Gene Sperling was a top economic adviser to both President Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama. In those positions, he was deeply involved in many of the key economic policy battles of the past few decades. During the Clinton years, he helped bring about an expansion of the earned income tax credit—a major anti-poverty measure—and the creation of the Children’s Health Insurance Program. In the Obama White House, he worked closely with the president and vice president to rescue the economy after the crash of 2008, and he battled fiercely with congressional Republicans over budgets, taxes, health care, and the debt ceiling.
Sperling has long been known in Washington as a leading economic policy wonk. Such people tend to be seen as men and women who focus on numbers and who argue about theories the rest of us can barely understand. But in his new book, out this month, Economic Dignity, Sperling challenges that stereotype. In a well-written and accessible style, Sperling argues that the main goal of economic policy should not focus on measurements such as the the Gross Domestic Product or the unemployment rate. These are just means to an end, he insists. The ultimate aim for economic policy, he says, ought to be developing and strengthening a society in which people live worthwhile lives, enjoying family, pursuing purpose and happiness, feeling important and autonomous.
This is not how the average economist talks. Has Sperling goner soft? In a conversation with him about his new book, I ask Sperling how he defines “economic dignity” and how Donald Trump’s response to the economic calamity caused by the coronavirus pandemic measures up to this standard. His definition is basic: “I talk about three pillars. One, the capacity to care for family and be there for life’s most precious moments, happy or sad. Two, do each of us have a first and second chance to pursue potential purpose and meaning? And, three, very important, do we have the power and protections to contribute to the economy with respect and not [be victims of] domination and humiliation.” Noting that the coronavirus crisis has highlighted the importance of low-wage worker, Sperling remarks, ” I do believe this is our economic dignity moment.” And, no surprise, Trump is not meeting the challenge.
Sperling explains in this clip:
Sperling notes that the pandemic relief bills that have been coming out of Congress have “taken some small steps in the right direction” when it comes to economic dignity. They have included paid sick leave for about half of Americans and expanded the usually lousy unemployment benefits for laid-off workers. But, he points out, instead of implementing hazard pay and ensuring health care and sick leave for all, “there’s been this focus on money to large companies without accountability” and proposals to help business executives deduct meals. “More than anything we need to keep working families and children whole,” Sperling explains.
In his book, Sperling makes the case that a fixation on stats about jobs or median wages discounts the human story of the economy. He says, “You will miss the fact that what crushes a lot of people’s sense of economic dignity is often a single moment or a single time when everything falls apart. And instead of us having a sort of economic dignity net to catch people, we see people lose their jobs, their houses, their health case. It is just not the case in other countries that a plant closing or losing your job is this devastating to one’s larger economic security and economic dignity. We’re taking baby or small steps there. The real question is whether this moment is going to compel a national movement toward a stronger economic dignity net and can a President Biden then seize that moment.”
That is, if there is a President Biden. But back to the book. In it, Sperling offers a statement that might come across as sacrilegious to many economists: “Economic growth by itself should never be considered an appropriate ultimate end goal for economic policy.” Can he sell this to other economic policy wonks? Sperling, the optimist, thinks so. He insists that goal of economic policy should be to raise up all people. A rising tide, he notes, doesn’t lift all boats: “Growth goes up and just goes to the 1 percent—that can’t be your end goal. If you look at rising wages, you might miss the degree of domination and humiliation people suffer at work.” Poultry workers are not allowed to go to the bathroom during their shifts. Female janitors face high rates of sexual violence. “When we see Amazon warehouse workers treated through micro-efficiency analysis and not recognized for their full humanity we know we have a lot further to go,” he explains.
One bottom line, Sperling says, is that people must have “the economic power to say take this job and shove it,” whether or not that can fit into a labor trend statistic.
But is he using his economic dignity catch-phrase as merely cover for the usual set of progressive Democratic policy initiatives? No, he says, explaining that he is attempting to establish a North Star or an overarching values-frame: “It’s not just about putting food on the table, it’s about whether you can be at the table. Be at the bedtime story. Be at the bedside of your parents in their final days. These are the things that are equally meaningful to all of us, regardless of our economic station. We should have an economic policy that allows all people to appreciate that. And we don’t. Economic deprivation denies people these basic life experiences.”
Sperling considers the “greatest dignity wound” for a parent is “to not be able to care for a sick child or a child with disabilities because they did not have full health care.” He believes that should be seen as a first-tier economic policy challenge. But he recalls that when he was in the Obama White House a member of congress—he won’t say who—once called him and said, “Can you get President Obama to stop talking about health care and focus on the economy.” This was a clarifying experience for Sperling: “I thought, ‘wow, not only are they ranking health care lower than I did, it doesn’t even qualify as about the economy.’ And the idea that the economy is a separate thing with productivity and GDP metrics as opposed to whether people can live their lives with this form of economic dignity—I think that was the moment when I said to myself, ‘when I leave [government] I want to step back and remind people…[that we should] focus on what matters most in people’s lives…even if they can’t find it in the most recent monthly economic metric.'”
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Sperling has consulted with several of the Democratic candidates on policy. He certainly has a relationship with Joe Biden and members of his policy crew. So how is he now counseling Biden? Sperling won’t tell. But with his book in hand, he does have plenty of public advice for Biden, should the ex-veep become the top dog in the White House. Keeping with the old adage that one should never let a crisis go to waste, Sperling notes that January 2021 would be a propitious time for a victorious Biden. Not all the jobs lost during the coronavirus pandemic will return. “That means the next president will have a mandate that is broadly shared to create the new jobs,” Sperling says. It’s no secret that Biden has been considering plans for a New Deal-ish FDR-sized presidency. Any major push for jobs will come with the opportunity to talk about…yes, economic dignity. It will be a good time, Sperling points outs, to ask these questions: “Is it right that people who care for our children, that less than one of ten of them can take a week of paid leave off for their own children? Is it right that health care workers don’t often have paid sick leave? Or that one in eight working women come back to work after a birth within one week?”
Here’s Sperling’s vision:
For now, economic dignity is an idea that Sperling eloquently describes in his book. He’s hoping that in several months it could become the guiding principle for a new presidency.