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Conservative Tackles Urban Woes : Economist Seeks to Lure Constituents of Liberal Groups

July 07, 1986|JANE SEABERRY | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — When Kimi Gray has a problem, she often calls Stuart Butler.

"He's this little, funny-talking fellow. He has a British accent, you know," said Gray, a community activist who lives in a public housing development in northeast Washington.

Gray, chairman of her neighborhood's resident management corporation, first met Butler at a ward meeting to which he was invited. "What he said sounded good to me. We basically found out we had similar ideas."

What makes the Butler-Gray link unusual is that Butler is one of the chief architects of economic policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and a frequent adviser to the Reagan Administration and conservative members of Congress, such as Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.).

Butler epitomized a large segment of the new conservative movement that has become vocal in pursuing its new economic ideas at a time when the country seems to be turning away from old solutions to persistent problems.

Butler said he and other conservatives hope to attract the traditional constituents of liberal coalitions with their ideas, such as offering incentives to promote growth in blighted areas and helping public housing residents to own their own homes.

Enterprise Zones

Two of the concepts with which Butler is often associated are enterprise zones, which provide tax and other incentives to create economic growth in depressed inner-city areas, and privatization, the selling off of federal assets to reduce federal spending and remove government from non-essential activities.

Many of Butler's ideas have been picked up by the Reagan Administration, which has formed a close association with the Heritage Foundation. Butler is credited with bringing the enterprise-zone idea to the United States from Britain.

After Butler published a paper on it in 1979, Kemp sponsored legislation on enterprise zones, and President Reagan later included such a proposal in his first budget.

Butler began work on privatization several years ago and has written one of two books in the forefront on the subject. He often has been called in to consult with the Office of Management and Budget, and privatization became a big element in the Administration's budget this year.

Butler "was a useful resource," said Ed Dale, OMB spokesman. "He's an important guy. He's recognized as knowledgeable on the subject. Our people talk about it a lot with him."

Kemp's staff drafted his enterprise zone bill after consulting with Butler. "When we were developing our bill, our staff was in very close contact with him," a Kemp aide said.

Butler said he plans to unveil a conservative blueprint for welfare reform next year, which he also hopes to pass on to the Administration.

Gray said she doesn't care about Butler's conservative credentials. "I think sometimes people have a misinterpretation of liberal, conservative," Gray said.

Staunch Free-Marketer

"We're talking about save the people, my people. There is no liberal, conservative. I forgot about white, black, conservative, liberal, Republican. I got past his accent after our first meeting."

Butler is as conservative an economist as they come. He is a staunch free-marketer and helped found the Adam Smith Institute in Britain, a small Heritage-type think tank named after the 18th-Century economist who described how free markets work.

But behind Butler's pin-striped suits, tortoise-shell glasses and placid manner is not your stereotype of an Oxbridge egghead.

Butler grew up in a sheep farming district about 80 miles south of Manchester, England. He was the son of a post office mechanic who left school at age 13.

Butler said he didn't have indoor plumbing until he was a teen-ager and obtained water from a village well.

After teaching in Yorkshire for a year, he came to the United States and taught economics at Hillsdale College in Michigan and joined Heritage in 1979 as a policy analyst.

Now he is equally likely to be found attending dinner parties at the British Embassy or visiting South Bronx tenements or Gray's northeast neighborhood here.

Similar to Frontier

At the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, Butler studied physics and mathematics, economics and American economic history, which he said helped him develop his "frontier" notion of blighted areas.

Many inner-city areas are similar to the American frontier of the 1800s, he said. Like the frontier, the inner city can carry dangers, but also opportunities to build from the ground up and to try creative ideas, Butler said. "If you read the history of the United States, you begin to see parallels," he said.

However, today's pioneers are often thwarted by government regulation, which his enterprise-zone plan is supposed to alleviate, Butler said.

Butler, unlike many conservative economists of past generations, said he is intellectually challenged by the problems posed by America's inner cities.

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