The idea of a Pacific Northwest Regional Economic Conference came to Charles Tiebout, the noted and highly respected Professor of Urban and Regional Economics at the University of Washington, in 1966. He had observed that economic organizations in other parts of the U.S. — the New England Council, for example, and the Southern Economic Association — were undertaking studies that turned the spotlight on their regional economies. These suggested additional reports, possible policy responses, and in any case governmental grants, both to research the problems further and to propose remedies. Professor Tiebout thought that the Pacific Northwest, which is (along with New England) one of the very few readily identifiable regions in the U.S., should also initiate an organization, forum, or publication that examined its economy, discovered problem areas, and suggested remedial action. He believed that, to start with, regional economists should meet informally, get to know each other, discuss each other’s research, and at the same time, welcome experts from outside of the region whom they would otherwise not get to see.
To this end, Tiebout asked business and government economists and academic colleagues concerned with the regional economy to organize a start-up conference at the University of Washington in early May of 1967. He then applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration (EDA) to help underwrite the project. The grant was readily approved, but the Conference site had to be shifted. State regulations at the time required the University of Washington to contribute all of its income (e.g., from federal grants, registration fees, and incidental revenue) to the State’s General Fund, and to limit its expenditures to items specifically approved by the State Legislature in the regular biennial state budget. Lewis and Clark College, a private liberal arts college in Portland that was not bound by such rigidities, was willing to stage the conference. Because of the conference’s prospective size, it had to be relocated to the Benson Hotel in downtown Portland.
Thus, PNREC came into being. The inaugural Conference lasted two days; it was a great success. Supported by the generous federal grant, it invited economists from outside the region such as Dr. Charles Levin of Washington University in St. Louis, Dr. Anthony Pascal of the RAND Corporation, and Dr. Benjamin Chinitz from Brandeis University. It was able to waive the registration fee for regional economists still in graduate school, and to offer travel grants to registrants from distant places in the Pacific Northwest. To Professor Tiebout’s special delight, it was even able to sponsor a lively cocktail party on Friday evening. The program covered many topics, though it concentrated on the theory and practice of building input-output models that were then under construction in most states of the region. At the end, everyone agreed that a second such conference should be convened a year later.
Conference II, held in Seattle in early May 1968, fared less well. The mushrooming war in Vietnam had caused severe inflationary pressures, and EDA came under strong political and budgetary pressure. Applying for another conference grant was out of the question; the Conference would have to finance itself largely from registration fees, although a number of business firms agreed to cover any deficit it might incur. In February 1968, Professor Tiebout suffered a sudden, fatal heart attack. The steering committee thus was robbed of its most prestigious, most imaginative, and most dynamic leader. But plans were so far advanced that the Conference, widely regarded as a final tribute to Professor Tiebout, did take place. Miraculously, it covered its expenses, which emboldened the steering committee to propose Conference III for early May 1969.
The plan had been to let the annual conferences alternate between Seattle and Portland. But in 1968, Dr. John Guthrie, Chair of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Washington State University, volunteered to organize the next one at his institution. Given a lot of leeway by the PNREC steering committee, he set up a local arrangements committee that planned and executed Conference III — on a smaller scale than the preceding ones because attendance in Pullman (in eastern Washington) was bound to be smaller than in Portland and Seattle, but with much reduced costs. Dr. William Wolman, Economics Editor of Business Week, was the principal speaker. The Conference was another great success, not only in terms of the program, but financially as well. It achieved a surplus of $300, enough to start a bank account that would finance future activities.
Thus, the pattern was set for years to come. The steering committee (now named the Board of Directors, consisting of between twenty and thirty people) met twice a year to discuss broad policy issues, review the most recent conference, fix the venue for the next one, and appoint a chair for it (often, but not always, from the Board) who was to set up a local planning committee. Loyal to Charlie Tiebout’s approach, it kept formalities to a minimum, hoping to remain “as unlike the American Economic Association as possible.” It elected no president, adopted no by-laws, hired no secretary, and confined its decisions to broad recommendations to the successive local planning committees (which, especially when they included a banker to be in charge of financial affairs, generally managed to eke out a small surplus from the conference).
William Jeske, Chief Economist for Pacific Northwest Bell, became the PNREC’s de facto executive secretary, both because he had very strong professional skills and because he could make countless long-distance telephone calls for free. This put him in a position to keep in touch with everyone, and to deal with day-to-day issues. He was succeeded in 1978 by Ray Broughton, Chief Economist for Oregon’s First Interstate Bank and in 1988 by Gus Mattersdorff, Professor of Economics at Lewis and Clark College, the institution that had taken the PNREC under its wing with respect to both financial and legal affairs.
True to the tradition of great informality, the annual PNREC conferences did much experimenting. No two conferences were alike, though some innovations asserted themselves to become regular fixtures. Saturday afternoon sessions proved to be insupportable. But an earlier start — Thursday at 1:00 p.m., for the by now traditional Economic and Business Outlook session that’s addressed first by a nationally-known economic forecaster and then by forecasters from each of the states of the Pacific Northwest and the provinces of Western Canada – has become a permanent feature. University and college students pay preferential registration fees and are strongly encouraged to attend. In 1989, the Conference published its first volume of Proceedings; by the late 1990s, the proceedings had largely moved to an electronic format, where papers and presentations are posted on the conference’s Web site as they become available.
In the mid-1990s, PNREC became incorporated as a non-profit entity in the State of Idaho and in the Province of British Columbia, which allows it to claim tax-exempt status in both Canada and the United States. The formal incorporation of an organization that prided itself on informality was necessary due to the increasing size of annual conference budgets. As well, the growth in PNREC’s reserves used to backstop annual conferences required greater management. The Board of Directors also wanted to ensure that PNREC maintained its tax-exempt status. Incorporation meant additional formality in the form of a president, treasurer, secretary, rotation of directors and preparation of annual financial statements.
The tradition of attracting notable speakers from elsewhere has been maintained and strengthened. The annual Tiebout Lecture, given pride of place in each Conference’s program, has been delivered by well-known academic economists like Charles Kindleberger from MIT, Robert Triffin from Yale, Harry Johnson from the University of Chicago, Barry Bluestein from Boston College, Joe Pechman of the Brookings Institution, John Meyer of Harvard, Mancur Olson from the University of Maryland, Emory Castle of Oregon State University, Jack Triplett of the U.S. Department of Commerce, Werner Hirsch of UCLA, Robert Reischauer (then of the Urban Institute), Nathan Rosenberg of the University of California at Berkeley, Rudolf Penner (then of the Congressional Budget Office), John Helliwell and Peter Pearse of the University of British Columbia, and Richard Harris of Simon Fraser University. More recently, Paul Krugman of Princeton University and PNREC’s own Bill Beyers of the University of Washington have delivered major addresses at the conference. These speakers’ ideas, while not always directly to the Pacific Northwest, always added variety to the program and kept discussions from becoming too ‘provincial’.
In the same vein, PNREC, far from being tied to the Seattle/Portland axis, has moved around more than was originally thought possible. In Oregon, conferences have been held in Eugene, Salem, and Corvallis; in Washington, Spokane, Bellingham, Pullman, Olympia, the Tri-Cities, Issaquah (and even the Seattle-Tacoma airport) have hosted them. Idaho has organized several in Boise; Montana has held them in Missoula (most recently in 2010), and British Columbia has attracted very good attendance in Vancouver, and in Victoria in 1992 and 2001, and to which PNREC returned for its 45th annual gathering in 2011.
Following a few lean years at PNREC, attendance has been in recovery of late. Attendance figures for every PNREC from 1994 to 2016 are presented in the figure below. The data underlying the figure reveal a few items worthy of mention. As you might expect, certain cities with larger populations tend to generate larger attendance with a relatively higher proportion of the attendees residing locally. Past conference locations reflect the will of the PNREC Board to site conferences throughout the Pacific Northwest and Canada in both large and relatively smaller cities. Second, attendance by academics and employees of non-profits has held steady over the past few decades while attendance by government and private-sector economists has been in decline. Finally, after a period of declining attendance that included a recession-induced low turnout in 2009, attendance has improved over the past seven conferences as has the financial health of the conference.
 Tiebout's articles, including "A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures", Journal of Political Economy (October 1956) and "An Economic Theory of Decentralization", in Public Finances, Needs, Sources and Utilization (New York: National Bureau of Economic Research, 1961), are credited with developing the well-known 'voting with the feet' model by which voters reveal their preferred combination of government expenditures and taxation. Click here for more background on Charles Tiebout on the University of Washington website.
The 2017 PNREC was held in Bend, Oregon. We received great interest from economists wishing to present at the conference and as a result, the program was expanded and we included a poster session for the first time. Conference participation was very strong, with 205 economists and economics enthusiasts in attendance.
While the conference has experienced highs and lows over the past 51 years, it has survived and will continue to bring the region’s economists together each year to share research, maintain connections and build our understanding of the economic issues facing our region.