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Student think tank awarded
USC Gould School of Law

Friday, December 5, 2008

Two 3Ls recognized for initiatives to advance liberty

—By Dana Rygwelski

A think tank headed by USC Law students Matt Harrison and Rand J. Getlin recently was awarded a 2008 Templeton Freedom Award, announced by the Atlas Economic Research Foundation. The students, who run The Prometheus Institute, received the Award for Special Achievement by a Young Institute for their three well-designed initiatives to advance liberty in the United States.

Rand J. Getlin and Matt Harrison
 Rand J. Getlin and Matt Harrison
Founder and executive editor of the Prometheus Institute, Matt Harrison is a 2005 graduate of the University of Miami, where he earned a Bachelor's of Business Administration in Political Science. He will receive his J.D. from USC Law next spring. An Orange County native, his interests include BMW M cars, music, University of Miami football, and snowboarding.

Rand J. Getlin serves as Chief Operating Officer for the Prometheus Institute, where he plans events, establishes media contacts, forges strategic partnerships, and generally works to find new audiences for the Institute's independent policy ideas. Rand graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in political science, and will receive his J.D. from USC Law next spring. He has served as assistant deputy political director for John Kerry's Oregon presidential campaign, as well as a foreign relations assistant in the United States Senate. He has spoken before various organizations such as the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, the PEW Commission on Children in Foster Care, and the U.S. Senate Black Legislative Staff Caucus.

Together, Matt and Rand act as the pioneering forces behind The Prometheus Institute. Spearheaded by a team of six located in California and Washington, D.C., The Prometheus Institute is a public policy think tank dedicated to discovering nonpartisan policy solutions to pressing national issues and marketing these ideas to people worldwide.

The USC Stevens Institute for Innovation asked Matt and Rand a few questions about their model; here is what they had to say:

Help us understand what you are up to:

Matt Harrison: I founded and serve as executive editor of the Prometheus Institute, a public policy think tank.

Our strategy, in disseminating innovative and beneficial policy ideas directly to the people, revolutionizes the traditional think tank model.  Existing think tanks generally seek to forward their ideas only through elite scholarship, long and often vapid publications, and occasional lobbying and/or congressional testimony, but rarely through public means. With innovative publications like the Apathetic Citizen's Guide to Politics, the Aspiring Politician's Guide to Intelligent Policy, Layman's Guide to Economics, and articles ranging from editorials and op-ed to satire, parody and aggressive rebuttals; The Prometheus Institute forwards its ideas with the diversity, creativity and vision necessary to engage all Americans, not just selected policy wonks and lobbyists.

Despite operating with a volunteer staff and no funding, we've had some recent success. Our online publications were voted to the front page of Digg, Fark, Reddit, and many other of the most popular user-driven political news sites, on word of mouth advocacy alone, and were consistently among the most commented features of the day.  Our work also attracted the support of several eminent scholars, including former FCC Chief Economist Thomas Hazlett and Duke University Chairman Michael Munger.  Additionally, James Hirsen, syndicated columnist, called us the "Cato Institute with an edge" in reference to our innovative publications.

Rand J. Getlin: As director of outreach for the Prometheus Institute I am a jack of all trades (Do I have to follow with master of none?). Reaching out to various media/political/community-based outlets in order to more widely disseminate our ideas, I am also charged with creating innovative ways to market our brand to the public, which is particularly interesting when the "product" you are marketing is an idea. Beyond that, I act as Matt's counselor and work fervently to keep him sane!

What drives you to continue pursuing this area of study?

MH: I've been passionate about public policy and politics as long as I can remember. At my first job in high school (pushing carts at a grocery store), I would spend my shift day-dreaming about someday running a think tank, preferably one that was thought of as innovative, creative, youthful and yet still well-respected. As an undergraduate, I realized that no career path would be satisfying except for me to risk everything and finally create my dream – thanks to my mentors. I founded The Prometheus Institute in 2003 and have been working at it ever since.  I am now studying for my J.D. at USC Law, specializing in law and public policy.

RJG: I've always been interested in public policy as a way to tangibly improve people's lives. Because of my passion for public policy I became involved with political organizations, interning in the Senate and also with various campaign organizations including a presidential campaign. In fact, I had mentioned in my Facebook profile that I wanted to find a way to carve out a career in politics, but without selling myself out to special interests or lobbyists. Matt saw this in my profile and came up to me in our law school classes, he told me that he had been working on a way to do exactly that. I listened to his vision about creating an innovative policy organization that would revolutionize the hierarchical Washington think tank model and bring beneficial policy ideas directly to the people, helping to change our society for the better.  He was a pretty effective salesman and it opened up my eyes to a new frontier and we have been chasing the dream together ever since.

Describe how your work might impact people's lives, now and in the future.

MH: The potential for the Prometheus Institute is enormous. Our core purpose is to discover policy solutions to pressing issues facing America and the world in the 21st century, including globalization, social issues, climate change, education, voting/elections, welfare, market regulation and much more, all of which directly impact the lives of all Americans and profoundly affect our society's future growth and development.

But our most important contribution comes from the way in which we innovate, namely by engaging the American people, especially the youth and other audiences who have rapidly become disillusioned with the political process in general. Given sufficient resources, we will help to reverse citizen apathy, preserve democratic responsiveness, and ensure a dynamic civil society for years to come.

RJG: I believe our society is at a crossroads in terms of future public policy, with new 21st century issues like globalization, terrorism, and climate change looming large, but unfortunately with little leadership regarding what exactly we should do about it. By creating a forum of ideas through which the best and brightest in our country can work to engage our citizens in the debate over how we should effectively move forward, the potential for the Prometheus Institute to change the world we live in is both tangible and limitless.

How did you come up with the idea?

MH: I have long admired innovators in every field, from technology and science to business. I analyzed my field of interest, public policy, and realized that innovation was, for the most part, non-existent.  Every think tank seems to do the same thing - boring publications and boring conferences from boring scholars. As a result, even the most ambitious think tanks claim that it takes their ideas at least 20 years to "trickle-down" into mainstream political acceptance.  But in today's world, there is no excuse for delay in implementing beneficial ideas. The Prometheus Institute thus brings principles of efficiency, effective marketing, brand identity and other innovative ideas to the policy world. We replace the existing homogenous "supply-side" work with innovative and creative "demand-side" outreach that empowers the public with the knowledge, tools and information to advocate for change in their own lives. In essence, we're dedicated to applying those principles of innovation to fill the myriad voids in the current think tank market - the marketplace of ideas.

What is the next step in the innovation process for you and how might people help?

MH: Quite simply, we need funding!  Most think tanks operate with budgets in the millions of dollars. The Prometheus Institute staff has developed a plan and strategies to achieve much more with much less, but we need the initial funding so that we can fully implement our vision.  First, we need funding to acquire the contribution of scholars and other policy experts, and to publish and distribute their work. But most crucially, we also need to find a way to pay rent and our astronomical student loans when we finally graduate from law school in 2009!

The Prometheus Institute is a 501(c)(3) public charity, therefore donations are tax-deductible. Donations can also be targeted for work exclusively within the donor's issue(s) of interest. Additionally, we offer merchandise, sell subscriptions to our online magazine, and we're also a member of FreePledge, an innovative program whereby supporters can have a portion of their online purchases from nearly every prominent online retailer donated to the Institute.

RJG: I echo Matt's sentiments.

Has anyone ever doubted that your idea could work?

MH: The head of one of the scores of policy think tanks that currently exist around the country basically guaranteed that any new think tanks would fail, claiming that existing think tanks are so "well-managed and so alert to market opportunities that potential entrants into the market are unlikely to find much opportunity." But I'm not convinced.

I've never swayed in my belief that our vision is a good one, but I can't say I've never doubted its practical difficulties. The father of my business partner/co-founder opined that I was out of my mind for pursuing my dream instead of taking a law firm position.  Perhaps he's right

What mistake taught you the most?

RJG: Forgetting to pay attention to detail. Paying attention to detail is not Matt's strong suit, but, being a brain is not Rand's so it works out just fine! Matt is very much a big picture guy and I am the guy who has no problem spending his life concerned with the details.

What is the one innovation you can't live without?

MH: I don't think I can pick just one, I'll say virtually any new product from Steve Jobs, he is perhaps the greatest innovator alive today.

I most respect innovators and visionaries most for their ability to create a "sea change" in the field in which they operate, and I could never list them all, but the most influential to me personally are Steve Jobs, Alexander Hamilton, The Beatles, Tupac Shakur, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Milton Friedman.

RJG: The one innovation I could not live without is my laptop. Okay, I know, kind of lame answer and an easy out but my computer is where I do about 90% of my work. Beyond my work, I have to get my daily sports fix! Yeah, couldn't live without it.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

RJG: I have traveled a fairly non-conventional road to get to USC Law – I grew up in some not so hot areas of Northeast Portland and went to the worst schools in the state (literally, as measured by test scores and attendance.) It was tough to focus on school as I was in and out of foster care and often needed to work a couple jobs to make ends meet as a young kid. As a result of my travels I have seen the best and the worst in human nature. However, it's exactly those experiences that add fuel to my fire and push me to continue to pursue answers to societies most pressing concerns.

Any tips for aspiring innovators?

MH: Never give up.  I'll tell you more when I finally get there

RJG: My tip would be a relatively simple one; always push yourself to think outside the box. You have to realize that despite what your peers/colleagues might say, there is always another way. You simply have to be brave enough to step off of the beaten path and trudge into the unknown.

Here is a quote that helped to shape my life: "I have learned, that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours."

E-mail or phone?

RJG: That's a tough one. I would have to say e-mail though for practicality's sake.

Three favorite things about LA?

RJG: Well I am from Oregon, so....
     1) Sunshine – So indispensable now that I know what it is!
     2) The incredible diversity (in all realms) of the city
     3) USC of course!!!!
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