AEI’s Arthur Brooks quit the French horn to lead a pa­rade for cap­i­tal­ism.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - Thomas.heath@wash­

There’s a new sher­iff named Trump in Wash­ing­ton, but that doesn’t much faze Arthur C. Brooks, the mu­sic man lead­ing the pa­rade at one of the most prom­i­nent think tanks on the planet, the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute.

The 52-year-old for­mer con­cert mu­si­cian dropped the French horn for the so­cial sciences two decades ago, earned a mail-or­der bach­e­lor’s de­gree and since has been bring­ing an ap­proach to run­ning a think tank that is as un­ortho­dox as his back­ground.

The Big C con­ser­va­tive has spent two years keep­ing his cap­i­tal­ist fief­dom out of the pres­i­den­tial race as he takes the long view, pro­mot­ing a busi­ness model that is part Steve Jobs, part mu­sic man — and in­fused with Wall Street’s eat-what-you-kill cul­ture.

My scram­bled eggs and sausage are rapidly cool­ing as we sit in his fifth-floor con­fer­ence room, once the room where Trea­sury Sec­re­tary An­drew Mel­lon dressed when he lived here in the 1920s. It was the McCormick Apart­ments, one of the most pres­ti­gious res­i­dences in Wash­ing­ton.

The build­ing is com­ing off a bud­get-bust­ing, $100 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion that has trans­formed it into a glit­ter­ing new head­quar­ters astride Mas­sachusetts Av­enue NW. There are 220 AEI em­ploy­ees in the build­ing who make a living from the nearly $50 mil­lion a year in dona­tions that Brooks & Co.’s scrappy fundrais­ers bring in. About $1 mil­lion of that money cov­ers his annual com­pen­sa­tion, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral tax records.

AEI’s schol­ars write books, per­form stud­ies, and re­port on and re­search a wide ar­ray of top­ics, in­clud­ing eco­nom­ics, ed­u­ca­tion, health care and cul­ture.

To meet ex­penses, AEI re­lies on a core of about 1,600 donors who con­trib­ute an av­er­age of about $35,000 each a year. A staff of 20 keeps close tabs on the 1,600, making sure they are happy, healthy and gen­er­ous.

“No­body is treated like an ATM ma­chine,” Brooks said. “We don’t say, ‘What can we get from that donor?’ We say, ‘What does that donor need?’ ”

In­stead, they are sell­ing AEI as a cat­a­lyst for grat­i­fi­ca­tion. “We are a hu­man-wel­fare-en­hanc­ing ma­chine. You can put your money in the ma­chine and out the other end is go­ing to come some­thing that is in­cal­cu­la­bly more valu­able than the money you put in,” he said. “If you own a chain of hard­ware stores in Iowa, God bless you for your work. But you can’t af­fect hu­man wel­fare very much.”

He cap­tures this coun­ter­in­tu­itive phi­los­o­phy in his man­i­festo, “The Con­ser­va­tive Heart,” where he makes the moral case for free en­ter­prise, which is not the typ­i­cal con­ser­va­tive re­frain.

Why not rally a fat en­dow­ment to take the pres­sure off ?

“There should be pres­sure on me,” says Brooks, tie-less and at­tired in what looks like a Euro­pean ac­cent (he played the French horn there) in a print shirt with a sprawl­ing col­lar and cuffs wrapped over his sport coat. “I don’t be­lieve in per­ma­nent en­dow­ments, be­cause I be­lieve in mar­kets. You should eat what you kill, and I want us to stay hun­gry.”

Brooks is part show­man. But he is all wonk. Ideas are what he cares about be­cause they last. Pol­i­tics and pres­i­dents are chang­ing weather, al­most en­ter­tain­ment.

“Weather is sex­ier and more rel­e­vant from a mo­ment to mo­ment,” he said. “But you’re never go­ing to un­der­stand the weather un­less you have peo­ple who re­ally do work on the cli­mate.”

Who­ever is pres­i­dent, “my work stays the same,” Brooks said. “I like it when cer­tain peo­ple get elected more than oth­ers. But that’s re­ally not the point.”

He has a doc­tor­ate in pol­icy but his mas­ter’s could be in schmooz­ing. His cir­cle in­cludes House Speaker Paul Ryan, Ap­ple chief ex­ec­u­tive Tim Cook, the Dalai Lama, Google bil­lion­aire Eric Sch­midt and even the brain trust at the New York Times’ lib­er­al­lean­ing ed­i­to­rial page, to which Brooks pe­ri­od­i­cally con­trib­utes.

“We all have the same heart,” he says of lib­er­als. “We are in the hu­man wel­fare busi­ness. I’m a to­tal bleed­ing heart, but with a con­ser­va­tive brain. Free en­ter­prise is the best way to get more peo­ple a bet­ter life. If you’re a war­rior for hu­man wel­fare, you must be a war­rior for free en­ter­prise.”

En­trepreneurism runs in the fam­ily. His pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther started a Navajo mis­sion school and was a dean at Wheaton Col­lege in Illi­nois.

“My grand­fa­ther was a true so­cial en­trepreneur,” he said.

Young Arthur was born in the Pa­cific North­west and be­came pro­fi­cient in the French horn by 9. Mu­sic was “all I wanted to do,” he re­called. He dropped out of col­lege and be­came a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian, land­ing in Europe. He met his fu­ture wife while on tour in France play­ing cham­ber mu­sic.

The cou­ple moved to Florida, where his wife took hourly jobs and Brooks earned a mail-or­der bach­e­lor’s de­gree from Thomas Edi­son State Col­lege in New Jersey. He earned a mas­ter’s from Florida At­lantic University and worked at the Rand Corp. in Cal­i­for­nia be­fore join­ing academia. “It’s a beau­ti­ful sys­tem,” he said of the aca­demic life. “It’s fun and it’s easy to dom­i­nate if you work hard on the right things.”

Some­where in the scrum, he had an epiphany. He put down the French horn and took up so­cial sci­ence. His fa­vorite mu­si­cian is Ger­man Baroque-era com­poser Jo­hann Se­bas­tian Bach.

“Bach said the aim and fi­nal end of all mu­sic is noth­ing less than the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of God and the re­fresh­ment of the soul,” said Brooks, a de­vout Catholic. “When I heard that, it was like a knife to the heart be­cause that wasn’t the ‘why’ of my making mu­sic. I wasn’t re­fresh­ing any­body.”

He brought the Ap­ple busi­ness model with him when he be­came AEI pres­i­dent on Jan. 1, 2009, from Syra­cuse University, where as a full pro­fes­sor he taught busi­ness and gov­ern­ment pol­icy.

AEI and Ap­ple are both hit­driven en­ter­prises that need con­stant, at­ten­tion-get­ting in­no­va­tions. In Ap­ple’s case, it’s the iPad, iPhone, Ap­ple Watch.

AEI’s hits are of a more cere­bral na­ture. Most of the money at AEI goes to un­sexy but im­por­tant day-to-day stuff. Ev­ery once in a while, Brooks be­comes Harold Hill the Mu­sic Man and pro­motes a topic sexy enough to launch what he calls “the pa­rade.”

“If you want to in­flu­ence lead­ers, some­times you have to start a pa­rade.”

“We’re go­ing to talk about not try­ing to send ev­ery­body to col­lege, but ac­tu­ally to serve the vo­ca­tional needs of the coun­try,” he says, “to get peo­ple to move more for their work, be­cause peo­ple have stopped mov­ing in Amer­ica.”

It gets to a core be­lief, which is that jobs give peo­ple dig­nity and a route to hap­pi­ness.

The big donors be­hind AEI are feted each year at Ge­or­gia’s Sea Is­land Re­sort. At­ten­dees min­gle with jour­nal­ists, politi­cians, fel­low busi­ness big­wigs, mu­si­cians and au­thors — all off the record.

“It’s a re­la­tion­ship-builder,” Brooks said.

Does the mu­sic man ever pick up the French horn or jump on the pi­ano to en­ter­tain?

“I made my living do­ing it un­til I was 31. But right now, I can an­swer Bach’s ques­tion in the af­fir­ma­tive. I ac­tu­ally feel like I’m glo­ri­fy­ing God and serv­ing my fel­low men and women. I couldn’t say that when I was in mu­sic.”


Arthur Brooks, pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, dropped the French horn to lead a pa­rade for cap­i­tal­ism.


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