By his own admission, Ben Fitch-Fleischmann doesn’t particularly enjoy studying economic theory, which you might think is odd for someone who holds a PhD in economics. But it wasn’t the theory that interested him in economics, it was the people that the theory affected.
Every day when we open the newspaper we see the effects of the most fundamental aspect of economics, supply and demand. Oil prices, water rights, worker wages; all are inextricably linked to issues of supply and demand and have immediate impacts on the lives of those involved. From teaching economics at a university to writing regulations for Oregon’s energy utility companies, a Ph.D. in economics has proven to be a valuable and versatile tool for the U of O alumni.
When Ben was a freshman in college, he sat down to figure out what classes to take, so he just pulled out the class catalogue and started highlighting topics that sounded interesting. Ben’s father had been a political organizer, and Ben had helped out by knocking on doors as a canvasser, so political science seemed a natural fit. In his political science classes, Ben was struck by how often political scholars referred to economists when making their arguments. He wondered why the opinions of economists were given so much credibility, so he took a few economics classes to see what all the hype was about. He liked economics because it intertwines social science with policy and mathematics, and he finished his bachelor’s degree with a double-major in economics and political science. If you would have told Ben on graduation day that he would soon be going back to school to get his PhD, he would have told you that you were mistaken.
“When I finished undergrad I knew that I was never going back to school,” Ben says. “Then I had a real job for a few weeks and changed my mind.”
Ben returned to school for a Ph.D. in math and economics. The decision to return was a calculated one; he did it because he thought it would open doors for him, not because he loved the theory of economics. At the U of O he focused on environmental and development economics, writing his dissertation on the effectiveness of aid programs in Mozambique and Nicaragua, for which he received the Mikesell Research Paper Award. Ben taught as a GTF and was awarded the Department of Economics GTF Teaching Award and a Donald and Darel Stein Graduate Student Teaching Award, which is given to only two GTFs each year.
As a PhD student fully immersed in the nitty gritty details of economic theory, Ben didn't fully appreciate the wide-ranging applicability of his degree until he spoke with people outside of academia and was able to see economic theory within a broader context.
“The more time I spent in grad school the less I felt I knew,” Ben says. “It wasn’t until I spoke with people outside economics that I realized how valuable a background in economics was.”
After finishing his PhD in 2015, Ben obtained a tenure track position at Oberlin College where he taught introductory economics, environmental economics and behavioral economics.
But the world of academia didn’t suit him, for while he enjoyed the teaching aspect of his job, the research he was required to do as a tenure track professor was not rewarding.
“I’ve always thought that I wasn’t certain I was going to stay in academics,” Ben says. “You get tunnel vision in academia in terms of everyone thinking it's the only way to go.”
Ben drew on his strengths in environmental economics and applied to many jobs in the energy sector. His bet that a PhD in economics would be a versatile tool payed off when he landed his current position as a senior economist at the Public Utility Commission in Portland, Oregon, a state agency that regulates investor-owned electric and gas companies. Ben says the way that the price of natural gas and electricity are determined is more complicated than one might think. Here’s an example of how it works:
The companies that sell you your natural gas are called gas utilities. They buy the gas from producers and distribute the gas to consumers. The price of gas is very volatile, and the distributors pass the market price of gas onto consumers, so if the price of gas goes up, so does your heating bill. To provide the consumer with stable pricing, utilities might buy “futures” of natural gas at a set price, which in theory protects consumers from price volatility. However, that can backfire on the consumer if the utility company buys futures at prices higher than what they could have bought on the market.
The Public Utility Commission where Ben works is there to write guidelines for how utility companies should buy futures. The guidelines have to be vague enough so that the utilities have leeway to use their judgment and expertise, but specific enough that the government can hold them legally accountable if they act imprudently. This complicated system was a bit of a surprise to Ben when he started.
“It’s far more complicated than I realized when I was in academics,” Ben says.
As a state employee, Ben has to remain neutral and think of natural resources in purely economic terms. This can be a hard line to walk for a self-described environmentalist.
“I believe that the environment is valuable in and of itself, and in economics you’re supposed to put your personal beliefs aside and assign economic value to environmental assets.”
That being said, Ben says it’s good to work for a state like Oregon that leans toward environmental responsibility.
“I’m pretty happy to work on behalf of a state that prioritizes its natural resources.”