Funding big ideas, continued. Myth #2: The left should spend its money on projects to help people and not on some amorphous attempt to influence how the public thinks about politics.

Answer: The left/center-left foundations mentioned below give money to thousands of particular projects in medical research, environmental protection, famine relief, community development, public radio, the fine arts, academic research (of the reputable kind), and to noncontroversial think-tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Sante Fe Institute. To take just one example, the MacArthur Foundation gives away twenty or thirty so-called "genius grants" of $500,000 every year. Now I think it's terrific that the MacArthur Foundation funds brilliant academic work, but couldn't it take $100k of each of those grants and invest it in an organization devoted to making political ideas? The choice is between giving your money to a couple dozen individuals or investing it in a concerted effort to produce a shift in the way people think about crucial political ideas. My apologies to Richard Rorty and Tim Scanlon (two philosophers who've received MacArthur grants), but I think at least part of that money would be better spent elsewhere. You know, they might even agree with me . . .

Left-leaning moneybags have made a poor strategic decision over the last twenty years or so. They've chosen to fund particular projects--however worthy they may be--instead of trying to cultivate a political environment in which there is tremendous support for people to carry out such projects. They've given up on trying to influence government (the biggest moneybag of them all) by winning over the hearts and minds of generations of opinion-makers. Eric Alterman got it right in a piece called "The 'Right' Books and Big Ideas," published a few years back in The Nation. Here's the take-home line:
A progressive funder once told me that he never bankrolled books because if he took away a grant from a human rights or Third World poverty organization, "people would die." Yes, I said, but they will continue to die in greater numbers so long as the right has a lock on the foundations of public discourse. The outcome of any contest is a foregone conclusion when one side plays only defense.

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