Chris Brown is the director of policy and research for the Denver-based Common Sense Institute, a think tank that applies hard numbers to hard questions facing Colorado policymakers and taxpayers.
He is a man of logic and numbers, a creative problem solver who doesn’t have to win every argument. He only has to have the most informed argument.
Before that he worked at Regional Economic Models Inc. In 2011, establishing its Washington, D.C., office, then nurtured the growth of the company that informed agencies and other federal policymakers. For instance, Brown modeled the fiscal and economic impacts of the Medicaid expansion in eight states. He also has measured the economic impact of major air quality regulations in Washington state and helped forecast the state-by-state economic effects of budget sequestration for Third Way, a centrist think tank. He’s also deconstructed the effect of a small business tax credit proposal for the U.S. Senate.
Before he was known for his thinking, he was known for his dinking. He was a soccer star at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, or UMass to sports fans. Brown was an all-conference player in college after being an all-state player in high school. He racked up many awards along the way. “Very physical, tough defender who is good in the air,” his team bio said of him in his former life.
He brought his growing family to Colorado in 2017 to work for the non-partisan think tank headed by Kristen Strohm. Common Sense studies and white papers are at the top of the pile for lawmakers in both parties.
Colorado Politics: What does a director of policy and research do, specifically?
Chris Brown: Our research team at CSI puts out reports, briefs, and other research materials that are intended to be educational content for Colorado voters, lawmakers and business leaders. So my time is spent developing that content, reading, writing and managing each project in coordination with our research analysts, fellows and executives. I also spend time making presentations and holding meetings with different groups to educate them on our findings and stay in touch with the issues others are promoting.
CP: Why is that important, who benefits from your work?
Brown: In 1789 Thomas Jefferson wrote, “wherever the people are well informed they can be trusted with their own government.” I believe that our democracy can be messy, contentious, and flawed at times, but that an informed electorate is the most important element in leading to the continued and growing prosperity for all Americans we all want. I also believe that the free enterprise system has proven to be the best system for delivering the highest level of economic well-being to the greatest number of people. The work that we do helps to foster better laws that enable and promote a healthy free enterprise system, that can ultimately benefit us all.
CP: What’s the most unsolvable problem you’ve come across in your career?
Brown: Regulations that establish rules for different industries, should work to address specific problems and minimize their unintended consequences. The two most persistent problems we currently face are related to the rising costs and decrease in affordability of both health care and housing. These two expenses make up an enormous share of household, business and government budgets, that effectively crowd out many other types of spending or investments. And yet the set of policies we often see at both the federal and the local level, too often tend to make the affordability problem worse. I don’t believe these problems are completely unsolvable, but are certainly complex and will require multiple changes to make any progress.
CP: If there’s one place policymakers should start to get a recovery rolling, what would you tell them to focus on?
Brown: At this point, policy and emergency public funding should be doing everything possible to help keep businesses, schools and other institutions open, while also slowing the spread of the virus through widespread testing and aid during isolation. We still have a long way to go before this pandemic is behind us, and we must begin to see our individual and community efforts to control the spread of the virus as a patriotic act, that will allow children to learn, millions of people to keep their jobs and save lives. It’s really the combination of innovators, entrepreneurs and the Colorado workforce that have the power to return our economy back to where it was prior to the pandemic. Yet that can’t fully happen until consumers and businesses can resume more normal levels of activity.
CP: In government, what’s more important, good plans or a lot of money, and why?
Brown: To be successful as an elected representative, you have to be responsive to your constituents. This is really no different from a business that has to stay responsive to their customers. However, just as businesses understand “the customer is not always right,” success depends upon a combination of listening to what constituents want while also being visionary and offering impactful solutions that can lead to real change.
CP: How do you do it all and manage to find time to play with your three boys under the age of 4?
Brown: At the moment we certainly have a busy household. We have three young boys and my wife is just a month away from completing grad school. I have considered trying to merge my two worlds and put the boys to work researching Colorado tax law, but that dream fell apart when I realized I can barely get them to put their shoes on in the morning. My wife and I fell in love with the Colorado mountains years ago, so we try to make as much time as possible to go hiking and explore new parts of the state with our mini-camper.
CP: Who is someone you admire or has had a major influence on you?
Brown: I joke with my grandma that she was the first person to teach me the virtues of capitalism, as she used to pay my brothers and I five cents for every weed we pulled in her yard. As a former humanities professor at the University of Arizona, she doesn’t appreciate that much, but she is an incredible woman who grew up on a small farm in western Nebraska and went on to travel the world many times over.
When I was 13, she took me on a two-week trek through the Annapurna mountains in Nepal with a group of her college students. She is respected and loved by all those she comes across because of her thoughtfulness, kindness and ability to make a deep personal connection. Whether when helping with my college admission essays or in our pen pal exchanges after her retirement, she always pushed me to think a little more critically, seek new perspectives and to learn to be grounded in knowing who I am.