What I learned at PSU

When I first started writing for the Oregon Catalyst in 2011, I managed a hedge fund that had weathered the storm of 2008 well; indeed we profited from it since my fund was actually hedged. But things were not looking good for my boutique investment partnership because most of the assets were owned by one large investor who had recently passed away.

In a post Bernie Madoff world, it seemed impossible for me to talk anyone else into investing that kind of money in a fund ran out of a home office in a tiny condo on Portland’s Sylvan Hill. So I had a choice to make: either put down a lot of money in a way that would cover the higher costs of using commercial real estate and hiring a significant sales force, or invest a smaller amount of money in graduate school instead.

On my birthday in 2014, I made the tough decision to put an end to my career in asset management and pursue a new one in data science. I pursued a masters in economics at Portland State University. As I graduate this weekend, there are four big lessons I take away from this grad school experience.

First, for those that have the right skills, we live in prosperous times. There are many great employment opportunities for myself and my fellow classmates in this program, and I saw the same bounty of opportunity bless the graduates of the two classes before me.

Second, as I’ve acquired more empirical training, I’ve become less ideological. When I was an undergraduate at Hillsdale College, I took more philosophy courses than math courses. I’m not sure how far we can persuade other people using normative arguments, but rigorous quantitative methods seem more capable of bridging differences among people with different worldviews.

Third, mainstream Neoclassical economics tends to lead to free-market policy conclusions. You name the policy relevant to Oregon’s political dialogue today, from the minimum wage to rent control, the idea that government intervention leads to a net increase in social welfare is a fringe position in the prevailing economic literature.

Fourth, there are people that the average reader of the Oregon Catalyst would assume are on the other side of many issues you hold dear, but in reality, these peoples’ votes are more up for grabs than you might realize. In Dr. Tom Potiowsky, the chair of PSU’s Department of Economics, there’s a great anecdote of this. I don’t really know his politics, but simply because he’s a man of high class and high education, the odds are he’s no Republican in a time when the GOP increasingly seems to position itself as the low-class party.

And yet I’m rather confident in guessing that he voted no on Measure 97. After serving several years as Oregon’s State Economist, Potiowsky returned to PSU and created the Northwest Economic Research Center (NERC), a consulting firm affiliated with the College of Urban and Public Affairs.

NERC is unique in its pursuit of objectivity. Most economic consulting firms are hired guns. Two sides in a policy dispute will hire economists to present research arriving at their advocated conclusions. When contracting work, NERC has its clients sign an agreement giving NERC full independence to write an objective report that will be in the public domain. If NERC’s clients don’t like the findings of its study, they’ve given up the right to hide the results.

Last year Our Oregon, the Beaver State’s public employee lobbying arm, contracted with NERC to study Measure 97. When the results were that many private sector jobs would be eliminated due to this tax that Potiowsky publicly called a “sales tax on steroids,” Our Oregon tried to silence the study. Potiowsky, whose integrity is rock solid, stood firm in the face of legal threats.

Our state has more Tom Potiowskies than is generally appreciated. When a bad policy has lost him it’s probably lost middle Oregon.

The 2016 populist strategy that was able to squeak the GOP by in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin actually earned Donald Trump a lower percentage of the vote in Oregon than John McCain and Mitt Romney mustered. The Covfefe strategy won’t be a winning strategy here, but I suspect that good policy can be good politics with Oregon’s Potiowsky vote.

Eric Shierman lives in Salem and is the author of A Brief History of Political Cultural Change.