WaPo's Ezra Klein: More Charitable to Give to Policy Think Tanks than Food Banks

November 22nd, 2010 8:31 PM

Shorter Ezra Klein Nov. 21 column: Let them eat wonky policy papers!

If this is Klein trying to win the contest for the best impersonation of the inside-the-beltway 'Grinch Who Stole Christmas,' he may have pulled it off. In a not-so-stunning admission in his column, Klein argues that giving, if targeted at political non-profits, is a more effective means of doing good.

'I come not to praise charity,' Klein wrote. 'I come to politicize it. Or at least make it more aware of the political world around it.'

The theory - only government can do heavy lifting and if think tanks can influence public policy they can do more good than giving to a food bank.

'At their best, they act as force multipliers,' Klein continued. 'If you donate money to a food bank, it can provide only as much food as your money can buy. If you donate it to a nonprofit that specializes in food policy issues, it can persuade legislators to pass a new program - or reform an existing one - that can do much more than any single food bank.'

So, this holiday season as you walk past the Salvation Army bell-ringer soliciting donations for the needy, walk on by because according to Klein, a donation to a policy think tank geared toward thwarting incoming Republican House Majority Rep. Eric Cantor's 'anti-government type' effort to repeal ObamaCare is much more effective.

But he also explained you didn't have to limit your giving to the policy think tanks, but give also to pseudo-academic policy magazines and journals.

'And you're not limited to think tanks,' Klein wrote. 'Small policy magazines and journals are often much more influential than their sizes would suggest, and they tend to run on donations, as do such good-government watchdogs as the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Public Integrity. There are groups dedicated to reforming policy to make it easier for entrepreneurs to start businesses, and anyone who's spent much time dealing with the D.C. bureaucracy knows that we could use a few more of them.'

Toward the end of Klein's column, he cautioned that he wasn't trying to 'warn' people away from traditional giving. However he argues that there is an inherent multiplier effect present in that type of giving because directing government policy gives on more bang for their charitable buck.

'The point of this isn't to polarize philanthropy or to warn anyone away from traditional charities,' he continued. 'There's room - and need - for an array of approaches. But at the end of the day, the government is the central player in many of these spheres, with the scale and power to make changes that other actors simply can't contemplate. Charities that work to make the government's policies better have a unique ability to take small investments and turn them into tremendous outcomes. If you're looking for bang for your philanthropic buck, they're the place to start.'

Klein's suggestion the multiplier effect would prevail in this type of giving is curious because back in 2008, he made the same type of argument that government social spending - food stamps, unemployment benefits, etc. - has more of a multiplier effect than other types of government policies, including lowering taxes. But in 2009, a Democratic-controlled Congress and White House passed the stimulus bill they wanted and this multiplier effect has yet to kick in, at least as far as the unemployment rate is concerned.