Dr. Clair Brown is Professor of Economics and Director of the Center for Work, Technology, and Society at the University of California, Berkeley. Prof Brown is a past Director of the Institute of Industrial Relations (IRLE) at UCB. Clair has published research on many aspects of how economies function, including high-tech industries, development engineering, the standard of living, wage determination, poverty, and unemployment. Her books include American Standards of Living, 1919-1988, and Chips and Change: How crisis reshapes the semiconductor industry. Clair’s contributions to the field of Labor Economics were recognized by the Labor and Employment Relations Association, who awarded her their Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010. Clair’s economic approach and life as an economist is published in Eminent Economists II – Their Life and Work Philosophies (Cambridge University Press, 2013).
In 2011, Clair began a field, Buddhist Economics, at UC Berkeley. Buddhist economics integrates global sustainability and shared prosperity to provide a holistic model of economic behavior and well-being. Her book Buddhist Economics: An enlightened approach to the dismal science will be published by Bloomsbury Press in February 2017.
In 2013 at UC Berkeley, Clair helped create a new program called Development Engineering, for graduate students in engineering and economics to develop their multidisciplinary skills for designing, building, and evaluating new technologies to help developing regions.
Using the Buddhist economics framework, Clair’s team is developing a measure of economic performance based on the quality of life, and estimating it for state of California. This index integrates measurements of inequality and environmental degradation as well as value of non-market activities and consumption to provide an inclusive measurement of sustainable economic performance to evaluate our economic performance and to guide policy.
My Formative Years
I probably became an economist when I was five years old, walking my beloved maid Nazarene to catch her bus.
Skipping along, I said, “I want to be Alice in Wonderland. It’s a great movie. You’ve got to see it.”
Nazarene replied, “Clair, I can’t go see it.”
Puzzled, I asked, “Why not?”
“’Cause it’s playing at the whites’ theater. They don’t allow coloreds in.”
Confused, I started noticing many other things that didn’t make sense – Nazarene’s worn-out sandals, her walking to the back of the bus after she got on, her drinking out of a different water fountain at the grocery store.
Nazarene gave me a good start in life with her loving care, her patience, and her wisdom. She also unknowingly taught me how the world set up rules that were grossly unfair, and yet people followed them as if they were fair and reasonable. Nazarene prepared me to question discrimination against women as well as people of color, and taught me through example not to take injury incurred through discrimination personally. Years later these childhood lessons gave me the courage to go into a profession that was not welcoming to women.
Growing up in Tampa, Florida, provided me with a supportive and safe community, and even today I stay in touch with and see my childhood friends, especially those from my Girl Scout troop. Daily I saw people’s generous nature with their families and friends and their mean-spirited behavior toward people “beneath them” at work and in the community. The male boss who was cruel to his African American workers was charming, admirable, and kind in his own social circle. The wives of the men who ran the city – doctors, lawyers, bankers, and business owners – treated their servants as if they had no feelings. These women were charming and gracious in their own circles and spent time doing volunteer work to help “the needy.”
Both my parents grew up in Tampa, and my mother felt at home there amid its old-time southern ways. She thought a woman’s highest calling was as a wife and mother. Fortunately, my father was a “Roosevelt Democrat” rather than a Dixiecrat. After graduating from Harvard Law School, he had gone to work in the Roosevelt administration until the United States declared war and he joined the military. My dad felt much more at home in Washington, DC, and eventually I understood why he felt like an outsider in Tampa.
Although I was studious in high school, I tried to hide this behind popular activities like being a cheerleader and dating football players. I knew I wanted to go north to college when I graduated from high school in 1964. My goal was to get out of the South. My mother insisted that I attend a girls’ school, so after visiting some of the Seven Sisters colleges I decided upon Wellesley. Even though I suffered culture shock, intellectually I came alive. Finally I had challenging professors and access to a wide array of ideas, and I learned to question and think. Because I found math interesting and easy, I became a math major. By my junior year, however, I was finding math removed from social and political problems, and was intrigued by the economic discussions of my friends who were economics majors. I started taking economics courses and quickly became hooked.
Meanwhile I fell in love with a Harvard law student, and we were married by senior year. This allowed me to live in Cambridge and take courses at MIT, and life was much more interesting in Cambridge. After graduation in 1968, my husband accepted a job with a major law firm in DC, and so I found a job as a research assistant at a think tank. The emerging women’s movement had not yet had an impact on my thinking. Fortunately this was soon to change. In many ways I was a budding labor economist because I looked at the job structure around me and realized that the only way for a woman to advance was to get a graduate degree. Otherwise she would remain an assistant of some kind to a male boss.
Becoming an Economist
I decided to apply to graduate school in economics, and the University of Maryland had the best economics program in the DC area. For me the most important part of the program turned out to be working with a superlative economist, who happened to be a woman – Professor Barbara Bergmann. Barbara became my teacher and mentor and role model, and her influence has remained with me throughout my career. I was also supported in my studies by Professor Charlie Schultze, who turned me on to policy analysis. Dr. Alice Rivlin at Brookings and Dr. Belle Sawhill at the Urban Institute also mentored me.
The Vietnam War helped women enter the economics field because when the draft lottery began in 1970 and graduate studies no longer provided draft deferment, the universities were scrambling to replace male graduate students who were drafted and others who decided not to apply. Joanne Linnerooth from Carnegie Mellon University and I had been admitted to the University of Maryland, but we were not allowed to work as teaching assistants, positions that were only for male students. Then suddenly this changed when the department had some empty slots. However, we were given a TA office in some attic on the other side of campus because, as the economics chair told us, “Male and female TAs cannot share an office.” Joanne and I ignored this and went to the large TA office and asked the male TAs if we could use the two empty desks. “Of course,” they replied.
With the women’s movement spurred on by the civil rights and antiwar movements, things were slowly starting to improve for women in academe. The Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 provided the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) with litigation authority to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Finally the EEOC had real power, and it began to enforce Title VII by choosing key cases, including looking closely at the University of California, Berkeley and why it had so few female faculty members. This turned out to have a major impact on my career.
As I was working on my dissertation, which would demonstrate that the higher unemployment rate of women than of men was related more to segmentation of labor markets by gender than to women making different choices than men in a well-functioning market, I was nominated by Bergmann and Schultze for a doctoral fellowship at the Brookings Institution and became its first female doctoral fellow. My year at Brookings was intellectually stimulating, and my understanding of how economics is used to make policy grew dramatically. I also came to realize that politics trumped economics in formulating policy. The public-spirited economists who continued to push for specific policies based upon their research needed to have a great deal of patience and fortitude.
In 1972 I confined my job hunt to the DC area because my husband, who was involved in local politics in Virginia, did not want to move. I was interviewing at various federal agencies and local universities when I received a call from Professor Gerard Debreu, who asked me if I would like to apply for a job opening at UC Berkeley.
“Of course, I’ll send my packet right away,” I replied without hesitation. I could not say no to Debreu and Berkeley, and immediately started getting ready for my first trip across the country. Another Brookings fellow and good friend, Steve Roach, helped me by providing feedback on my job market paper and my seminar presentation. Without his help, I would never have been ready for Berkeley. The trip went extraordinarily well, and I was immediately drawn to Professors Lloyd Ulman and Aaron Gordon, who knew Bergmann and Schultze well. Much to my surprise, I was offered the job. After some soul searching, I knew I would accept. However, my husband was running for Virginia State Assembly, and I wanted to help campaign for him before I left for Berkeley. So I accepted the job but postponed starting until January 1974. My husband won his race, and I packed up my books and bicycle.
Changing the Opportunities for Women in Economics
Being the sole female faculty member in the Economics Department was trying, and I was able to do my research and teach primarily because I was supported by key faculty, especially Professors Ulman, Gordon, George Akerlof, Frank Levy, and Michael Wiseman. The graduate students were supportive as well, and I worked with them, including the few females among them, and the Graduate Admissions Committee to increase the number of female admits. In the beginning, we had to educate the male faculty on how to judge female applicants. For example, an MIT male graduate with some C grades was admitted, while a woman from Smith with a stellar record was denied admission. When I asked a colleague about this, he said, “MIT grads are bright and do well in our program. Women don’t do well in math.” I did a comparison of the performance of the male and female grad students in the Berkeley program to show that women did at least as well as men. Slowly we made headway.
One of my undergraduate courses, “Women in the Labor Force,” had been created by Professor Myra Strober when she was a lecturer at Berkeley. I realized that I did not know the legal literature well enough to teach it, and I asked one of the leading legal scholars on Title VII, Professor Herma Hill Kay at Boalt Hall, to present the lecture. Professor Kay graciously came, and her lecture quickly provided the students and me with a broad overview of and deep insights into discrimination law and practice. I also had the students read “The Story of O” by Rosabeth Kanter, which explains how being “different,” that is, the only female or black in a group, makes the others in the group see you and treat you as inferior. Kanter’s conclusion was that the only remedy was to hire more women (or blacks). I took this advice seriously and pushed for the department to hire more women. During my second year on the faculty we interviewed a very bright woman from a top-five university. She made it to short list for fly-outs and was then dropped from consideration in the faculty meeting when we decided on the final candidate. The reason given was her field: we didn’t need another faculty member in industrial organization. The female candidate was hired by Stanford. The next year we hired a new faculty member in industrial organization. When I mentioned that we had decided not to hire someone in this field the year before, I was told, “We never hire on the basis of field, only on merit.”
Discrimination seems to work by our implicitly judging men and women by different criteria without realizing it. This hiring experience showed me how my colleagues could discriminate without understanding that their behavior reflected discriminatory social norms that they accepted and followed without question. I also understood that my department most likely would not hire another woman, and I decided to take action. I wrote a memo stating that the Economics Department did not hire a female in industrial organization one year and then hired a male in that field the next year. I sent the memo to Professor Kay and asked her for feedback. I followed her suggestion to send it to the EEOC and sent a copy to my chair.
The chair called me into his office and asked, “Why would you write this about us? We are nice people.” I readily agreed that my colleagues were nice and added that people discriminate without knowing or intending to do so. That year the department searched diligently for women to hire, and we hired two female economists, including Laura Tyson. Having two other women on the faculty completely changed the dynamics – Kanter was right.
We teach that every benefit has a cost, plus it is a cold hard fact of life that you don’t rock the boat when you are an assistant professor. Having the idealism of youth, I had not considered that my colleagues would be insulted and angered by my memo. After all, I knew they were following social norms and were not doing anything wrong by their standards. I only wanted the standards to change so women could be fairly judged. In the years that followed the EEOC memo, I encountered backlash from some of my colleagues. When I came up for tenure review a few years later, the department was deeply split on my case, and a split vote is a negative vote. I knew my case was controversial and also that I had some strong supporters in the department. The department decided to postpone my vote until the following year and advised me to continue to build my résumé.
I was feeling despondent about the stressful tenure process, which had taken a lot of time. To my surprise, female faculty from across campus contacted me because they knew about my work and thought I should be granted tenure. They formed a support group that provided me with invaluable advice and new energy. The graduate students in economics also actively supported my case and wrote letters for the file about my work with them. What had appeared to be an overwhelming and negative situation now turned positive, and I was able to have a productive year and navigate the system. The following year the department again had a split vote that went forward for campus review, which was positive, and the chancellor accepted it.
Confidentiality is maintained during the tenure process, and so I do not know much about my departmental review or the campus reviews. I do know that without the ongoing help I received from my supporters in the department and the female faculty outside economics, I would not have been able to deal with the process and certainly would not have been granted tenure.
Berkeley economics has always prided itself on having had a female faculty member early in the twentieth century. Professor Jessica Peixotto, known for her studies of household budgets and living standards, held UC Berkeley faculty positions in sociology and social economics from 1903 to 1935. At least four other female faculty members were in social economics, which later became the School of Social Welfare.
Since the mid-1970s Berkeley economics has been a national leader in hiring female faculty and admitting women to the PhD program, and more recently admitting minority PhD students when I led the department’s participation in the campus-wide program to find and encourage minority students to join Berkeley’s PhD programs. I am proud to be part of our department’s progress in becoming more inclusive, and I think that it has supported our creativity as economists.
Having been raised female in the South, I was keenly aware of how social norms affect one’s behavior and opportunities. I was lucky to be able to go north for college and to benefit from the civil rights and women’s movements as I was coming of age. I realized that one benefit of being a woman in a male world is to understand that discrimination is at work and not to take it personally. This helped me enormously during my early years as an assistant professor.
Balancing Work and Family
Meanwhile I had remarried, to a sociology professor, and had my first son, Daniel, in November 1980. I had put off having children until the time seemed right, when I would have more time to balance work with family life. Slowly I realized that this time would never come, that I would have to find a way to fit children into my life. Economists, being mostly male, did not share child-rearing responsibilities, did not say that they had to rush off to pick up kids from daycare.
One outcome of the national push for gender equality was maternity leave, which was granted at UC Berkeley shortly before I had my baby. When I went to ask my department chair, Bent Hansen, about taking maternity leave, he said, “What I know is that you can have twelve paid weeks off, and the rest of the semester you fulfill your work obligations without having to teach. Frankly I have no idea how to do this, so let’s figure it out.” I was lucky that he came from a European social democracy and was willing to find a way to make the policy fit our semester schedule.
Having my first child taught me the valuable lesson of saying no. Finally I could evaluate the seemingly endless requests to serve on an administrative committee, or review an article, or write a tenure review, sponsor an undergraduate group, or give a public presentation. Before I had children, I found it hard to say no because each request seemed valid and important to the people involved. Now, however, the opportunity cost was clear – less time with my child. I could evaluate a request quickly and decide whether it was worth accepting.
Although this provided me with a better sense of balance between work and personal life, I never achieved what I think of as a truly balanced life. My guess is that it doesn’t really exist, because being highly educated and goal-oriented, academics push themselves to the extreme. We always have one more question we want to study, one more lecture to polish, one more grad student to help, one more request that seems legitimate. My second marriage ended in divorce, and then I married a biochemist, Richard Katz, and had a second son, Jason. I don’t recommend taking three marriages to figure out how to make marriage work, and I feel good about having celebrated my twenty-fifth anniversary.
Having raised two sons together with two dads, I still wonder how I managed the very long hours. I worked before my family woke up, took time off for dinner and kids’ homework, and then went back to my own work. We relied upon a community of others – babysitters, preschools, K–12 – and I always thought of raising children as one-third my time, one-third the dads’ time, and one-third the time of others, who were an important part of my children’s lives.
When my students ask me how I balance work and family, I reply, “I don’t know ‘how’; I just do it with help from others.” Although policies have become more supportive for parents, a sixty-hour work week plus family time is a brutal schedule. Yet I would not give up either the intellectual or parental challenges and rewards. My sons were supportive by being easy and forgiving, and I was lucky. I am a proud and grateful parent. My sons are now independent adults: Daniel works as an attorney in Manhattan and is a musician. Jason works as a software engineer in Silicon Valley and is a long-distance skater and international Scrabble player. I have recently become a grandmother, which I think of as a reward for raising children.
Most academics I know today, both men and women, don’t want to give up work or family. Those who want a more balanced life often decide not to work at a university. More than one student has said, “Please don’t be disappointed in me, but I am not applying for a job at a research university. I want a more balanced life.” I respect this decision and look forward to a time when research universities find ways to be more supportive of family life. Fortunately many young male professors are more involved with child rearing because their wives also have demanding jobs, and my heart smiles when one says, “I have to leave to get my child from daycare.”
My Research in Labor Economics
Labor economics presents two basic frameworks: an institutional model, where social rule and custom provide the structure upon which market forces play out; and a competitive model, where markets are assumed to clear and provide efficient outcomes. I personally knew the importance of social and political forces in economic life, and I became an institutional labor economist, following in the long line from Veblen to Commons to Ulman. However, the tide had turned, and the Chicago school with its assumption of competitive markets that cleared over time became the dominant school, and institutional economics languished for several decades.
With the supportive environment that UC Berkeley provided for a broad range of methods, I was able to continue my work in institutional labor economics. My early research focused on showing that time and income were not substitutes in many household activities, and demonstrating the far-reaching impact this had on women’s use of time, on the constraints faced by one-parent households, and on the constraints faced by unemployed people on unemployment insurance. Concerned about the standard of living, especially of the poor and working class, I was drawn to studying household budgets. Assuming that families based their own sense of well-being on the social norms of their peers and friends, I used a relative income approach, which had been developed by Duesenberry but eclipsed by Friedman’s permanent income hypothesis. Following Marshall, I assumed that family expenditures could be divided into basics (necessaries), variety (comforts), and status (luxuries). I naively thought that if I could demonstrate that the rich used their marginal income for status, this would provide a strong argument for progressive taxation. Again my timing was off – during the Reagan years supply-side economics and reduced taxation were in the limelight. I was unable to get funding for the standard-of-living work except from the Institute of Industrial Relations at UC Berkeley, which has been an important source of both intellectual and financial support. Because I also worked on other topics that did get funding to support students, my book on living standards took many years to complete. When it was published in 1994, sociologists paid more attention to it than economists, and I appreciated Veblen’s feeling of being neglected by his fellow economists.
As the United States became agitated over the rapid rise of Japanese industry in the 1980s, I began studying the relationship between human resource systems and firm performance in the automobile and communication industries. This required fieldwork, which I had never done before. So, along with Michael Reich and David Stern, my collaborators in this project, I learned how to collect both interview and survey data from firms and workers. We confined our fieldwork to the United States because we did not know Japanese. At the end of the 1980s, we were approached by our former graduate student, Professor Yoshi Nakata, and his Japanese team to do a collaborative study of Japan and the United States. With Japanese teammates, the possibility of doing fieldwork in Japan became a reality, and we jumped at the chance.
Analyzing Japanese industrial relations was challenging, and so we turned to Lloyd Ulman to lend this expertise to our team. Since my arrival at Berkeley, I have never stopped learning from Lloyd, through our joint seminars and continual discussions, about how labor markets work. Lloyd is a natural mentor and teacher, with his real-life examples, four-quadrant graphs, and exactly the right insights without pushing for a certain result. Lloyd has provided me with the wisdom I needed at key times, and he gives his students unconditional support in their work. Once Lloyd told me, “Students do their best work when they are driven by their own questions and methods. All the professor has to do is provide feedback that supports and pushes their research along, even if it is not our style of research.”
Being out in the field provided us with a new way of collecting data through observation along with surveys and interviews. This hands-on approach provided a way of verifying whether our interpretations of large data sets made sense and our survey responses were consistent with observed behavior. Eventually in my work with Julia Lane using the Census LEHD data set, we came to believe that rich field data combined with large survey data yield the ideal form of evidence for studying specific economic activities.
After doing fieldwork in the United States and Japan in three industries, I joined the Sloan Competitive Semiconductor Manufacturing Program headed by Dean Dave Hodges and Professor Rob Leachman in engineering. I headed the human resources group, with the goal of studying how the HR system structured worker input into problem solving and process improvements and how workers acquired new knowledge and skills. We designed a detailed survey that included a firm-level questionnaire about the compensation and employment systems, and did extensive interviews with workers to understand how teams functioned and how workers’ daily activities contributed to quality, throughput, and cycle time. Working with engineers was a new experience for me, because my earlier work focused on women and less-educated workers. By studying mostly well-educated men, I could ask, “Does education and then a good job allow people to achieve a middle-class life style and leave labor market problems behind?” High-tech labor markets were undergoing a critical restructuring and so this was an opportune time to be studying them. As lifelong employment systems at leading multinational companies broke down and the companies adopted more market-oriented HR systems, engineers faced problems in changing jobs as they aged. Many faced lower earnings and even unemployment. Once again, institutions mattered – workers now had to take charge of their training and many had to accept inferior jobs as they aged. They could no longer depend on an illustrious career at one company. Now being put out to pasture seemed to be the norm.
Studying semiconductor companies also provided the opportunity to investigate how firms used global activities to gain competitive advantage and to gauge the role of start-ups in creating innovative new technology. I wrote a book with Dr. Greg Linden analyzing eight crises that we had observed the semiconductor industry deal with successfully, because we knew that crises would continue to define industry strategies and outcomes. With this book, I was ready to end my research on semiconductors.
Improving Undergraduate Education
In my semiconductor research, I had been spending a lot of time in Asia, especially Japan, and then China and India. Although I had not worked on poverty for many years, seeing global poverty renewed my interest in how I might return to research that helped improve people’s lives in less developed countries.
Finding ways to use our talents as economists can take many paths as we get older, and this is part of the reward of being an academic economist who is in continual contact with talented researchers from a broad range of fields. At this point in my career, as I approached the age of sixty, I wanted to spend more time on projects that would help poor people globally and that would not depend on outside grants.
The opportunity to extend my research to work that would have an impact on global poverty occurred by a circuitous route through campus service on undergraduate education. Teaching is one of academics’ cherished rewards, even if it is mostly hidden from view or evaluation. We watch our students blossom intellectually and see them develop their critical thinking skills and communication skills as we support their efforts and cheer their accomplishments. I was asked to join and then chair UC Berkeley’s campus-wide committee that oversees educational policy, and suddenly I needed to know the latest research on how students learn, how to assess their educational performance, and how to create support and incentives for faculty members to be good teachers. Fortunately UC Berkeley had Christina Maslach, the vice-provost in charge of education and learning, and she taught me as we worked together under Berkeley’s shared governance structure. With input from a broad range of faculty, Christina and I structured an undergraduate learning assessment program for the Berkeley campus. Each department developed learning goals for their majors and then set up a way to measure their majors’ performance in achieving these goals. We wanted the program to be useful to the departments and the students in evaluating progress without wasting faculty time. To make it efficient, we worked on how departments could embed the assessment in regular assignments, including tests, labs, problem sets, and reports. Meanwhile the move to extend standardized testing to college students similar to testing for K–12 began, and our alternative approach gained attention. I chaired a University of California–wide committee to look at learning assessment for all UC campuses as a means of improving undergraduate education, and after a year of evaluating many methods of assessment, our committee recommended that UC adopt an assessment approach similar to the one being implemented at Berkeley.
Time for Giving Back
On the basis of what I had learned doing educational assessment and my ongoing work with social enterprises that were transferring technology to developing nations, I finally had a way to link my research expertise to helping reduce global poverty. These social enterprises needed a simple and cheap way to document outcomes that would be useful in learning about their programs and would also give their funders and investors an assessment of their impact. These organizations operated on tight budgets and wanted to use their limited resources to provide services and save lives. I heard the lament that to scale their projects required impact assessment, and few had the resources or the expertise to undertake a useful impact assessment. The stories I heard sounded familiar to those I had heard when looking at educational assessment – too expensive and not worth the resources. I began a social assessment program called ReadyMade Impact Assessment and teamed up with a great group of Berkeley faculty and students. We are in the early stage of developing the prototype based on five pilot projects and using open-source software. Soon we’ll have a Web site for you to check out.
I am also working with my husband, Richard, who discovered a natural cure for bladder infections. I help collect and analyze data, and learn firsthand how hard it is to change medical norms – the way that MDs provide care. Although antibiotic resistance has been a top concern at the Centers for Disease Control since 1995, and up to one-fourth of women with urinary tract infections at college clinics have antibiotic-resistant E. coli, MDs stay wedded to prescribing antibiotics for UTIs. My own experiences have taught me that changing norms requires working with a group of dedicated and talented people who have patience and perseverance. We are slowly making progress with input from Professor Lee Riley, an MD at UC Berkeley Public Health School, and Dr. Michael McCulloch of the Pine Street Foundation.
Still caring about globalization and US jobs, I teamed up with Tim Sturgeon and Julia Lane to add a module to the 2008 General Social Survey. This led to developing a firm-based survey of the firm’s global activities and its US jobs. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the 2010 survey was made publicly available in 2013]] and hopefully provides data to help us understand how firms structure their activities globally and their jobs domestically.
An ongoing frustration for me, as for many economists, has been developing research projects that are both rigorous and relevant. Even before the era of massive computing power, the problem was addressed by Aaron Gordon at his American Economic Association presidential talk. With computerization and access to large data sets, too often economists think that in documenting economic activities, especially if they can cleverly devise treatment and control groups, the issue of relevance is eclipsed by the rigor of statistical analysis used to identify causation. However, the assumptions, which implicitly include institutions and norms, used in setting up the analysis usually prevent generalization of the findings to other situations. The question of relevance cannot be ignored, however, because with the transformation of the financial sector wrought by deregulation combined with information technological change, we are caught unawares by what talented and motivated people will do when presented with new opportunities, such as in the investment banking industry over the past two decades. Economists were caught shorthanded in their ability to predict and then respond to the major recession that occurred in 2007–2008 after the housing bubble burst. A focus on rigor has reduced most economists’ ability to analyze the bigger picture. In labor economics, we know that the observed growth in income inequality, especially during the recent period when the financial sector was taking home a large proportion of both profits and compensation, cannot be easily reversed with our traditional policies. We have not been able to provide policy prescriptions to reduce the huge proportion of compensation going to the top 2 percent of earners, while the bottom 40 percent see earnings languish. We have not been able to explain why the link between GDP growth and employment growth seems to have changed for the worse during the recent recovery in 2009–2010. As economists, we have our work cut out for us.
Even when answers are lacking, one of the rewards of being an academic economist has been to work on socially important problems, along with talented (and admirable) students and colleagues. Some of my close friends today were former students of mine, and they provide me with continual inspiration in my work and life. The year I turned sixty-four, I celebrated my birthday at my former student Teresa Ghilarducci’s place because I knew her work on pensions is instrumental in making retirement possible. Other former students – Peter Rappoport, who explains the financial sector to me, and Marcia Marley, who organizes projects for the poor and also helps keep the Democrats winning – were there. Another former student, Sandy Jacoby, became my mentor in understanding Eastern philosophy. Melissa Appleyard provides me with renewed energy and feedback on high-tech industries. The list goes on and on, with my gratitude to my students for enriching my life.
We all struggle with key issues – how to use economics to help society, how to keep pushing policies even when being ignored, and how to balance work, family, and community. No one has found the golden path, and yet we have found meaningful paths.
Growing up white in the South, I witnessed nice white people who were also innately racist, although they did not think they were racist and would have been insulted if called racist. Similarly, in my early career, I experienced nice male economists who were innately sexist, although they did not think they were sexist and were insulted when called sexist. Social norms are so embedded in daily life that they are hard for people to observe; they are taken for granted as normal, acceptable behavior. Much of my life, both personal and professional, has involved confronting and seeking to change social norms that result in pain for those disadvantaged by them as well as unspoken and erroneous policy prescriptions that stem from them.
(Originally printed in Eminent Economists II – Their Life and Work Philosophies (Cambridge University Press, 2013)).