January 23, 2009

Desire to apply economic expertise to solve real problems inspires Wheelan’s run

For a guy running for Congress, it isn’t hard to get in touch with Charlie Wheelan.

Call his office and, while the voice on the other end of the line doesn’t have the sobriety one might expect from someone with his résumé, it’s him, not a campaign worker or a volunteer.

Yet, despite his carefree tone, one gets the sense not just that he knows what he’s talking about, but that he’s discussing all sides of the issue.

“I always kind of felt I was a translator between these great ideas and the people who care about them,” he said, speaking of the attitude that has defined his career. “And that’s kind of the niche I’ve carved out.”

Most recently a senior lecturer in the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, Wheelan is running for a Congressional seat in the North Side’s Fifth District, vacated when Rahm Emanuel became President Barack Obama’s chief of staff. Before Emanuel, embattled Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich held the seat. There will be a special election April 7 for the spot, preceded by the Democratic primary on March 3.

Wheelan has been a lot more than a teacher in his 40-something years. Noted for his best-selling book Naked Economics, required reading in one of Professor Allen Sanderson’s undergraduate economics classes, Wheelan has worked as a correspondent for The Economist, a speechwriter for a governor of Maine, a radio personality, and as director of policy and communications at a Chicago civic group.

Though he left the Ivy League with two degrees and got a third at the Harris School, Wheelan has remained relatively unscathed by the world of academia. “He’s kind, nice, a wonderful colleague,” said Boris Shor, an assistant professor at the Harris School, who mentioned Wheelan has earned a number of teaching awards in his four years teaching at the University of Chicago.

“His students speak of him in a sort of reverential tone,” he said. “He’s an absolutely fantastic teacher.”

One former student, Josh Kipnis (M.P.P. ’08), described him as “an academic at heart, but also well rounded and had a great sense of humor.”

Kipnis took International Policy Practicum with Wheelan, in which the teacher accompanied 10 graduate students on a two week trip around Jordan and Israel. There they met with policy-makers, business leaders, and local students. Wheelan assigned the group to compose a policy memo on how the U.S. can leverage its relationship with Jordan to accomplish its goals in the Middle East.

Kipnis called the class, which Wheelan created and has run for four years, “one of the most competitive to get into” in the Harris School.

Wheelan got into public policy after he graduated from Dartmouth with a bachelor’s degree in 1989. Working for a local New Hampshire newspaper and being paid “not much,” he traveled the world for nine months, reporting on stories like the water quality of the Ganges River and the unbanning of books in communist Hungary as the Iron Curtain began to fall.

“Now I look back and see them all as public policy things, the intersection of government and collective behavior,” Wheelan said.

A few years later, after a job writing speeches for the Republican Governor of Maine, John McKernan, Jr., and getting a degree at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton, Wheelan wound up at the Harris School, where he would cement his passion for public policy.

It was an economics class taught by Nobel Laureate Gary Becker, Price Theory, that planted the seeds that would help form Wheelan’s own identity, and one that would come to the fore in his book, Naked Economics, in which Wheelan clarifies economic principles so that those without a deep economic background can understand them.

“It was a great mixture of intuitive understanding of the ideas and mathematics,” Wheelan said, speaking of Becker’s class. In Wheelan’s view, public policy, which relies heavily on economic principles, works in the same way, by asking, “How can I apply very cool stuff?”

Wheelan, whom Dean of the Harris School Susan Mayer called an “economics expert,” views economics as being too technical and esoteric for a world full of difficult and practical problems.

“My view to economics specifically, but academics generally, is kind of ‘What can it do for me today to solve these problems that I care about?’” he said.

It is this urge to apply theory to real-life situations that is leading Wheelan to run for office.

“To be honest, the only reason I’m running…is because I feel like I’ve got an obligation to actually do public policy,” he said. “I mean, there’s only a certain amount of time where you can criticize these people who are in office before you have some obligation to do it yourself.”

Wheelan referred to this urge as “a bit of a curiosity,” but his colleague Shor said that for all the policy talk around the office, there had been a sense that someone would make the leap from thought to action.

“Finally, somebody has to step up to the plate and do it,” Shor said.

Shor, who studies politics, policy, and geography, said that Wheelan chose a particularly interesting time to run.

“It’s a bit of a kooky election,” Shor said. “He’s not a traditional candidate, but in such a crowded field, he could stand out.”

Wheelan identifies himself as a centrist and a pragmatist, because “politically, that’s where we have to be,” he said.

According to Charu Daiya, a third-year Harris School student, at least one of her classmates helped gather the signatures Wheelan needed to formally run. Wheelan is employing another former student as campaign manager.

Wheelan said he sees himself as the latest in a long tradition of academics who have gone on to represent the people, a group that includes Woodrow Wilson, Hubert Humphrey and, most recently, Barack Obama. Thinkers-turned-policy-makers “really punch above their weight,” he said.

“These folks arrived with more intellectual capacity and therefore when they talk about health-care, people are more likely to listen,” Wheelan said. “When you talk about the details of health care or something like that, and I do think that there are a whole bunch of issues that are more complex than usual, you’re going to have a little more gravitas by virtue of what you bring to the table.”

Of course, Wheelan isn’t expecting to ruffle too many feathers if—and he knows it’s a big if—he gets to Congress. “Anybody who thinks they’re going to show up as the least senior person in the federal government and fix health care is oddly delusional,” he said.

Still, Wheelan is keen to point out the example of University of Chicago economist and former U.S. Senator Paul Douglas, one of the men behind the Cobb-Douglas production function, which predicts the relationship of inputs to outputs. Douglas, like Wheelan, was seen as a pragmatist and a centrist as well as a reformer; he was vocally against pork-barrel spending before John McCain made it cool.

Characteristically, neither the battle of a campaign ahead nor the immensity of the task that may await him in Washington have gone to Wheelan’s head, according to Shor.

“He’s very humorous about this kind of thing, taking it with a grain of salt,” he said. “Having fun with it, too.”