The Search for the Mythical Centrist — Interview with Charles Wheelan

Ben Newton
Apr 29 · 8 min read
Charles Wheelan

In this episode of the Masters of Data podcast, I speak to a guest who is prolific and publicly known like many guests to date, yet for reasons that are considerably different. Bestselling author Charles Wheelan joins the podcast and describes his journey from a writer for Economist to searching for the political middle in the United States. Charles is the author of Centrist Manifesto, which helped launch Unite America in 2013. He is a Senior Lecturer in Economics at Dartmouth College. Charles formerly ran for Congress as a Democratic candidate in Illinois in 2009. Aside from writing Centrist Manifesto he is also the author of the New York Times bestselling books Naked Economics, Naked Statistics, and Naked Money. He also has a new political thriller coming out on May 21 entitled The Rationing. We started off by taking the time to speak to Charles about his love and passion for writing, the context, and impetus for writing his series of economically-minded books and the heart behind his entrance into American policymaking and politics while aiming to both identify and restore America’s political center.

To start things off Charles offers some background to his love for writing and how he found his way into penning multiple bestselling books. As Charles notes, he has always had a love for writing, even from a very young age. During his post-high school gap year, Charles found himself being a “roving foreign correspondent” for The Valley News in New Hampshire. Reflecting on his time there he notes, “First, it definitely made me realize that I wanted to write about policy related things, and second, it made me realize that the world is a fascinating place. That was my entrée to writing. Then I became a speechwriter, which married the writing to politics. That was the first thing I did. Books came much later.” No doubt this early experience set Charles up for a life of doing what he loves: writing about the things he feels are both important and understandable. In fact, this is the key to his notable works. As I identified, Charles has a knack for, “taking something that is usually pretty esoteric, like economics or money theory, and actually connecting it to a person’s everyday life”- something that no doubt rings true in each of his books and which we unpack during our discussion.

In fact, a major point of our conversation is Charles’ approach to writing. Truth be told, the challenge for any writer is writing consumable content, especially when it comes to academic ideas like economics and politics. As such, Charles and I discuss how exactly Charles has found success in bridging that gap. Speaking specifically to writing Naked Economics he notes, “I needed a book on economics and finance that I could give to journalists that wasn’t going to drown them in theory, graphs, charts, math. They just needed to know the big ideas. So I wanted to be able to walk into the room and say, here’s a book about economics that tells you why it matters, gives you the intuitions so you’ll be better reporters and writers, and you don’t need to worry about calculus. I assumed somebody had already written that book. I couldn’t find it…[That] eventually became Naked Economics. I assumed the book had already been written. It hadn’t, so I wrote it.” While the framework seems straightforward, the point rings true as to why resources like this are so difficult to come by, something Charles expounds upon. “I had always maintained…that the problem about these disciplines was that they had been written by people who really love the math, and there is an elegance, obviously, in both economics and statistics, to the math. But the math is really just a way of communicating the ideas, and so I just wanted to write those ideas, shortcutting without the math.” The end result is a series of books that have been read by a growing number of people worldwide.

And while Charles’ approach to writing has been extremely helpful for countless readers, we also dissect what ultimately pushed Charles to migrate from writing to an active focus on American policy. As we discuss, Charles formerly ran for Congress as a Democratic candidate in Illinois in 2009 and likewise authored Centrist Manifesto, which helped launch Unite America. Charles and I discuss the background for this and what led to this major transition. “I had a tension throughout my career. I really loved being a journalist, but I also had a hankering to actually do policy. In some ways, it actually felt too easy to just be on the sidelines reporting about how you could fix Social Security, knowing full well that the people in the arena were the ones doing it.” He continues to explain how he became involved with Chicago Metropolis 2020, which was focused on policy creation in the Chicago area. As he explains, it was “A policy shop that was advocating for regional changes in Chicago around transportation, tax policy, housing, and other kinds of things. We were coming up with better ideas and then actually lobbying in Springfield to try to get them done.” From there he found his way into a congressional run in 2009. As Charles notes, “If you care a lot about policy, you really have to be willing to try to do it.” He continues to explain, “I was somebody who writes about economics, cares about policy, in the depths of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, and I thought…if I’m really serious about how important economics is, this would be a really good time to try to get into the arena.” And so he did.

The result of this change in focus was not only a run for Congress but also trying to work through the confusion of the modern American political climate and identify the political center, which ultimately led to the creation of his book Centrist Manifesto and consequently, the formation of Unite America. Charles explains, “I was already disaffected with the two parties. I was already feeling that something was missing and that a lot of voices were unrepresented.” He continues, “I realized that most of the problems that we care about really require solutions that draw from the tool kits of both parties,” an idea that he unpacks more fully in the book. While unpacking the idea of being a “centrist” Charles explains that, “Part of being a centrist is not splitting the difference on every issue. It’s not necessarily saying, boy, the Republicans have an unreasonable view on this, and the Democrats have a different unreasonable view, so halfway between two unreasonable views must be a reasonable view. That is not necessarily the case…What I was trying to articulate is that there are some really good ideas on both sides, and that we should pick and choose among them.” And political parties aside, the end goal for all people should be to find ways to reform what is broken and bring about realistic and helpful solutions that promote the well-being and advancement of people worldwide-something that is no doubt the commitment of Charles and his happy band of centrists at Unite America.

Outbound Links & Resources Mentioned

This episode of the Masters of Datapodcat

Learn more about Charles:

Follow Charles on Twitter: @CharlesWheeler

Connect with Charles on LinkedIn:

Learn more about Unite America:

Learn more about the book Naked Economics:

Learn more about the book The Centrist Manifesto:

Learn more about the book Naked Statistics:

Learn more about the book Naked Money:

Learn more about the book The Rationing:

https://www.amazon.com/Rationing-Novel-Charles-Wheelan/dp/1324001488

Takeaways

  • Something The Economist” does really well is taking complicated subjects and connect it in a way that is actually applicable for a normal person in their life.
  • Charles’ strength is taking something that is usually pretty esoteric, like economics or money theory, and actually connecting it to a person’s everyday life.
  • The reason for writing Naked Economics was to create a book on economics and finance that could give journalists concepts that weren’t going to drown them in theory, graphs, charts, math. It helped them focus on what they needed to know about the big ideas.
  • The problem with disciplines like statistics and economics is that they have been written by people who really love the math, and there is an elegance (obviously, in both economics and statistics) to the math. But the math is really just a way of communicating the ideas. Naked Economics is a way to write those ideas, shortcutting without the math.
  • If you care a lot about policy, you really have to be willing to try to do it.
  • The impetus behind The Centrist Manifesto was a feeling of being disaffected with the two parties and feeling that something was missing and that a lot of voices were unrepresented.
  • Most of the problems that we care about really require solutions that draw from the tool kits of both the Republican and Democratic parties.
  • Anybody who spends time around the US fiscal situation knows that the entitlement programs have to be fixed.
  • Anybody who looks at the same data with an honest eye knows that you cannot fix the fiscal situation, even with entitlement reform, without raising some new revenue.
  • Part of being a centrist is not splitting the difference on every issue. It’s not necessarily saying, the Republicans have an unreasonable view on this, and the Democrats have a different unreasonable view, so halfway between two unreasonable views must be a reasonable view. That is not necessarily the case.
  • There are some really good ideas on both sides, and that we should pick and choose among them.
  • Unite America was initially known as the Centrist Project at first, it was never intended to be a party.
  • A movement is a group of people who are willing to put resources behind candidates and process reforms that will re-empower that political center, that will create the capacity, again, to solve problems.
  • If there are no independents who are credible centrists on the ballot, how in the world can you expect people who say they’re centrists to support them?

Newtonian Nuggets

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Ben Newton

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Proud Father, Avid Reader, Musician, Host of the Masters of Data Podcast, Product Evangelist @Sumologic

Newtonian Nuggets

Thoughts on what's going on in technology, data, analytics, culture and other nerdy topics