Charles Wheelan ’88 on Money, Writing, and the ‘Manifesto’

By Kathryn Stearns

This Focus on Faculty Q&A is part of an ongoing series of interviews exploring what keeps Dartmouth professors busy inside—and outside—the classroom.

Charles Wheelan ’88, a senior lecturer in economics, is the author of Naked Economics (2002) and Naked Statistics (2013), among other titles. Through his best-selling books, articles, and courses, he aims to make public policy accessible and understandable for a wide audience. Wheelan joined the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy in 2012.

Charles Wheelan ’88
(Photo by Rob Strong ’04)

So, what are you going to undress next?

I just finished Naked Money: What It Is and Why It Matters.

Will it lay bare derivatives and credit default swaps?

A little bit—certainly as they affected the economic crisis of 2008. It’s about money, as in, why is a piece of paper that’s just a piece of paper a $20 bill as opposed to a legal pad? It’s about the whole concept of money, which is very bizarre. And it’s about banking, which is also bizarre.

How so?

Banking means that you put your money in the bank, they give it to me, now it belongs to both of us—which is terrific if I want to buy a house. It’s more problematic if you want your money back, and I still have it. If everybody wants his money back at the same time, it doesn’t work. We’ve had banking crises in this country since well before we were a country.

Naked Statistics tries to “strip the dread from data." Thinking of “lies, damned lies and statistics,” what would Mark Twain have said about the book?

It may be lies, damned lies and statistics, but if you don’t know how to use them better than the next guy, shame on you. Twain didn’t live through the Big Data era.

You said you had wanted to write books since you were in elementary school. Why is that?

I have no idea, but it does seem like a compulsion. So as happy as I am to be done with Naked Money, there is still an urge to get up in the morning and to just write something.

What next?

There are two more books coming out. One will be an economics textbook, filling what my publisher (Norton) believes is a niche, and I think they’re right—even the textbooks are too esoteric. So we’ll take a Naked Economics approach, but make it a little more academic. And then the other plan is to write a book called We Came, We Saw, We Left: A Family Memoir—our family is going to take off and go around the world in 2016-2017.

In 10½ Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said, you urged all young people to take time off to travel the world.

Yeah, exactly. I think going around the world with two teenage girls and an eighth-grade boy will be interesting, to say the least. This will be the second time we’ve done this. My wife and I went around the world after college, before we had kids.

Does traveling bring public policy alive?

Absolutely. I am taking students to the Middle East in December. We’ll go to Israel, Jordan, and, I hope, the occupied territories. The important point is twofold: One is this marriage of learning in the classroom and talking to people on the ground; and two, testing your hypotheses and listening to people who have very conflicting points of view.

Let’s talk about your political bent and The Centrist Manifesto. Why aren’t you out on the hustings?

You mean, like, running?

You wrote the manifesto, after all. Who’s leading this movement?

In some ways, I am. We created The Centrist Project and raised quite a bit of money. So we have grown to the point where we are way bigger than me or the original participants.

The project focuses on the U.S. Senate?

Yes, the whole strategy is to elect four or five independents in the Senate who will become a fulcrum for change, particularly if you deny either party a majority.

It’s hard to disagree with The Centrist Manifesto. It’s well reasoned. It’s rational. Why haven’t more people joined you?

There are a lot of issues about which people have honest disagreements. But we need people to reconcile them. That’s what we’re missing. We’ve lost the peacemakers. The most discouraging thing anybody can say to me about The Centrist Manifesto is, “Wow, this is great! Good luck.” Implicit in that comment is the notion either that it’s my problem or that I’m chasing windmills, which I probably am.

You have to be insane to run for political office these days, you suggest in The Centrist Manifesto. Who’s the craziest presidential candidate out there?

It depends on how you define “insane.” They’re all, or at least most of them, way out of the mainstream. You wouldn’t elect Donald Trump to the school board. Or if you did, you’d then be trying to get rid of him.

What brought you back to Dartmouth?

Let’s start with what brought me to Dartmouth in the first place. It’s eerily similar to what brought me back. I had this passion to travel the world, and of course Dartmouth had all the foreign study programs. So I was able as a student to go to France, to London, to Kuwait. It didn’t satisfy my interest; it merely inflamed it. Fast-forward, and I’m teaching this class at University of Chicago where I’m taking students around the world. At the same time, I was also on the editorial board of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, along with Bruce Sacerdote in the economics department, and during an annual meeting, on a cookie break at Blunt, he said, “Why don’t you come back and teach for a quarter?” Later, we took a sabbatical here with the kids, and they loved that. So at some point the family, as kind of a bottom-up decision, said, “Why don’t we just stay?”

You’ve come full circle. What are the odds of that?

It’s not that crazy because this is such an attractive place to come back to.