The College Prof Who Can Fix Congress
Policy + Politics

The College Prof Who Can Fix Congress

iStockphoto/The Fiscal Times

Charles Wheelan has a plan for overcoming Capitol Hill gridlock—ditch the Republicans and the Democrats.

A senior lecturer at Dartmouth College and author of the surprisingly entertaining book, Naked Economics: Undressing the Dismal Science, Wheelan is no armchair observer of politics. 

He lost a 2009 Democratic congressional primary in Chicago. It’s the same kind of baptism by fire that a pre-President Obama experienced back in 2000, when Obama tried to unseat Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL). Even more fascinating—Wheelan got his start as a speechwriter for a former Republican governor of Maine.

In his new book,The Centrist Manifesto, Wheelan describes an all too familiar dissatisfaction with two political parties that seem detached from troubling realities.  It’s the kind of sentiment that registers in most polls and leads all kinds of smart PhDs to dream up solutions.

Many Democrats seem willfully blind to the unsustainable costs of Medicare and Social Security, while the GOP actively denies the environmental and economic chaos that could be caused by climate change.

His fix is simple to explain, but hard to accomplish: Get a handful of senators who belong to a new Centrist party that avoids the extremes of the current duopoly. It’s easier to win a Senate spot, since House districts are rigged by gerrymandering. And independent presidential candidates tend to devolve into politically disruptive sideshows.

I recently spoke with Wheelan about his plan in a 45-minute interview that has been condensed below for space.

Josh Boak (JB): Do you feel that there are a lot of people who are in the same boat as you?

Charles Wheelan (CW): It’s one of the fastest growing groups. It’s not just that people are disenchanted with the two parties. There is an intellectual coherence around the set of beliefs that often characterizes this group. It tends to be more fiscally conservative. Namely, the math around our spending doesn’t work, so we’ve got to get that under control. 

But it’s also more socially inclusive. They’re not necessarily hostile to government. They believe we ought to do something about the environment, which is what drives them out of the Republican Party. It’s certainly over 35 percent [of voters]. It’s not a majority, but it’s a plurality by any measure. 

JB: Are these the people who would only go to Jon Stewart’s 2010 Rally to Restore Sanity?

CW: Yeah. That’s probably the only thing that might get them out. But they don’t usually march in the streets. For many folks, their life is comfortable, even as they see the country moving in a direction that they’re not comfortable with. It’s like getting people excited about taking their medicine. They appreciate it, but they’re not really going to be happy about it. 

JB: Talk me through the Senate strategy. What’s the idea—in terms of giving this group more of a political voice?

CW: It’s about coalescing around four core ideas. One is fiscal responsibility. Certainly, the Democrats are not renowned for that. The Democrats may talk that game, but they don’t actually do it. 

The second piece is environmental responsibility. If you believe the Republicans are fiscally responsible, they’re certainly not environmentally responsible.

The third is socially inclusive. 

And last, it’s being committed to economic opportunity, which is to say that we do have to do things to provide a route toward prosperity for everybody. It may be targeted pre-school education for low-income kids. There is a role for government to provide opportunity, not equality of outcomes. I would argue that we’re failing on that front in many respects.

There are by any number of counts, 20 or 22 states that would be in play for a centrist Senate candidate. One easy measure would be if you look at states that have one Republican senator and one Democrat, or a Republican governor and a Democratic senator. You have to believe those are the places where the independents, the moderates, people in the middle are swinging the election one way or the other, and they would be amenable to a centrist candidate. You can win a Senate seat with 34 percent of the votes. 

JB: Is there anyone who fits the bill right now? Would it be unaffiliated Sen. Angus King of Maine?

CW: Almost immediately when the book came out, I sent it to Angus King. Angus does not believe in political parties, because he thinks they will be corrupted just the way the Democrats and Republicans have been. Every time you see one of these gangs of six, gang of eight, or gang of 12, where you have a bipartisan group, they’re essentially doing what we’d like the centrists to do. 

JB: President Obama wants to raise the minimum wage. Republicans say that would hurt business owners. Where would the centrist party stand?

CW: The centrist party would most likely be skeptical of any significant increase in the minimum wage. If you really try to raise the minimum wage, even if your intentions are quite good, the larger forces at work in the labor market are replacing low-skilled labor with technology or outsourcing. My fear is that raising the minimum wage, if you haven’t made these low-skilled workers more productive, would merely speed up those two trends.

JB: What about corporate tax reform that produces a short-term boost in revenues, so that $50 billion can be spent on infrastructure--what President Obama proposed.

CW: I think it’s a very good idea. Why does either party consider this to be a compromise? Both parties should be in favor of corporate tax reform. And both parties should be in favor of smart investments in infrastructure. 

JB: So why do you think things like a carbon tax or other Pigovian taxes—that you have a lot of Republican economists championing—don’t seem to work with candidates?

CW: Sticking with the carbon tax. I can tell you as a candidate how it works out. You make the same basic pitch to a room filled with 50 people. We can tax cigarettes and people smoke less. Or, we can tax incomes and they work less. Which do you think makes more sense?

And then I say, all right, what about taxing pollution?

People are nodding. They say that makes perfect sense. 

And then somebody raises their hand and says, “I commute 97 miles to work. Do you realize what that would do to my commute costs?” 

And someone else raises their hand and says, “Do you know how much it would cost to import lettuce from California during the winter?”

Pretty soon everyone has refocused this powerful intellectual argument into how it would affect their lives in the short-run, not taking into account the benefits they would get from other people changing their behavior.

JB: Does it take a self-financed billionaire to really kickstart something like this?

CW:  We think there are three things that could change the trajectory.

One is someone like Mike Bloomberg. Warren Buffett, if he was younger. Bill Gates, if he wanted to do something other than what he’s doing with the Gates Foundation. But somebody who’s prominent almost infinitely wealthy from our standpoint and civically engaged. If he stepped up and said, I’m forming a committee. I’m putting $500 million of my own money in it.

Two, somebody from Silicon Valley who also has deep pockets, but has the slightly different view that what we do is fix things that are broken. I’ve gone out to Silicon Valley and made the pitch, “If I told you there was an industry that had two incumbent firms, each more than one hundred years old, and 85 percent of their customers were unhappy, do you think it would be a hard sell for a new entrant?” They like creative destruction. And we pitch it as creative destruction in the political realm.

Three, a sitting senator who says I’m leaving my party to become a Centrist.

JB: Have you gotten any venture capitalists to bite?

CW: Nibble.