Gideon Lewis-Kraus profiles this rising leftist think tank in a lengthy piece for the New York Times Magazine.

As a writer, Lewis-Kraus alternates between being informative and maddening. Many times he fails to answer basic questions most journalists should have asked.

For example, how did the Roosevelt Institute get started? Lewis-Kraus says that in 2009 the organizations that became the institute were “an ad hoc collection of spare progressive parts, including the upkeep of the F.D.R. Library in Hyde Park, N.Y.” There is still some sort of connection to the F.D.R. Library; go to the Roosevelt Institute website and you’ll see an offer to become an F.D.R. Library patron (for $10,000, you can become a “New Dealer”).

These spare parts were somehow fused into a think tank by political scientist Andrew Rich, an expert on think tanks. But what were these parts? Wikipedia provides some clues, including that the institute was founded in 1987 and in 2007 the institute merged with the “Roosevelt Institution,” now the institute’s campus division. But it doesn’t tell me what the institute did between 1987 and 2009. Is the Roosevelt Institute the think tank of the Roosevelt Library in the same way that the George W. Bush Institute is the think tank of the George W. Bush Library? We don’t know. Nor does Lewis-Kraus give any sense of the Roosevelt Institute’s budget. I learned from Guidestar that in 2013 it was $5.3 million but I shouldn’t have to go to Guidestar to find this out.

Finally, Lewis-Kraus says that in 1998 the institute’s president, Felicia Wong, was a White House fellow in 1998, where she “helped write an 800-page book, in the voice of the president, about racial healing; it was spiked in part because it didn’t hew to the administration’s official line.”

Wait a minute—there was an 800-page book written as if it were by Bill Clinton that was suppressed and you don’t care? What sort of journalist are you, Gideon Lewis-Kraus?

Lewis-Kraus also wants us to make sure we know he got an A in his How to Write Good class in college. He says that the endless battle between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks, or whatever the hard and soft left call themselves these days, is “Faulknerian.” I have read enough about leftist battles to know that, whatever they are, Faulkner never described them.

Those of us who hang around think tanks will find this passage quite funny.

“Late one evening in Washington, we walked by a thickset monolith that glowed with a cold marmoreal light, as if James Turrell had built a fortress for some paranoid ice king. The front read CSIS: the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Wong rolled her eyes, theatrically shuddered and tucked her runaway hair behind her ear. ‘Now that’s a think tank.’”


So the Roosevelt Institute doesn’t try to be a place where the mandarins tell the little people how to live. Their staff call themselves “Roosevelters” and they’re mostly young and mostly avoid suits. And of course, they’re not in Washington, which Felicia Wong apparently sees as a conniving corporate cesspool.

But being young, they revere the state and want us to have more of it. Their report, Rewriting the Rules, of course calls for more government—universal child care, “Medicare for all,” rules making it far easier to join unions, government-subsidized broadband. Those of us in the “gig economy” are supposed to cheer these new and cushy jobs, with lifetime tenure and defined-benefit pensions that vest at 55.

What is new is that the Roosevelt Institute scholars base all these new taxes on the rich and bigger government on a goal of reducing inequality. Now I’m someone who, perhaps dubiously, believes that the left and right can work together. Here are some things I didn’t see in the Roosevelt Institute report.

If I were a liberal, I’d be outraged by government programs that directly aid big business. I’d be up in arms about the Export-Import Bank, which ladles pork to the Fortune 100, and agricultural programs that make corn artificially cheap so that high fructose corn syrup is a bargain. I’d question a lot of what the Department of Commerce does. The report says nothing about these agencies.

If you’re bothered by the gig economy, I’d figure out ways to increase entrepreneurship. I’d smash occupational license monopolies that reward the well connected and punish the striving. I’d take a close look at the Small Business Administration and see if it actually helps small business or just gives rewards to the elite. The Roosevelters have nothing to say about occupational licenses or the SBA.

Finally, the institute has nothing to say about education, except for subsidies to universal preschool. But surely there must be reforms that can be made that can increase vocational education, and help students who want to succeed as entrepreneurs. These reforms aren’t addressed in the Roosevelt paper.

We should pay attention to the Roosevelt Institute, because this is where the energy lies in the left. In addition, Darren Walker has blessed the institute, so they’ll be rolling in Ford Foundation cash. But much of what they’re calling for is old wine in new bottles.


Photo: 570 Lexington Ave., Roosevelt Institute's offices; Credit: jasoneppink via / CC BY