Wharton goes to Washington offering lawmakers unbiased expertise

Lawmakers faced with decisions about the economic recovery and the fiscal cliff showdown, rising health care costs and the housing market, could probably benefit from a little bit of unbiased expert advice.

A new initiative from the Wharton School, the Wharton Public Policy Initiative (PPI), will tap into the expertise at the business school, as well as around the University, to create nonpartisan resources for lawmakers and others close to the decision-making process on Capitol Hill.

“The mission is really, in the broadest terms, to serve as a hub for public policy research and education at Penn,” says PPI Managing Director Andrew Coopersmith. “It’s anchored in Wharton, but it really includes schools throughout the University. [We’re] trying to bring together the different silos of public policy activity across the University.”

The PPI will encourage faculty research in public policy, and will work to get that research on the radar screens of lawmakers who may benefit from experts’ insight.

“The focus is on the sharing of knowledge and data, not advocacy,” says Coopersmith. “We’re just looking to get data-driven research out there to better inform policymakers.”

PPI Faculty Director Mark Duggan, chair of the Department of Business Economics and Public Policy, professor of business economics and public policy, and professor of health care management at Wharton, says that some of the published material from faculty can be impenetrable by the general public.

“Often there is a lot of useful stuff in there, but there isn’t much of a mechanism to reward people if the research they do has a big policy relevance,” Duggan says. “It doesn’t really ripple into the outside world very much.”

In addition, partisan think tanks such as the Center for American Progress on the left or The Heritage Foundation on the right produce policy papers, “but they kind of know the answer before they embark on the research,” Duggan adds.

PPI will release at least one policy brief per month on issues central to the country’s economic health. Upcoming topics and authors include Jennifer Blouin, associate professor of accounting, writing on the taxation of business profits; Chris Sanchirico, professor of law, business, and public policy, covering the pros and cons of increasing taxes on the capital income of individuals; and Susan Wachter, professor of real estate and finance, on transparency and security in mortgage lending.

While policy research centers exist in Washington, Coopersmith says other business schools are not focused on D.C. and the policymaking process in this way.

“To the extent that PPI can provide a different voice, and over time, begin to try to get that voice heard by more people and to crowd out some of the other noise, that would be an amazing thing. I think our expectation here is this will be a process,” he says.

A second main objective of the Initiative is to connect students who are interested in public policy with internship opportunities in Washington, D.C. There are already students who are working as research assistants, and a dozen undergraduates who are updating the PPI website.

“Ultimately I think this can be a great thing for students,” says Duggan. “For me that was the thing. … I believe in and really like the students here.”

The PPI will have a presence in Washington that will serve as home base for a D.C.-based executive director; it will also be a hub for activities and a gathering place for students with Washington internships.

The PPI was established in September 2012 with an $11 million gift from three Wharton alumni—Marc J. Rowan, Marc A. Spilker, and Dianne Isaacs Spilker.

“All three of them graduated in the mid-80s and loved their time at Penn and felt very proud of their connection to the University and very fortunate to have learned from great faculty,” says Duggan. “[After they] emerged from Wharton, they learned a ton about business, but they didn’t learn a ton about the policy landscape. They thought it would be great for students to emerge from Wharton with a deeper appreciation of what government does.”

PPI also coalesces with other Penn efforts to promote the idea of action for social good. “We really want students, even if they don’t go into a public policy career, even if their goal is to go to Wall Street, to have a better understanding of the importance of public policy in the business world and to take that with them wherever they go,” says Coopersmith.

To read the PPI blog, visit the website, publicpolicy.wharton.upenn.edu.