After D.C., economics’ Susan Helper brings national experiences to CWRU

Served key roles with White House Council of Economic Advisers and Department of Commerce

Headshot of Susan Helper, CWRUAs they interact with Susan Helper in the classroom and on research, students at Case Western Reserve University are getting a chance to learn first-hand what goes into national economic policy-making at the highest levels.

Helper spent the last two years on leave from Weatherhead School of Management, managing a team of about 20 researchers as chief economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The year before that, she worked for President Barack Obama as a senior economist with the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). Her CEA office was just west of the White House, in the ornate Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

Helper, the Frank Tracy Carlton Professor of Economics, returns to the university with a trove of economics research experience—much of which she is imparting this semester in a SAGES seminar, titled “Making: Innovation, Work and Competition.”

The course examines an array of economic questions, such as:

  • Does off-shoring of production to places like China threaten or enhance U.S. technological strength?
  • Do efforts to protect manufacturing in the U.S. hurt people in developing countries?
  • How will the development of “maker spaces” (such as CWRU’s Sears think[ box ]) affect how products are produced?
  • How does high-wage Germany run a trade surplus in manufacturing?
  • Does environmental regulation help or hurt manufacturing?

Throughout the course, Case Western Reserve students gain rare insight from her economics research experiences in Washington.

Helper, for example, led a team research effort that resulted last spring in a White House and Commerce Department report, “Supply Chain Innovation: Strengthening America’s Small Manufacturers” (PDF), which identifies potential barriers and solutions to build sustained manufacturing growth.

“We lost a third of the manufacturing jobs in this country in the years between 2000 and 2010,” she said. “But there is a lot of potential for growth in good manufacturing jobs, and government policies can help.”

But she focused on more than just manufacturing. At CEA, she worked on finalizing national regulations, such as Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, which reduce energy consumption by increasing the fuel economy of cars and light trucks.

“That was very interesting,” she said, “to see how that process works and the care with which new regulations are introduced.”

Helper plans to apply her Washington experiences at Case Western Reserve by involving Weatherhead School students in a couple of her research projects. In collaboration with former colleagues at the Commerce Department, a research project will seek to quantify return on investment for businesses that hire apprentices. The research seeks to document how companies benefit from creating jobs for apprentices.

She is also planning research about the impact of companies’ purchasing policies on their ability to innovate.

“Right now, a lot of companies have a really simple policy: to award business to a company that bids the lowest,” she said. “That’s problematic because a supplier who might be the cheapest in the short term can be very expensive in the long term.”