Economics professor, back from Washington D.C., teaches from experience

After spending a year working at The White House, Susan Helper, the Frank Tracy Carlton professor of economics, had some eye-opening experiences to share with students. For one thing, she says that President Barack Obama is very sophisticated even off script, and he looks just like he does on television.

Helper has been teaching at Case Western Reserve University since 1990, covering topics within economics such as microeconomics, environmental economics, innovation and research methods. She spent three years in D.C., one at the White House and two in the Department of Commerce.

“[Economics] is a great field,” said Helper. “There are lots of different things you can do with an economics [degree]. I was really pleased to find all these Case students doing public policy in different forms.”

Helper explored successes and failures within the automobile industry, specifically comparing Toyota and General Motors and travelling to Japan to collect data for her research 2010-2011. She further looked into issues that directly affect people such as labor practices, wage stagnation and why certain jobs pay more.

With these experiences, Helper was valued at the White House and the Department of Commerce because of her unique background in both policy and education. At the Department of Commerce, she had about 20 economists working for her. At the White House, she created a policy to help start a program encouraging communities to create a plan increasing understanding of how businesses make decisions. Other tasks in the White House ranged from short term tasks, like commenting on a 50-page paper, to longer tasks, like writing a paper that the president or secretary would read.

Helper explained the importance of choosing words wisely in the documents that the president would read.

“If you could say something in 10 words versus 15 words, they said by all means do it,” she said.

In addition to her work with the White House a few years ago, she is currently in correspondence with today’s presidential candidates. While she could not disclose which candidates or specifics, Helper assists them in creating economic policies.

Helper says that from her experiences in D.C., she finally understood the meaning of an organized culture.

“As a professor, whatever you do, you do for yourself,” said Helper. “If I say something bad, it reflects badly on me. Now on a team, it becomes a matter of ‘Can I send this email? Must I? Who do I CC?’ It took a year to get used to that.”

Today, Helper works with policy makers, economists and politicians in D.C. to figure out what research projects would be useful to people. She is constantly giving advice of what sort of information the government should collect from people and how that information can be beneficial to our economy. For instance, she is currently helping to decide what sorts of questions the U.S. Census should ask families.

This semester, Helper is teaching a university seminar called Making: Innovation, Work and Competition, which is based off of a class she was teaching prior to leaving for D.C. but includes her newer experiences as well. In addition to her instruction, Helper feels that the students also help shape the class.

“The students are great,” said Helper. “They bring a bunch of very interesting perspectives.”

She plans to offer the course again next fall.