When John Goodman tried his hand at politics in the '60s, he lost the big one. Lloyd Doggett beat him in the race to become student-body president of the University of Texas at Austin, a school Goodman describes as "a training ground for politicians like John Connolly."
Doggett went on to become a Democratic state senator and gained a fleeting bit of national fame in 1984 by running for the U.S. Senate against Democrat-turned-Republican Phil Gramm. (Gramm won.)
Goodman, who despite his student government ambitions had never actually intended a career in politics, served two involuntary years in the army, earned an economics Ph.D. from Columbia in 1976, and bounced around the academic world a bit. But in 1983, he got back into politics—this time on the idea side.
Goodman says his student-government days taught him it's "pointless to expect change by the election process unless there's a change in the thinking of the public." To create that change, he founded the Dallas based, free-market-oriented National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) in 1983.
NCPA's work reflects Goodman's own intellectual roots. He says his economic views come largely "from Milton Friedman and his students—the whole University of Chicago approach" and from the public-choice paradigm developed by James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. (Goodman's doctoral dissertation, "The Market for Coercion: A Neoclassical Theory of the State," used public-choice ideas to apply economics to politics.)
His philosophical views were strongly influenced by novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand—so powerfully, he says, that it took some years to put her ideas into perspective: "At that time it was easy to get sucked into the belief that Rand had all the answers."
From these strains of free-market, individualist thought, Goodman has created a think tank that he believes should appeal to liberals and conservatives alike. But he also believes that ideas, like products, don't just sell themselves. "Ralph Nader," he says, "knew how to market an idea."
NCPA's books and studies—on health care, Social Security, education, the federal deficit, and defense—have attracted plenty of media attention, thanks to a strategy that stresses news as well as views. "We take an investigatory approach—dig deep and find something new. We have an exposé streak to our studies," says Becci Breining, the center's public-affairs director.
In 1984, for example, NCPA was the first to reveal, using recently declassified U.S. intelligence reports, that the Soviets have enough "killer satellites" to destroy all U.S. and NATO military satellites in low orbit in one week. The study was covered by Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News and featured in two national wire-service reports.
Such coverage is the dividend of careful planning. Goodman, who calls himself a workaholic, has written books and monographs for several other think tanks. He observes that most research institutes commission a study, produce it, publish it, and then take it to the PR department with the order, "Go sell this."
"In the private market," he says, "companies that produce products that way go bankrupt." Before NCPA takes on a project, it asks questions: Do we have anything new to say on the subject? Is there a market? How do we reach that market? "The marketing is there throughout, not tacked on at the very end. And that makes all the difference. It influences how studies are written, how they look, what's stressed and what isn't."
Drawing on public-choice theory, many NCPA studies stress incentives. For example, public schools are paid according to student attendance, not student performance. So they buy half-million-dollar computer systems—not to educate students but to telephone parents to tell them their children were not in school that day. Goodman suggests making at least 20 percent of school revenues depend on academic achievement.
He is proud of the bridges the center has built between right and left: "We've made more headway than any major institution I know of in getting traditionally liberal groups together with traditionally conservative groups and giving them a common focus…One reason that we are getting a lot of attention is because we aren't getting bogged down in the old traditional policy arguments between conservatives and liberals."
One NCPA study, for example, detailed government destruction of the environment and pointed out the advantages of private stewardship of ecologically valuable areas. Another showed that the 1982 Social Security "reforms" would result in a massive transfer of wealth from blacks to whites, who have longer life expectancies and therefore more time to collect retirement benefits.
"On Social Security, we were in touch with the League of United Latin American Citizens and Jesse Jackson's Operation PUSH. A bill, HR-3505, sponsored by Cardiss Collins, a black liberal Democratic congresswoman from Illinois, would go 90 percent of the way toward privatizing Medicare. We're also dealing with laws which prevent women from working at home, allying feminists with traditional conservatives," says Goodman.
Looking for markets, working long hours, building alliances—it's all so practical. But Goodman, now 40, has his romantic side. On those rare occasions when he does get away, he wants to get away completely: "I love escapist fiction: Trevanian, Robert Ludlum. And escapist—romantic—movies. When I vacation I like to take escapist vacations like Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco. None of this climbing through castles and walking through churches."
For John Goodman, a man's think tank is obviously his castle.
John Dentinger is a free-lance writer in Los Angeles.