By JOHN T. WARD
A 22-year-old Rumson resident was among 32 Americans chosen Saturday for a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University in England.
A senior economics major at Princeton— and former redbankgreen summer intern — Evan Soltas (seen at right) said he plans to use the two-year opportunity, worth $100,000, to refine his pursuit of economic truths and falsehoods underlying government policies.
“I’m still in shock, like, 48 hours later,” he told redbankgreen on Monday. “I’m totally thrilled, but in the moment, there was something of a panic attack. You don’t really believe it.”
After a summer with redbankgreen, where he wrote several feature articles, including one about the Rumson Burying Ground on Rumson Road, Soltas started a blog about economic issues. Though he was still a senior at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, he said, he thought it would be a good way to familiarize himself with the subject and the ways in which it’s discussed.
“I would read a Wall Street Journal article and kind of think through the arguments they were making,” posting his thoughts to the blog, he said. “It was really a way for me to teach myself and think through something I thought I might be interested in. It evolved over time into a way I could actually discuss those issues with other people,” including well-regarded policy experts who began to take notice.
In his freshman year at Princeton, the blog enabled Soltas to become a contributing writer to the Washington Post, where he prepared writer Ezra Klein’s daily wonkbook newsletter on economics and policy issues, getting up at 2 a.m. five days a week to tackle the task. He wrote 360 of the posts while also contributing to Bloomberg News.
“That pretty much destroyed me after two years,” he said. “It’s like being chief of staff in the White House: you can only do it for a little while, and they you’re done.” His grades rose after he gave it up, too; he posted two semesters with perfect 4.0 averages, he said.
As a junior, Soltas wrote a paper on the federal food stamp program known as SNAP, with the aim of determining whether the nation’s second-largest safety net after Social Security actually reduces hunger and if so, how much. There was less research on the question than one might expect, he said, so he set out to assemble “the strongest body of empirical evidence” to date.
His conclusion: SNAP is expensive, but it works at reducing hunger. “Most importantly, it reduces what the Agriculture Department calls ‘extreme food insecurity,’ which is the world’s worst euphemism for hunger,” he said.
Soltas said the Rhodes Scholarship, which underwrites the studies of 32 Americans each year using an endowment from 19th-century British imperialist Cecil Rhodes, was not on his radar screen. But one of his professors, Ilyana Kuziemko, herself a 1999 Rhodes Scholar, encouraged him to pursue for the award, he said, a process that concluded Saturday with an extensive interview before a regional selection committee in New York City on Saturday.
He was one of a two selected from the tristate region. Three other Princetonians were also in this year’s group of 32, who will begin their studies next September.
Soltas has won praise from the likes of Alan Blinder, a former Fed vice chairman who was an economic adviser to President Bill Clinton. In a prepared statement issued by Princeton, Blinder, who teaches economics there, said this about Soltas:
“Evan is a top student, obviously, but what distinguishes him from many other top students — and makes him a joy to teach — is his ability to flit back and forth between the abstract and the concrete without missing a beat. He relates classroom ideas to real events, and applies the former to the latter, with ease.”
In attaining the Rhodes. Soltas joins an elite club of about 7,700 recipients over the past 112 years, including Clinton; former U.S. Senator and New York Knickerbocker Bill Bradley; Senator Cory Booker; astronomer Edwin Hubble; poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren; and journalist Nicholas Kristof.
Though he’s got nearly 7,000 Twitter followers, Soltas said he’s not doing as much journalism as he’d like because of his workload of advanced studies. But he hopes to to again “stand in between” arcane research and the public, he said.
“I see economics as a really having powerful vantage point for explaining some of the most important things that happen in our world,” he said, “and the extent to which we can change them.”
Soltas, a son of of Scott and Leah Soltas, is president of Princeton’s Federal Reserve Challenge team, which he led to a second-place finish nationally in a presentation to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.