Q&A with professor Charles Wheelan

Q&A with professor Charles Wheelan

by Amanda Zhou | 7/27/17 11:45pm

Charles Wheelan ’88 is a senior lecturer in public policy at the College. He is the founder of The Centrist Project, which supports centrist policies and independent candidates, and is the author of “Naked Economics.” This summer he is teaching a class titled “Economics of Public Policymaking.” In May, Wheelan returned from his most recent sabbatical, during which he traveled with his family for nine months around six continents.

So you just came back from a whirlwind of traveling during your sabbatical. Who did that include?

CW: We left around September 1. The five of us included my wife, my two daughters who are 18 and 16 and my son who is 13. They all had birthdays while we were traveling. We went to six continents in nine months.

How many countries did you visit and why did you choose them?

CW: I haven’t added it up yet, but we probably visited around 25 countries. The trip was born back in 1988 when my wife and I graduated. We weren’t married at the time, but we took a gap year after Dartmouth to travel for almost the exact same amount of time … So we had always wanted to do the same thing with our kids, and this was the only time we could do it since my oldest daughter is leaving for college.

Once we decided to do the trip, we just looked at the places we thought were interesting. We hadn’t spent much in South America so we went down the west coast there. We wanted to do some scuba diving so we went to Australia. We wanted to go to some countries that we weren’t able to visit the first time we traveled, such as Vietnam and Myanmar.

Was it a rigid itinerary?

CW: The parameters were fairly fluid … If we wanted to stay longer or shorter at some place, we could do that. We only had our travel planned a couple of weeks ahead of time in terms of flights, and lodging was booked four or five days ahead of time, with some exceptions. When we flew from one continent to another, we had reservations in advance. We met some people along the way, those were fixed. But there was still a lot of fluidity.

Any highlights from the trip?

CW: One was certainly Colombia. It was the first place we went. Colombia, for most of my adult life, was essentially a failed state and not a place you would go to … The great thing is that Colombia has wrestled itself back from the precipice … It’s a just cool place to visit. You’ve got the Caribbean exposure, the coffee country, the Amazon, the mountains and the great cities. It was the first place we went to, which meant the travel plan was working, we were happy, the budget worked and the dynamics were good … India was also really fun because we’ve been there many times before, and it’s always fun to go back. We stayed with friends in Mumbai, people we’ve known from Chicago, and being in their home was really fun after traveling for a long time.

Were there any unexpected mishaps along the way?

CW: My daughter got a flesh eating parasite in the Amazon. She was bit by a sand fly that transmits the parasite. It took a long time to figure out what it was because it manifested itself as just a small open sore, and by the time it appeared we were already out of the Amazon. If we had gone to a doctor there, they probably would have recognized it immediately, but instead we went to New Zealand, where nobody had ever seen it, and then we went to Australia, where they hadn’t seen it, then we went to Vietnam. So, we had about five doctors before somebody actually figured out what it was, because it is a classic disease that afflicts millions of people in poor countries and almost nobody in rich countries. So if you go to a doctor in a rich country, they just haven’t seen it. She ultimately had to go to Germany for treatment.

Has it been hard to transition back to life in the United States?

CW: In some ways, teaching this summer is great because it just pushed me right back into my routine. Since I taught last summer, which was the last time this class would be taught, I immediately got back up to speed. Hanover has not changed a whole lot, so that part is good. It took us a while to get back into our house because we’d rented it out to my in-laws until the end of the school year, and there were so many snow days that they were in the house for another two weeks after we arrived home. It was very disorienting to be renting a condo in your home town while other people were living at your house, but for the most part it’s been quite easy to slide back.

Do you have any plans to do another trip around the world?

CW: I did it in 1988. I did it in 2016. It’s hard to imagine doing it again. It’s a lot of money. It’s a lot of time and lot of planning … Maybe in our retirement, we’ll do it again, but there are no plans at present.

Any places you feel like you missed?

CW: Tons. We didn’t go to China. We didn’t go to Russia or much of Africa and the east coast of South America. It’s amazing how in any given continent, you have to miss all these countries, and in any given country, you have to miss all these places that are quite cool, and in any given city, you have to make miss all these places that you read about. Nine months sounds like a long time, but there was only a small proportion of things that we got to do that we would have liked to do with more time.

Earlier in your career you worked for The Economist and also as a speech writer. What got you initially interested in writing?

CW: The first thing I did was go to Chicago to work for a law firm to make the money to travel around the world. While I was traveling around the world I wrote articles for the Valley News. I happened to write about whatever I found was interesting. I was like an old fashioned foreign correspondent before the Internet, so I’d find things, write the articles longhand and mail them with a roll of film back to White River Junction, which would take two weeks. But I had a pretty good eye for news, so when we were in Hong Kong, I wrote about the Hong Kong hand-over from the British back to China. When we were in Singapore, I wrote about death penalty for drug trafficking … What became apparent to me was that these are the things that interested me, and when we got back from traveling, I had some clips … and at that point I realized I was interested in what we would now describe as public policy.

Any differences or similarities from when you went to Dartmouth and the College today?

CW: In many good ways, the campus still has the feel of Dartmouth. There are still the relationships between professors and students and small classes. People selected Dartmouth because they’re excited about New Hampshire and the foreign study programs. At the same time, it’s clearly a more diverse place. It was relatively international when I was here. We were way ahead of our time in terms of foreign study programs. So I think all the changes have been good and I don’t think anything that we loved in our time has been sacrificed. Many of the controversies, however, are quite similar. I was here during the whole shanty incident when shanties were built to protest apartheid and people from the Dartmouth Review drove over them in a flatbed truck. Until the protest at the Dimensions show, that was the incident where classes were canceled because of campus unrest. So the grievances are still very familiar … Back then some of the protests weren’t as effective at persuading people as they might have been, and I would say that is still the case. We have legitimate things we have to work on, and we’re probably not working through them as well as we should.

You’ve written some books such as “Naked Statistics,” “Naked Economics” and “Naked Money.” What goes into the process of finding a topic to start writing about?

CW: After I got my Ph.D when I was working at The Economist, I got the idea for “Naked Economics.” I was actually trying to write a book on the gambling industry and I was going nowhere, but I was teaching a class at Medill for journalists. I called my agent and said, “Look, I need a book on economics that will be interesting to journalists that will be relevant, accessible and not too much math.” There’s this long pause and she said, “I don’t think it exists but you’re going to write it and we’re going to call it economics for poets.” … During the writing process, usually I do relatively little until I approach the deadline and then I do quite a bit, a lot like the typical Dartmouth student, only it’s a 400-page project instead of a nine-page paper … Deadlines are a very powerful motivator at any age.

What inspired you specifically to devote effort towards the Centrist Project in 2013, and what are the current goals going into the 2018 midterms?

CW: It grew out of this book, “The Centrist Manifesto,” and the idea was to create a third party of the center. The Centrist Project was founded to advance that goal, but it turned out fairly quickly that a third party just was not viable, in part because people really don’t like political parties. We pivoted in terms of strategy and said “OK, we’ll keep the centrist policies, but we will support independents whose views are consistent with this set of centrist principles.” The big strategy is to focus on independents for the U.S. Senate. If we can get three or four centrist independents to win … you could easily have a situation where it’s 48 Republicans, three centrist independents and 49 Democrats. Then those three become the Anthony Kennedy of the Senate … Nothing could get done without them being the swing votes, and they could float ideas that neither party was willing to touch. The idea is this it’s kind of an elegant hack to the system … Meanwhile we’re starting to support independent state legislatures. In particular, we’re focusing on Colorado’s legislature, which looks like Congress in that it’s very closely divided.

Any comments on the current politics of today?

CW: As someone who teaches public policy, our current discourse is very disparaging … I don’t think there’s a right answer to a lot of these things … I do think that there is a right way to talk about them and to appreciate the real trade-offs, and unfortunately that’s not the way we’re discussing them. The health care system needs to be fixed. The Affordable Care Act was arguably an improvement on the status quo, but it’s not perfect. The discussion we’ve been having has not been, “How do we fix the Affordable Care Act?” And that, unfortunately, is the discussion we need to have.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.