EJB Talks Podcast

Brandon McKoy

Using Analysis for Advocacy

October 11, 2022

This week we welcome back alumnus and 2022 Alumni of the Year honoree Brandon McKoy MCRP ’13. Stuart and Brandon discuss Brandon’s exciting career move to, and the current work he is doing at, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They then move to talk about national political issues, from the Inflation Reduction Act to the Child Tax Credit to the National Debt Limit and the legalization of marijuana. The two discuss our current political and societal era, how the value of expertise is questioned and how to be a trusted voice in a sea of bad analysis and hot takes. Brandon also shares invaluable advice to help prepare listeners for public-oriented careers, particularly during times like these. Tune in for a great discussion!

Stuart Shapiro
Welcome to EJB talks. I’m Stuart Shapiro, the interim Dean of the Bloustein School, and the purpose of this podcast is to highlight the work my colleagues, and particularly this season, our alumni in the fields of policy, planning, and health are doing to make the world the country and New Jersey a better place. Today, we welcome back to the podcast, Brandon McCoy, Vice President for state partnerships at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Brandon graduated from Bloustein with a master’s degree in planning in 2013. Welcome back, Brandon.

Brandon McKoy
Hey, Dean, good to see you. It’s great to call you Dean.((laughing))

Stuart Shapiro
((laughing)) Yeah, I like it, too.

We last spoke here on the podcast in 2020. Since then, you left New Jersey Policy Perspective where you were working then, and moved on to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Can you talk a little bit about the decision to move and what CBPP does?

Brandon McKoy
Yeah, so CBPP is a national tax and budget think tank, much like NJPP in the state of New Jersey, which focuses a lot on federal tax and budget policy. Also, other issues that are related to tax and budget policy, which you could argue is everything, but including things like food and nutrition, housing, immigration, health care, a whole bunch of things that are important to ensuring that every resident in the country has the resources that they need to succeed and to be healthy, and to live full lives. And so a very similar mission to NJPP. Of course, NJPP was and is part of the state parties Partnership, which is a national network of 40 state groups, plus Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, that do what NJPP does with regard to tax and budget policy.

And so my job now is, as VP for state partnerships at the center, is to help provide support to that national network, and help them think through how are they pursuing their work, and ensuring that they’re going to be resilient, sustainable organizations that are effective, trusted, influential, and most importantly, around for the long haul. Which, when you’re working in the nonprofit field, and you have to sort of try to make long-term decisions with short-term grants, it’s not always the easiest thing to do. But it’s been, it’s been a great experience so far. It was very difficult to leave NJPP for a whole host of reasons that we don’t need to get into. But um, I am very much so enjoying the work I’m doing now I’m getting to help support more folks across the country there are doing important work.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, you’re playing on a much, much wider ball field right now, obviously. Equally important, I don’t want to slight the work in the state, but you’re certainly playing with a much larger range of issues and people now. What are you focusing on? What are the issues that are sort of top on your radar?

Brandon McKoy
Yeah, so there’s lots going on, especially, you know, over the past six months. The Biden administration has been able to move a lot of its priorities and get the Inflation Reduction Act through, moving a lot of dollars through to states with regards to finalizing ARPA funds, and the infrastructure bill and all those things. So a lot of it is helping state advocates and experts navigate what are those dollars and programs and resources that are available to them now from the federal government, and how should they best consider investing them into various programs and assets.

And then also, there’s a lot to be done with regards to just general tax and budget policy, there’s a lot of anti-tax forces out there that are always finding excuses to cut taxes for the wealthy and trying to reduce state’s abilities to make investments that we consider really crucial and critical. So, that’s an evergreen issue and challenge. But in addition to that, lots of things in the states with regards to the Child Tax Credit, and how that was really impactful and effective policy during the pandemic that the Biden administration was able to get done. And then, unfortunately, it goes away, but we see so much in the data about how much it reduced poverty for children across the country in a really historic fashion. So now you have various states, New Jersey is one of them, that have implemented their own version of a child tax credit, and we’re trying to expand that in other places as well.

And then of course, taking into account what it means for the right to reproductive health and the rights of abortions to be going away in a lot of states, and that has a lot of effects in other policy areas and a woman’s ability and people’s ability and family’s ability to be healthy in general. And also economic impacts, of course on that as well, with regards to, you’re going to have increased poverty in states that are getting rid of abortion access. And so there’s a whole host of things that have all these domino effects down the river. And it’s never quiet, I’ll just say that.

Stuart Shapiro
So, you mentioned the Child Tax Credit, arguably the most successful anti-poverty initiative in a generation, at least, and then as you noted, it’s gone. What, you know, you’re tuned in to these things, what are the prospects of going back to a National Child Tax Credit, given that we learned how well it worked during the pandemic?

Brandon McKoy
Oh, there’s definitely a lot of folks who want to see it, you know…

Stuart Shapiro
I’m one of them.

Brandon McKoy
You know, so interest and enthusiasm are not the issues as they can be sometimes on various policy ideas when you’re trying to build awareness and whatnot. That isn’t our challenge here. I think it becomes, you know, to be honest with you a largely political challenge. And of all the things that folks want to get done, where does this rank on that list of priorities that people have? I mean, just looking forward, you know, we do have in 2025, the sunsetting of the Trump tax cuts and the Trump tax bill. And so there’s going to be a lot of attention paid to, what are we doing to prepare for that moment and to prepare for those negotiations, and what should be going into that new tax bill at that time. But, that’s three years away.

And I’m sure folks are not too enthused to hear that, you know, that this might not be a thing until three years away. But, you know, there’s a whole host of organizations and stakeholders and advocates pushing to re-implement a child tax credit at the federal level. And just like most, policy changes day to day based on sort of what’s going on and where the priorities and the focus of the nation, but it’s got a lot of support. And I do feel like it will be a thing once again, one day.

Stuart Shapiro
Well, here’s hoping because we’ve got two elections to go before we get to 2025 ((laughing)).

Brandon McKoy
Yeah ((laughing))

Stuart Shapiro
One other I’ll make a personal pitch, can we use the lame duck session to get rid of the debt limit? Just forget these extensions, and just get rid of it once and for all, so we don’t have to go through this, and we don’t have hostage taking every time it expires?

Brandon McKoy
I don’t know. It looks like the hostage takers like to take hostages sometimes, you know.. so ((laughing))

Stuart Shapiro
((Laughing)) We got to take the gun out of their hand. So it’s the last opportunity to do it during the lame duck session this year. So I want to turn a little bit here. Earlier this week, you gave a wonderful address at the Bloustein School, our Catlin lecture. And one of the points you made was the importance, as an advocate, of having the best analysis available in order to win your arguments. Why is that true?

Brandon McKoy
Well, one is that you want to be a trusted voice, right? And if you’re gonna be putting out information and analysis that is inaccurate, or I would say even worse, just advancing lies or falsehoods, then it’s hard to be trusted by folks that you would hope value that features of analysis. You would hope that most people want to know that they’re engaging and receiving information that is based on some basic facts and has rigor to it to ensure that it is trying to get as close to the truth as possible. I do think from time to time, though, that there are so many things that we are trying to analyze and understand better and sort of get closer to being able to incorporate into our thinking as policy analysts and advocates and just folks in the field. And sometimes I think that requires being willing to do some analysis that might be based on a lot of assumptions.

I remember when I did the analysis for how much tax revenue in New Jersey would gain from legalizing cannabis, I had to make a lot of assumptions. I had to assume both sides of the market, what would the tax rate be? How many people in, maybe in Pennsylvania and New York would take a trip over the river? What are the costs of producing the crop? And those are a lot of things that six years ago, we didn’t have a lot of other examples to really pull off of and use to support that analysis. But that analysis really helped kickstart that conversation more so in earnest to get the ball rolling around the legalization of cannabis, of course, so many other things did as well.

But if I was super committed to the most accurate analysis of all time I would never have been able to produce that. So there is a need, I think a little bit to have some bravery around putting out numbers that maybe are more so in the ballpark. But as long as you explain your methodology, as long as you explain your sources and sort of how you came to the figure, and other people can interrogate what you have put out, I think that’s very important. Show your homework, show your math, right? But you definitely want to be known for knowing what you’re doing, and reliable analysis is crucial.

Stuart Shapiro
Well as a Dean, and as a Professor at a public policy school, that’s obviously music to my ears. That’s what we want our students to hear. And we want them to do good analysis, show your work, as you said, and, and let the chips fall where they may from there. That said, we live in an era where one doesn’t have to go very far on the internet to see the value of expertise being questioned. Just, I think it was yesterday or the other day, I saw a doctor talk about how her emergency room was full, and that we need to be taking that seriously. And right away, you know, huge attacks on “you don’t know what you’re talking about”. And, she was like, “Well, wait, I’m right here”. And if we can’t trust that, you know, what’s the hope? What do we need, in order to have analysis trusted, having people who show their work get trusted?

Brandon McKoy
Yeah, it’s definitely worrisome when folks try to imply that two plus two does not equal four, you know, and really question when people are not only doing maybe quantitative analysis, but even just sharing their own straightforward experiences like, I was here, I saw this. And people question that. That is real.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah. And it’s hard, because, and you know, this, and the example you just gave sort of illustrated it. There aren’t always clear right answers, but they’re usually better answers and worse answers. And the fact that even the better answers, have uncertainty around them and have questions you can ask gives people an opportunity to attack. And what we’ve seen, I think, is people use those opportunities to try and just rip holes in what would otherwise be considered good analysis.

Brandon McKoy
Yes. So I do think folks do need to understand that… well one, there are folks who are questioning analysis because they have an agenda.

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Brandon McKoy
They’re doing so purposefully to reduce the impact of that analysis and say, “Oh, this is nonsense. Don’t pay attention to it, it’s full of lies”. So there is a political aspect to that, that I think people need to be aware of and take into account. And if you see somebody dismissing something understand that might be part of it. But then I think what you’re pointing to is there are folks who just are really leaning into conspiracy theories, that conspiracy mindset, you know, you can’t trust anything, you can’t trust officials, you can’t trust institutions. And that’s super worrisome. Insofar as we know, what does it mean for the country’s ability to have a populace that can discern fact from fiction, and be able to make decisions that are going to be responsible to reality so we can actually do the things that we need to do?

There’s a lot that could be said, I know when I was in high school, and even middle school, there was a whole lot of time spent on how do you know, primary resources and secondary resources, and confirming where you got your information from. And I’m, I’m sort of at a loss for… Did everybody else have that in school? ((laughing)) And how do people go about confirming their resources these days, it seems like there’s a lack of that. So I’m a little worried about whether or not it took as much as it should.

But even so, I think at the end of the day, accurate analysis matters. And ultimately, I feel like in sort of what I’ve seen, based on some social media, research, and statistics, it seems to be more or less than the squeaky wheel is getting the grease here, and that these are very loud minority parties. It’s just like a handful of folks who are really off the deep end and believe some wacky stuff, but they’re taking full advantage of whatever bullhorn is available to them to spread as much of their viewpoint as possible. And the silent majority as it may be maybe needs to be a little bit less silent and do a better job of speaking up about what type of country they want, what type of future they feel they deserve and what it is that they believe in.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, one of the messages of those loud voices Trump loved is to do your own research. And, you know, I think you can probably back me up on this. No, don’t do your own research, trust the people that have done their own research and are trained to have done it. Expertise does mean something and good analysis means something.

Let me ask you a question that you got asked on Tuesday. What advice do you have, given this environment given your experiences, what advice do you have for new students, undergraduates, or graduates in public policy, urban planning, or public health?

Brandon McKoy
One is, make sure that you improve your writing skills. Being a good writer, is not only important in and of itself but also translates to a number of other areas when it comes to expressing yourself and being able to put forth your perspective and your vision. And as a policy, advocate, or planner or anybody that’s working in the public sphere, and in the public interest, you have to do that. Again, there the squeaky wheel gets the grease, right? And so you need to be able to put your perspective forward and have it resonate with people and the best writing and the best speeches, there’s a bit of brevity and an impact to them. They don’t overstay their welcome, but they make their point in a really shrewd fashion. And so being a good writer is important.

And then also, something that I’ve come to appreciate more and more is the more that you understand the history of what it is you’re working on or the space that you’re working in. I think the more you’re able to prepare yourself for what may be coming or see patterns that took place previously, you know, taking place again. And, you know, for me, the more that I have been able to learn about various history, whether it’s the New Jersey political history or the history of a particular issue like I used to do a lot of work on minimum wage and understanding the history of that policy issue. I was just better situated to be an effective advocate for those things and to maneuver in that space. And that’s just, I think folks will take you a little bit more seriously, especially when you’re younger if you show that you care enough about what you’re working on to think about the things that have come before you and not just respond to what has been put in front of you.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, I do think that’s an excellent point. I hadn’t thought too much about that recently. But understanding history is really important. And some of that is it comes with experience and wisdom and such, but for some of it, you can learn. Just to go back to the debt limit, one of the reasons I was so strident about that a few minutes ago is the number of times I’ve lived through debt limit crises in the past two decades is, is far more than it should be. And it’s something I’d like to see get rid of.

Any final words of wisdom, Brandon?

Brandon McKoy
I think generally speaking, and I think I tried to say this at my talk the other day, but for current students, do not take your time in school for granted, It passes very quickly. And one of the best things you can do when you’re in school really appreciates the folks that you’re with. The folks that you’re learning with. And there are so many people that when I was at Bloustein, for my two years, actually two and a half years, I still work with those folks today.

I know I shared before Katie Brennan was the first person that met on my first day of school. And she came back to the class that I’m teaching, she came back last night to help my students learn about some housing policy stuff. And so ultimately, a lot of being successful when it comes to this space is having relationships with folks and developing trust. And that’s how you build the community that’s going to help you be successful and help you assist others in their success as well. So build that community around you and definitely know that there is no self-made person. There is no individual success. You need… it takes a village. I’ll put it that way.

Stuart Shapiro
Great. That’s a great note to end on. Thanks so much for coming back on the podcast, Brandon.

Brandon McKoy
Thanks.

Stuart Shapiro
And a big thank you as well to our production team, Amy Cobb and Karyn Olsen. We’ll see you next week with another talk from another expert at the Bloustein School. Till then stay safe

Recent Episodes