Antholis at Top of the World’s Top Think Tank

NEW YORK – For nearly 100 years, when America’s leaders needed fresh and powerful ideas to help get the country back on track and to solve the world’s critical problems, they often turned to the Brookings Institution. And when the world’s leading think tank needed a new managing director to ensure their pre-eminence for another century, they turned to Greek American William Antholis. Six years after Antholis’ appointment, Brookings was again just ranked number one in the world on the University of Pennsylvania’s think tank index, described as the insider’s guide to the global marketplace of ideas. Think tanks conduct research on a wide array of issues. Their goal is to shape the policy of governments, businesses and organizations, and ultimately, from their perspective, to change the world for the better. Brookings occupies the top of the rankings by being true to its three cores values: Quality, independence and impact. As Managing Director, Antholis is responsible for doing justice to those values, especially the objectivity that independence represents and that makes their research welcome regardless of the ideological orientation their consumer. That is Brookings Brand identity.
William “Bill” Antholis began his conversation with The National Herald with sentients he shares with many successful Greek Americans. “Whatever else I might accomplish, I am Eva and John Antholis’ son.” The other thing he has in common with many of them is a burning desire to make a difference, to have a positive impact on the world around him.
His mother was born in Greece, but her story has a twist that is not uncommon. Her parents were also born in Greece, but immigrated to the U.S. They had their first group of children here, and then moved back when the Great Depression hit. Eva Antholis was born in the second wave of kids in the middle of the Peloponnese. After the family returned to the United States she served the community as a Greek school teacher and as the head of the Greek schools of two communities, in Dover and Westfield, New Jersey. She ran the Westfield program, where Antholis’ family attended church, for almost 20 years. “There is a huge range of children in northern New Jersey who learned Greek from my mom. That was her great legacy and I’m very much a product of that. She is a real legend there,” he said of this mother, who passed away recently. His dad was born in the USA, and expressed a similar devotion Hellenism and the community through his work as district governor in the Order of AHEPA, where he also served a Supreme Counselor.
He and his bother grew up in Florham Park, N.J. which is now famous because the Jets practice there. He said Kary is the more famous of the two brothers. “He won an academy award two years ago for a documentary. He is president of mini series of HBO where he produced series like John Adams, the Pacific, Angels in America and won several Emmys. Told that his father passed on some powerful administrative genes, Antholis said, “And political genes. He was very gregarious and really believed in public service.”
The roots of the Brookings Institution go back to1916. Some of that era’s leading reformers founded the Institute for Government Research. Robert Somers Brookings later established two supporting sister organizations: the Institute of Economics and a graduate school, and in 1927 they were merged and became The Brookings Institution.
The New York Times and others have placed Brookings all over the ideological map. Antholis has no problem with that. “We don’t have an ideological perspective as an institution and we are really committed to independent research. We aspire that the quality of our scholarship is on a par with the best universities around the world, but nobody says of a university that they are left of center or right, but in Washington we are under the microscope because we work on public policy issues and we pay extra special attention to make sure our scholars [are independent]. No one tries to control any one scholar’s research. We try to make sure we have a diverse group of researchers across the political spectrum.”
Brookings doesn’t go after business and political superstars when they recruit scholars. With some key exceptions like the highly respected Alice M. Rivlin, Senior Fellow, Economic Studies, their names are not familiar outside policymaking and academic circles, but the Institute’s scholars are sluggers in their fields. There are, however, numerous heavy hitters on the board of directors.
“We recruit people coming out of Republican and Democratic administrations, but a lot of Brookings’ scholars have not served in government, so they are truly independent. We never asked them what they are. We have people who served under George W. Bush who turned out to be Democrats and people who served under Bill Clinton and [earlier Democratic administrations] who it turns out were Republicans.”
Antholis stressed Brookings’ strivings for objectivity. “Washington is both an intellectual playground and an intellectual minefield. There are people who are very broadminded and broad thinking and people who are very dug into political positions and or ideologies and we try really hard to steer around ideologies and not have it be part of what we do. We take pride in people respecting our work. The third core value is impact. We take seriously the idea that we are here to make a difference. We should be respected by academics as doing high quality work but not be focused on academic debates.” Rather they look at “what makes a difference in the lives of nations, people and governments and we are focused on making sure their ideas make it into the political bloodstream and help address the big issues and problems facing the country and the world.”
Instititions, like organisms, survive and thrive by evolving, but though evolution in nature is blind, organizations change successfully through leaders with vision.
Asked if there have been are recent shifts in the way Brookings operates, Antholis told TNH that in past six and a half years since he’s been there, and under Strobe Talbot’s leadership, they went from three research programs: economics, government and foreign policy, to five, adding programs in global economy and development and the metropolitan policy. “We’ve gone both local and more global,” and Brookings is now almost twice the size it was when he began.
“On the local side what we have realized it is not just states and cities that are the ‘laboratories of democracy.’” He says that America is increasingly shaped not by state governments but by big metropolitan regions. “Urban studies used to be about the pathology of American cities, why American cities seemed to be in decline, but looking more broadly at metropolitan regions, how the cities interact with suburbs, the suburbs have not just flourished but have become more like the cities, more economically and ethnically diverse” Antholis said, but most importantly, they vary on how well they work with the urban core. Brookings tries “to come up with a more strategic outlook for metropolitan areas and help them think and plan in a more coherent way. He believes that is a major Brookings accomplishment. {33624}
The Global Economic and development program is now led by its second president, Kemal Dervish, the former Turkish finance minister who was instrumental in arranging the visit to Brookings last year of his close friend, Greek Premier George Papandreou.
“Across the institution we see big challenges facing the country and the world. In the wake of biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, how do we grow our economy? How do we have it be innovation rich, and take advantage of the innovative spirit of American businesses and entrepreneurs? That’s job 1. Job 2 is doing that in a way that promotes opportunity for the greatest number of citizens.”
Each of the research programs has a set of priorities but Antholis says Brookings doesn’t take positions on specific issues, “We leave that to our scholars,” he told TNH. But their approach is guided by broad principles. “As a general matter we tend to think that societies rise or fall by how much social mobility there is and the greatest pathway is education for citizens, broadly.”
The research is headed by vice presidents. With Antholis and Talbot they comprise the Council of Leadership, a steering committee that meets monthly. Every two to three years they develop a strategic plan in response to four priorities that cut across the five research programs: growth; opportunity; natural resources – including energy issues; environment and global change and the rise of the big emerging powers – China, India etc.
According to Antholis, the Brookings agenda is set both from the top down and the bottom up. “We set broad strategic priorities, work very hard to recruit talent and resources so that they can be all they can, and we set downs rules for the road to maintain quality and organizational coherence.”
But leadership matters. Up above, he and Talbot look at the world through their experienced eyes and gain additional perspective by talking to trustees, reporters, important political leaders and others. The vice presidents do they same while also speaking with their scholars. They are constantly hearing from the research programs what the big issues are, so they are constantly talking to one another and evaluating and keeping tabs on what’s going on in all the different units.
“We don’t try to just shape the issues of the day,” Antholis said, adding that the scholars “think of impact more broadly than any distinct policy decision.” He said that before something becomes ready to be decided there is a debate around it, including the question of whether that issue even belongs on the list of priorities facing the nation and the world.”
Brookings has 85 senior fellows and another 100 non-resident senior fellows at universities and 100 junior researchers. “We are more like a university than the CIA. We don’t have a constant feed into a central place where on a daily basis we are keeping track of what our scholars are doing, but more than a university, we communicate regularly with our scholars to make sure that we have an external communications apparatus that’s feeding out into the world at large.”
In addition to the five research programs they have substantially themed centers and initiatives which focus on China policy, relations between the U.S. and Europe, children and family issues and education policy.
They have an increasingly international staff. “The Brookings cafeterias looks more and more like the cafeteria at the UN, but it is a rich mix of people from outside the U.S. who have gotten advanced degrees here and want to work at the Institute.” He says it’s one of the great things about working at Brookings.
In the 21st century, the Brookings Web site has become central to making an impact. Antholis says it receives about 200,000 unique visitors a month. He told TNH “It’s run by top flight people headed by a former Director of Communication for the Speaker of the House. She is a democrat, but she has two top Republicans in her group. They are constantly in touch with what major reporters are covering, what’s about to be published and they set up the site to project what they hear. They also talk on a regular basis to the key players at the White House and on Capitol Hill. The process keeps them in touch with what the Institute’s consumers are looking for.
For Brookings, “Impact” has three dimensions: agenda setting, debate shaping and policy design and decision making – they try to influence all three. That doesn’t mean that every scholar is always thinking in all three modes, but they are told to be conscious of what mode they are in. The scholars are asked what they are trying to influence and then staff will work with the scholar to have a communication strategy that matches their policy research.
To those who say think tanks are too powerful he replied “ I wish we were as powerful as people thought we were. The role we play is not as well understood as it should be. There has been a rise of think tanks on either side of the political spectrum but Unfortunately…what you get is war of ideas where think tanks on either end of the spectrum start with an answer and then look for the question that frames the answer, like the game show Jeopardy. They know what they want to say and then look for research that backs up that answer.”
No noted that as Washington has become more polarized, different groups and members of Congress turn to think tanks that echo the views they already have. Brookings strives to be a trusted institution where Democrats and Republicans not only feel comfortable working there but “feel comfortable coming to it for research that starts with a legitimate question and goes to an answer, and the answer is not always what you expect it to be. If we stay focused on our job of asking questions first and then coming up with good answers, people will find a role for our ideas.”
Antholis’ most recent book is one he has co-written with Brookings’ Stobe Talbot titled: Fast Forward: Ethics and Politics in the Age of Global Warming. TNH suggested the issue of global warning is intimately connected with the question of whether people trust their government, Antholis agreed that for governments to be able to do anything about it, the people have to trust them, but he says that “People have lost faith and trust in institutions, and not just in government, but in science also,” stressing that last disturbing fact. On the other hand, he is deeply impressed with the leadership on the issue demonstrated by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who he said “has made this the great crusade of his life” and who spoke at Brookings during one of his visits to the U.S. “He called the destruction of the environment, particularly our contribution to global warming, a sin. If we really care about God’s creation, we must care about global warming,” Antholis said, adding that Bartholomew takes science very seriously.
He first met His All Holiness at the White House when Vice President Gore dubbed him as the Green Patriarch. He told TNH that as he has come to know Bartholomew’s thoughts his own interest has deepened. “What is undeniable is that the planet is warming. That is almost certain,” and he told TNH that he only said “almost” out of respect for scientific skepticism. “Science is built on questioning,” implying the need to take seriously the work of those who doubt the consensus. That said, Antholis pointed out “At least nine out of 10 atmospheric scientists say that the human contribution to climate change is undeniable. If nine out of 10 doctors told you that you were contributing to something that will affect your childrens’ lives, you would ask the tenth doctors to see his facts, but you would begin to take precautionary measures to prevent that catastrophic event from happening.” He acknowledged that we don’t know exactly how much of an effect mankind is having – he noted there is great variability in the projections – but that doesn’t mean a strong argument for action cannot be made.
Antholis explained that he and Talbot take a measured approach in the book. Exhibiting the Brookings discipline of directing one’s work towards making an impact, he explained that the key audience for the book was the moderate Republicans in Congress who are key to passing the necessary legislation and “who would ask all of the hard questions of the science. Rather than making a hyperventilating case in the book, I tried to make a reasoned case for why modest steps are important.” Even those, he said, come with costs, so the book also addresses how they can be done in the most market efficient way.
When TNH asked about the debate regarding the efficacy of tax cuts versus spending Antholis said, “Both can be stimulative.” Regarding the national debt and the deficit, “The real challenge is the question can you cut the deficit while you are in economic crisis. We shouldn’t be thinking about dramatically reducing the deficit between now and 2013, but after that, we need to take up the deficit challenge in a really dramatic way.”
America’s economic competitiveness is a major Brookings concern. TNH asked if Antholis thought the 21st century will be dominated by engineers or inventors, suggesting that if it’s the former, China and India will drown us with engineers.
He believes innovation drives economic progress and prosperity, but noted “The great innovations have not come from single innovators. It takes a village. Entrepreneurs, inventors, investors and engineers living in an ecosystem.” He also stressed that the American political system made America “an extraordinarily innovative and entrepreneurial country.”
He recognizes that globalization has raised challenges to America’s standing, that China and India are trying to build such villages, but said “We are still very much a place based world,” and said that our great metropolitan regions are the units of economic and political innovation. He is more bullish on India, with its open political system which makes it easier to have an open, discursive environment. “They are like Greeks…you know, three Greeks in a room, five opinions,” but he says that stimulates innovation.
But the vital role played in progress by the political system in the past combines with its current state to raise disturbing questions about America’s future. Antholis’ views and perspectives make him optimistic. He sees and is disturbed by the system’s “dysfunction and polarization, the fractured state of our media, and the fractured state of political discourse.” The rising importance of narrowcasting in the media is a problem, contributing to the fact that “There is less of a single national conversation and common sense of purpose than I like.”
But he sees evidence that Congress is attempting to fix some of the key problems. His advice is “You have to attack the biggest problems first.” He points a finger at the fact, bordering on the unbelievable, that “the executive branch remains unstaffed for three of the of the four years of a president’s first term. Twenty percent of positions remain to be filled because of the broken confirmation process, which is a critical subset of the ‘filibuster problem’ that plagues Democratic and Republican administrations alike.” The confirmation process cripples the judiciary and important agencies such as the foreign service and defense departments which have a lot of positions where appointees must be confirmed by the Senate.
Illustrating how even in complex times a little common sense goes a long way, Antholis cited with pride a Washington Post article that refers to Brookings’ proposal: reduce the number of positions that require confirmation. There are now 1400. If that number is reduced by 100 – and Antholis would eliminate many more – that is 7-8 percent of problem. He noted that there is a range other proposals on limiting the abuse of filibuster. He is very pleased that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have put together their staffs in a bi-partisan way to look at the issue, and Brookings is helping behind the scenes.
The evolution of the news media in recent decades also poses a challenge to the effectiveness of the American democracy. A big question is “how do you engage in cross-talk conversation” with the rise of narrowcasting, where different groups are increasingly exposed to only one view on a topic. Antholis thinks the solution is increasing the prominence of aggregating web sites, and having a select group of narrowcast web sites with differing outlooks partner with those sites. The rise of social media, Facebook, Twitter etc. also are potentially part of the solution.
Antholis told TNH that he and Talbot are now working on a speech, to be presented across the country, on how to recreate that national conversation.
Antholis is very proud of the Brookings Institution’s 94 year history. “We helped design the Marshall Plan and the UN, and we had a big role in designing major tax reform in 1986 and much of the U.S.’s response at the end of the Cold War such as the expansion of NATO, the redesign of homeland security in the wake of 9/11 and a lot of de-regulation and regulation, the latter demonstrating the great importance of research in ascertaining what should be regulated and to what degree.
“The challenge comes thinking back over the great accomplishments we’ve had over the last century and being haunted by the ghosts of our previous achievements” – that’s what drives him, he said. Antholis looks at the challenges America faces today and those of the 20th century and hopes Brookings’ ideas will rise to the level of what their predecessors achieved. “I stand on the shoulders of John and Eva Antholis and I also stand on the shoulders of people who helped steer the country through some great crises in the past and we are facing some of those now and we need to live up to that reputation.”