Review: Economic Dignity

By David Gill, reprinted from The 313.

Gene Sperling was director of the National Economic Council under both President Obama (2011–2014) and President Clinton (1997–2001). Sperling is the author of The Pro-Growth Progressive (2005); co-author of What Works in Girls’ Education: Evidence for the World’s Best Investment (2004, 2016); founded the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution; has been a senior economic adviser on multiple presidential campaigns; and was a consultant on NBC’s The West Wing for four seasons.

Many of the debates and back-and-forth on economics focus on ideology, on a theoretical level. In one corner “capitalism” with its appeal to freedom, free markets, individual responsibility, and wealth generation – but with its “survival of the fittest” Darwinian kicking of the poor to the curb. On the other hand “socialism” with its appeal for government rules of the game to protect the (economic and social) weak and the natural environment, for fairness, social responsibility, and equality – but with its bumbling and inept regulatory burdens and just-as-corrupt political/economic leadership. Lots of reason to agree with Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle that economics is the “dismal science.”

Modern economics has become almost completely about numbers. So if the stock market rises to record heights—above 30,000 for the Dow-Jones Industrial average – the economy must be strong and good. If unemployment has fallen to 5%, things must be good. But what if you don’t own any stock? And what if those employment numbers don’t confess that most new jobs are paying poverty-level wages with no health care benefits? Remember hearing a story like this? Bill Gates or Oprah or Steph Curry walk into a restaurant and instantly the average wages of the people in the restaurant are quadrupled. Statistics can hide as much as they reveal.

Gene Sperling is as much of an economic policy wonk as you will find, having long experience in various government programs as well as independent research organizations. He reviews the numbers and respects their message as far as it goes. But Economic Dignity argues that we need greater clarity on our end goals. “Economic dignity” (not the artificial numbers) should be “the central, organizing goal of economic policy” (p. xv). Sperling argues that economic dignity requires three things. First, it requires the economic capacity to care for family; not just to put food on the table but to be able to sit at the table with family. Second, it means the capacity to pursue purpose in our work, to have first and second chances to fulfill our potential, contribute, and find meaning in our work. And third, it means to be able to work with respect, not abuse, domination, and humiliation. What Sperling has described are, of course, qualitative, not just quantitative, characteristics.  

Why should we think this way about economics? Negatively, not just the personal but the social side effects and impacts of failing to promote and enable such economic dignity are destructive and often devastating. Positively, aren’t these the commonsense basic needs and desires of all human beings? Look inside: isn’t this what we all need and want? Shouldn’t that perception guide our thinking not just about ourselves but our neighbors? Sperling explores each of these three pillars of economic dignity in detail and then reviews and explores what the pursuit of these goals means for government policy makers, for business leaders and managers, for workers and worker organizations, for schools and training programs. Sperling promotes government interventions and rule-setting like family leave policy, a “dignity net” (not just a safety net), minimum wage improvements, basic health coverage that isn’t employment-linked (in our free agent economy), improved educational opportunities not just in STEM and traditional higher ed subjects but in crafts and trades.

Some ideologues will scream “socialism” – but Sperling is not calling for a government takeover of our lives. Just the opposite, he is calling for some basic moves to empower and encourage individual initiative and responsible. Government is already up to its elbows in economic policy – protecting the powerful. Sperling’s recommendations are simply balancing the scales in the interest of the people at large. There is nothing in his proposals to suggest creating dependence or a welfare state.  

There is a lot in Sperling’s book to emphasize a view of the dignity of work, its importance in human life. He does not develop the philosophical, still less theological, foundations for such a high view of people and work, but they are lurking behind his arguments. His specific policy proposals are fun to read and reflect upon. But the main message is to make our economic goal the quality of human life – not just a set of abstract growth numbers. Economic Dignity is a great read, a thought-provoking, discussion-starting gem for all workplace disciples.

Author photo | Business Insider
Inset image | National Archives • TradigitalWorks digicolor montage

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