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Atlas Economic Research Foundation: the think-tank breeders
by Bob Burton
For over two decades, a Virginia-based organization has been quietly working as the Johnny Appleseed of conservative think tanks. With a modest $4 million budget in 2003 and a staff of eight, Atlas Economic Research Foundation is on a mission to populate the world with new "free market" voices. In its 2003 review of activities, quaintly titled its Investor Report, Atlas boasted that it worked with "70 new think-tank entrepreneurs from 37 foreign countries, including Lithuania, Greece, Mongolia, Ghana, the Philippines, Brazil and Argentina," as well as with several American groups.
Briton Antony Fisher founded Atlas as part of his lifelong campaign to influence the "climate of ideas" and combat "creeping socialism." Atlas credits Fisher with assisting in the early stages of development of several conservative think tanks, including the Manhattan Institute, Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco and Fraser Institute in Vancouver, Canada.
Atlas identifies, screens and offers initial support to individuals and groups who want to create local think tanks. "Our ideal 'intellectual entrepreneur,'" says Atlas, is "someone who communicates effectively with businessmen, academicians and the general public." By facilitating the establishment of local think tanks, Atlas increases both the reach and local credibility of their "free market" message, thereby having "the most cost-effective impact."
Since its formation in 1981, Atlas has funnelled over $20 million in grants to think tanks that have passed its screening process. Atlas aims, it says, to "increase that amount tenfold in the next decade." In 2003, a little over $2 million of Atlas's budget was passed on to other think tanks. While large conservative foundations often make sizable, sustained and general support grants, Atlas believes less is more, giving small grants of $5,000 or less. Atlas then weans fledgling projects off this modest annual funding within five years, making exception only for specific innovative projects.
While Atlas calculates that its "family" comprises approximately one-third of the world's 470 "market oriented" think tanks, it worries that "many young think tanks lack know-how regarding reaching the media and communicating a message effectively." To help build these skills, Atlas recruited Vince Breglio, co-founder and senior executive with the market research and public relations company Wirthlin Worldwide. At its mid-August conference in Salt Lake City, Breglio gave PR tips in a two-hour workshop titled "communicating the message of liberty." A veteran of the 1980 and 1984 Reagan Presidential campaigns, Breglio is no stranger to helping sell unpopular ideas. Internal tobacco industry documents reveal he advised both R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris on how to handle public opposition to smoking.
Atlas' financial support has come from a handful of conservative foundations and corporations, including the Sarah Scaife Foundation, Earhart Foundation and the Carthage Foundation. ExxonMobil has contributed over $500,000 since 1998, according to the Greenpeace Web site ExxonSecrets.org.
In 1995, Philip Morris contributed $475,000 to Atlas according to an internal budget document released as part of the legal settlement with several U.S. states' attorneys general. In 1997, despite a tight budget, PM staff recommended Atlas receive $150,000 because of the organization's ability, through its events and public advocacy work, to "positively impact the regulatory environment, particularly in Latin America." Atlas' think tanks, PM staff wrote approvingly, create "an improved operating environment for all PM businesses."
Ironically, Atlas requires its protégé think tanks to be independent - "That is, independent of corpora-tions, independent of governments, independent of political parties and even independent of universities," Atlas President Alejandro A. Chaufen said in an April 1999 interview.
In a May 1998 fundraising pitch to tobacco giant Phillip Morris, Chaufen explained that keeping its think tanks off the dole of political parties, universities, government agencies and lobbies "helps keep their ideas and recommendations untainted by real or perceived political or organizational ties" and "helps protect them and us against potential scandal. Think tanks tied to politicians and parties can easily become instruments of corruption. Indeed, in several instances, public officials have enriched themselves and their allies through the 'think tanks' they control," Chaufen wrote.
Atlas' think tanks, Chaufen continued, have "remarkable successes" even though they were often faced with "unsympathetic local traditions and ideas. Still, these think tanks have become one of the first places opinion leaders and policy makers go when they are looking for market-based solutions to difficult social, economic or environmental problems."
A version of this article is also on Disinfopedia, the CMD's online database that anyone - including you - can add to. If you would like to work on this profile on Atlas or its affiliates, go to www.disinfopedia.org. If you need a hand getting started, drop Bob a line at bob AT disinfopedia.org.