Remembering Ed Whitelaw

January 19, 2023

Ed Whitelaw moved to Oregon in 1967 having recently earned a doctorate in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A highly engaging professor, Ed won the University of Oregon’s Ersted Award for Outstanding Teaching in 1970.

As his academic career evolved, he noticed a disconnect: important academic contributions, especially from the field of economics, weren’t finding their way into public policy decision making. And so in 1974, he founded ECONorthwest with a mission of closing the academic-policy gap. At the time, it was unclear whether there would be demand for consulting economists, and an early 36-county marketing road trip was discouraging.

But he persisted, and the economic questions began to roll in.  The early ones were narrow in scope. What are the effects of a Beaverton building moratorium on households and homebuilders? Is a 1200-room Portland convention center hotel feasible? Is a Jackson County employment training program effective?

As his reputation for insight and accuracy spread, the questions got bigger. Can the Northwest economy survive the listing of the Northern Spotted Owl as an endangered species? What are the economic and environmental impacts of the Exxon Valdez oil spill on Alaska’s communities? Did the United States have an economic justification for curbing Canadian imports of a water-polluting gasoline additive?

ECONorthwest grew along with the scope of the questions. Initially focused on natural resource and urban development issues, the firm took its analytic framework into transportation, utility, education, healthcare, and social policy-making processes. The topical policy focus widened, but the work remained centered in economics.

“People, problems, and profits—in that order,” he answered when asked what motivated his ECO work. He wanted to work with interesting people addressing consequential problems. If that translated into profits to keep the firm going, all the better.

Ed died in April 2021, leaving a vast web of students, employees, and policies that were improved because of his brilliance and care. We’re proud to honor him, his good work, and his humanity. To learn more about Ed, watch this video we made to celebrate Ed’s life and work.

Chart Of The Month: The Second Paycheck

Ed Whitelaw was a visionary, and among the things that he saw before others was the advent of the knowledge economy. In this new era of accelerated scientific discovery and automation, he noticed that businesses increasingly decided to locate in regions with attractive natural amenities to draw top scientific and technical talent. As he saw it, those employees received two paychecks: one from the employer, denominated in dollars, and a second from the local environment, denominated in mountains, coasts, clean streams, and temperate climates. He dubbed the phenomenon “the second paycheck theory” and argued it would serve as a durable advantage for the Pacific Northwest economy.

In a 1997 report to the National Science Foundation, co-authors and he quantified the value of the second paycheck, drawing on findings from a job migration study. They calculated that an employer would have to increase a worker’s wages by 17 percent to move them out of Oregon, which has above-average environmental amenities, to a state with average amenities (see chart). New Hampshire and New Mexico had similarly valuable natural appeal.

Ed took his theory to the frontlines of the 1990s Timber Wars and argued that an influx of amenity-seeking knowledge workers would more than offset the decline in forest-sector jobs in the Northwest. As often happened, history did play out as Ed predicted.

Pop Quiz!

As a professor, Ed was notorious for weekly quizzes that were precise, exacting, and designed to draw the most work from students. Get a taste of that Whitelaw quiz energy by testing your knowledge of Ed himself. Click on the quiz at right to begin! If you’d like, email [email protected] a screenshot of your score.

Links and Resources

Do you have any wonderful memories, pictures, or data points relating to Ed? Send them over! We’d love to add to our collection.