An Interview With Center Founder Richard O. Zerbe, Jr.

Spring 2009

Evans School faculty member Richard O. Zerbe, Jr. shares his thoughts on how changes in government have inspired changes within the Evans School, the importance of work-life balance, and the intersection of benefit-cost analysis, law, and economics. 

You were recently installed as the first Daniel J. Evans Distinguished Professor of Public Affairs. What does this honor mean for you professionally and personally, and what do you hope to accomplish while in this position?
“First, I’ve been a longtime admirer of Dan Evans, so I’m happy to carry the name. Second, I view it as recognition for work that I’ve done, so it’s extremely gratifying. What I want to accomplish is mainly to put the field of benefit-cost analysis on a firmer footing nationwide.”

You recently founded the Benefit-Cost Analysis Center and the Society for Benefit-Cost Analysis through a major grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. What is benefit-cost analysis, and how did you become interested in it?
“I became interested in it because of my move to the Evans School in ’81. My major field up to that point had been law and economics, which didn’t fit very well into the Evans School curriculum. So I was looking for something that would fit better, and I fastened on benefit-cost analysis. I was attracted to it because it has very interesting theoretical components and very practical usage. I still see it as a method by which we can improve the quality of government spending at all levels.”

How is that?
“Because benefit-cost analysis, sometimes called cost-benefit analysis, attempts to determine for government, as one might determine for a company, whether or not particular investments are socially profitable. So, just as a company might try to determine if an investment is privately profitable, benefit-cost analysis would try to determine if a government investment is socially profitable.”

What have you done in the field of benefit-cost analysis?
“Well, this year I produced three edited volumes and three articles. In general, all of the material from here to down here [pointing to five shelves of books] are things that I’ve written—a good deal of which are on benefit-cost analysis, and a good deal on law and economics.”

You actually hold an adjunct faculty position at the University of Washington (UW) School of Law, have been published in several prestigious law journals, and have contributed to a couple U.S. Supreme Court briefs. You also previously held adjunct positions with the UW departments of economics and civil engineering. What links do you see between these different fields of study and that of public policy and administration?
“Benefit-cost analysis is a sub-branch of welfare economics, and an awful lot of legal work really relates to welfare economics. Defining blackmail in law, for example—how do you distinguish it from the selling of information? Well, you can look at welfare economics to distinguish the two. The question would be, when is the selling of information socially productive? When selling information about the weather, newspaper reporting, and so on. When we’re selling information that has no social benefit, however, that’s how we define blackmail.”

You’re also a consultant with the Congressional Research Service and other federal agencies. Tell me about that.
“In the Congressional Research Service, we’re looking at helping them consider different protocols, including benefit-cost protocols, that the major federal water agencies should use, particularly the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—so dam-building, levee-building, that kind of thing. I also used to be a consultant for the Federal Trade Commission and worked on a number of anti-trust suits for the government and private parties. I was perhaps one of the first economists to develop charges against Microsoft, and we brought an anti-trust suit to the Federal Trade Commission. That suit was later taken over by the Justice Department, and I was no longer involved after that.”

You’ve seen many students pass through these halls over the years and have seen numerous changes in government at the federal and local levels. From your perspective, in what ways has the Evans School adapted to these changes?
“Since I’ve come to the Evans School, there’s been a major shift from less analytical and more qualitative study to more analytical research and courses using economic tools, field studies, and risk analysis. The other major shifts have been the development of nonprofit work and the improvement in the quality of the faculty. I think the Evans School has a great future. We have a dean who is very opportunistic and ambitious, in a good way. I think the faculty is the best it’s ever been, and our students are really good. It feeds on itself. As the quality of the school increases, it’s able to attract better people to it.”

Outside of your academic pursuits, you’re known as a champion cross-country race walker and skier, and regular participant in the Senior Olympic Games and USA Track and Field Masters events. What does this outside activity provide for you?
“Personal satisfaction and a balance to work. I only started in my 50s. The Senior Olympic Games are not just track and field, they cover a lot of other things, too. They exist at the county level, then people advance to the state level, then the national level. I’ve advanced to the state level, but have never gone to nationals because I’ve never had time. This summer, I will go the Senior Olympic Games at Stanford. I also placed third in the 5,000-meter at the USA Track and Field Masters championships, which are bit more prestigious than the Senior Olympics.”

Do you think it’s important to instill a sense of work-life balance in your students?
“I do, I do. I believe in the Greek adage of a healthy mind and a healthy body. I only wish I had both [chuckles].”