We must not lose sight of what economic policy is all about: allowing people to lead dignified lives
By Gene Sperling | Democracy Journal | Spring 2019
For all the things we find time for in the ongoing economic policy debates I have seen or been part of over the last 30 years, there seems to me too little reflection on the most basic economic question of all: What exactly is our ultimate economic goal in terms of increasing human happiness and well-being?
Indeed, in the absence of that more clear focus on an economic fixed star, it becomes too easy to start to see the economic targets, political strategies, and specific policy postures as if they were the end goals in themselves—as opposed to means to arrive at a higher end goal for lifting up human fulfillment.
Over the years, I have found myself stepping outside of the normal metrics that define our national economic dialogue to ask myself: What would a person on his or her death bed say mattered most in his or her economic life? That is the question that guides this essay. It seeks neither to explore highly technical issues of economic measurement nor sort out competing theories of social justice. It is rather one policymaker’s attempt to go out of the comfort zone of numbers to delve into this larger question.
At a moment when the very capacity of modern capitalism to avoid accelerating inequality, a hollowed-out middle class, structural poverty, and growing economic insecurity is being questioned—and even the role of work in a coming age of A.I. and robots is less certain—we should be stepping back to reflect on what is precisely the ultimate economic goal we aspire to. Simply put: If you live in times when major steps forward are needed, it is important to be clear on your destination—or at least to know the North Star that is guiding you.
My answer to the end goal question is what I will define as “economic dignity.”
I. Defining Economic Dignity
Like values such as freedom or liberty, economic dignity is a concept that brings with it great intuitive power, but usually lacks a rigorous definition. There is no shortage of usages of the word “dignity”—from showing grace under difficult circumstances (“He handled the rebuke with great dignity.”), to the basic respect all people are due by virtue of their common humanity recognized in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to the respect for autonomy of the individual that Supreme Court justices from William Brennan, Jr. to Anthony Kennedy have found embedded in the core of the Constitution.
In the realm of economic policy, dignity is often invoked with power and eloquence to refer to a higher, more spiritual impact on individual integrity and self-worth beyond dollars and cents—especially related to work, retirement, and civil rights. Labor leaders from Mother Jones to Cesar Chavez, and civil rights icons like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin, made clear that beyond the higher wages or better benefits that came with unionization or new civil rights laws was the sense of dignity won through those gains. A person’s race, gender, or lack of labor market power could no longer be used to deny her the basic respect, autonomy, and agency she should possess by virtue of her effort and humanity. From Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of Social Security in the 1930s, to Ai-jen Poo’s advocacy for a revolution of care more than 80 years later, as the head of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the notion of a “dignified retirement” has been invoked by countless political leaders. Former Vice President Joe Biden has, for decades, talked eloquently about the idea that a job is never about just a paycheck, but “your dignity,” while Senator Sherrod Brown frames many of his policies as promoting the “dignity of work”—as do job guarantee advocates like professor Darrick Hamilton. I identified “economic dignity” in 2005 in my book The Pro-Growth Progressive as the first of three progressive values by which we should guide and judge economic success.
This essay seeks to go beyond those invocations. It seeks to lay out three essential, interlocking pillars that define economic dignity and argue that it should be the singular end goal for economic policy and basis for policy prioritization. This definition of economic dignity is rooted inthe best angels of the American character, helps substantially explain how we have navigated our relationship between market and government, and can serve as our economic North Star looking forward.
Pillar One: The capacity to care for family and experience its greatest joys
An economic dignity compact must ensure that those who do their part are able to care and provide opportunity for family—and enjoy the greatest, most incalculable joys that come with that role. While complete economic equality will always be an unrealistic goal, what is both achievable and morally compelling is to protect the most natural equality: that while high income can make life easier, the greatest joys in life—the birth of one’s children, the companionship of a loving partner, the love of family and friends, and the fulfillment that comes from caring for and providing opportunity to these loved ones—must be available to all. And yet, while there is deep truth to the saying that “The best things in life are free,” the reality is that economic deprivation, discrimination, flaws in market rules, and gaping holes in the safety net deny tens of millions of Americans these familial joys.
Satisfaction of this first pillar no doubt means at least achieving affordable health security for all, a more secure retirement, and a dignified wage. Yet the extent of such provisions must be seen as evolving. Ensuring a quality higher education for one’s children has become more essential for economic security and mobility, so has ensuring such education for one’s children become a more essential component of economic dignity for parents—as it has become critical to the economic security and mobility of their children. While they were not components of FDR’s Second Bill of Rights, support for child and elderly care and paid family leave should today be seen as essential to this first pillar—an ability for workers to bond with a new child or care for an elderly parent lies at the heart of economic dignity.
Pillar Two: Pursuit of potential and purpose
Each American must havetrue first and second chances to pursue his or her potential. As Martha Nussbaum writes, “The notion of dignity is closely related to the idea of active striving.” Across the American political landscape, we praise the distinctive ideal that the accident of your birth should not determine the outcome of your life; that regardless of race, religion, or economic station—everyone should have the ability to pursue his or her potential. Beyond that, we celebrate second and third chances regardless of accidents of the economy, chance, and even personal error. As even a Republican President like George W. Bush has recognized,we idealize the United States as “the land of second chances.” In the early 1800s, the United States was unique in its commitment to end debtors’ prisons and define the need for early bankruptcy laws not just to prevent creditor-rushes, but also to give the debtor “a fresh start”—a chance to still contribute, pursue potential, and find purpose. This willingness to give second chances to those who were bankrupt astonished Alexis de Tocqueville, writes the historian Edward Balleisen.
Yet there are few areas where our past and present realities have diverged so dramatically from our ideals. It is to our deep national shame that these ideals often have not extended to the majority of our population for most of our history—through slavery, cruel and lingering racial discrimination, closed doors and glass ceilings for women, and the harsh reality that fewer than one in ten people from low-income families earns a bachelor’s degree. For those who happen to work in the wrong industry at the wrong time, whose factories close and communities wither, who struggle with disability or long-term unemployment, or who at some point engage with our criminal justice system, the American promise of limitless potential and second chances feels distant. We see this painfully illustrated in the rise of so-called “deaths of despair” from addiction and suicide. While they are often discussed as if they were two completely different segments of America, what sadly links the laid-off white Rust Belt worker in his 50s to the low-income minority youth from a dysfunctional school and economically disadvantaged community is the dignity hit of feeling denied a real chance to pursue his or her full potential and purpose.
Pillar Three: Economic participation without domination and humiliation
A definition of economic dignity must include the capacity to contribute economically with respect and without domination and humiliation. Without this third leg, the necessity, if not desperation, for employment needed to fulfill the first two legs of economic dignity can put workers at such a huge power imbalance that they can be forced to accept conditions that lead to humiliation, domination, abuse, and the denial of the basic joys of family.
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