Fuller’s 2030 Group adventure raises the question: Given the financial pressures on a fee-based research center, does he just tell people what they want to hear? It’s a critique that gets tossed at many economists.
“I think sometimes there’s a perception that Steve has been overly optimistic in his forecasts,” says Dave Robertson, executive director of the Council of Governments and a former student of Fuller’s at George Washington. “My guess is it’s closer to right than not.”
Some of that perception could be rooted in Fuller’s projections of massive regional growth as a result of spending on the Iraq war, which never quite came to fruition. It may also come from the fact that there is always an upside to forecasting in the Washington region—the federal government keeps the lows from getting too low, and makes happy projections a generally defensible bet. To be fair, he did sound notes of caution during the go-go years of 2005 and 2006.
But Fuller knows his reputation. “Someone told me the other night that they discount whatever I say by 10 percent,” Fuller says, noting that most economists are pessimistic and the media is always reporting negative news. “I’m a glass-is-half-full person about life. And I’m trying to provide some balance.” He prefers to say he’s “enthusiastic,” not optimistic; either way he says he looks at data analytically.
Then there are the studies that just pay the bills: Industry groups need data to support their interests, and Fuller can supply it. He did work for the Capital-to-Capital Coalition, which used his economic analysis to support United Airlines’ bid for a nonstop air route between D.C. and Beijing. In 2003, he performed a study for the pro-development Citizens for Property Rights concluding that density restrictions put in place for environmental purposes had impeded Loudoun County’s economic growth. In 2004, the Corcoran Gallery of Art—of which Til Hazel is a board member—commissioned a study on the economic impact of its proposed expansion (the verdict was positive).
That’s not to say Fuller fudges the numbers. But it’s probably fair to say that paying gigs like that wouldn’t come in the first place if the client didn’t expect a certain result.
To Fuller, it makes perfect sense to just answer the questions that are asked.
One of Fuller’s side jobs is serving as an expert witness in court cases, many of which are brought by developers against local governments that don’t want to allow denser growth. Fuller makes the case for the positive economic impact of rezoning. The one he found most exciting, though, was testifying in the trial of serial murderer John Lee Muhammad. The prosecution charged him with economic terrorism, and brought in Fuller to talk about how the local economy had suffered because people were too afraid to go outside and shop. Asked whether sales had been depressed, Fuller answered yes. What he didn’t say was that sales rebounded immediately afterwards, leaving no net effect on retailers. Muhammad was convicted.
Why didn’t he add that key bit of context? “You’re always counseled on the stand: Don’t answer a question you haven’t been asked,” Fuller explains. “You can find statistics to support almost anything.”
And then there was Fuller’s brief flirtation with Walmart, which wanted to develop an economic indicator based on what “Walmart moms” were thinking. The company ultimately decided not to go forward with it, but Fuller was intrigued by the idea of getting all the data Walmart had gathered on its female shoppers—as well as by the national exposure. And he can see the gigantic retailer’s pros and cons.
“If I were asked to make a case for it, I could make a really strong case for it, and if I were asked to make a strong case against it, I could make a really strong case against it. You do what you are asked to do, and you don’t answer other questions,” he says. “I still like to pick the side that I’m happier with.”
Despite the rarefied circles he inhabits, Fuller remains, at base, a teacher. It’s why he likes talking to reporters so much.