Change is coming to economic policy in America, or at the very least, to President Biden’s top economic policy body.
On Nov. 30, Biden and Vice President Harris named social worker and social welfare academic Jared Bernstein as an incoming member of the Council of Economic Advisers, one of the core bodies that advises the President on both domestic and international economic policy.
Bernstein’s nomination is intriguing because of what he is not. It’s often presumed that a terminal degree in economics would be a prerequisite for advising the President of the United States. Another explanation for the proliferation of Ph.D. degrees is that Council members almost always come from faculty positions in academia rather than a career in public policy.
Unlike nearly all of those who came before him, Bernstein does not share in a traditional economic background. In lieu of a Ph.D. in economics, he holds quite possibly the most unconventional academic pedigree in the history of the Council — two master’s degrees in social work and philosophy, as well as a Ph.D. in social welfare. In fact, he appears to have been the first member of the Council to not hold an economics Ph.D. since Kermit Gordon, a member of President John F. Kennedy’s Council in 1961. Gordon never received a Ph.D.
Of course, this doesn’t count Bernstein’s immediate predecessor, Tyler Goodspeed, the former acting chair who resigned on Jan. 7 after the insurrection attempt at the Capitol. Goodspeed holds a history Ph.D.; However, he specialized in economic history, and received his bachelor’s degree in history and economics. Meanwhile, Bernstein received his bachelor’s degree in music from the Manhattan School of Music.
Even without an economics degree, Bernstein, whose interest in social work focused on poverty and inequality, has had extensive econometric training. Formerly the Chief Economist and Economic Adviser to Vice President Biden under the Obama administration, Bernstein has also held senior roles at the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank focused on low- and middle-income workers; the U.S. Department of Labor; the Congressional Budget Office; and most recently, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
With his arrival, Bernstein and his colleagues will undoubtedly breathe new life — and a new way of thinking — into an institution that has been around since 1946.
Bernstein has argued how traditional economic beliefs — for instance, not allowing unemployment to fall below a so-called natural rate and avoiding high minimum wages — have distinct costs that especially burden vulnerable communities and blue-collar workers.
He has also pushed back against what he dubs “can’t do economics,” which tells “well-meaning, progressive policymakers why they can’t do the things they wanted to do.” For example, “can’t do economics” would argue that excessively low levels of unemployment would lead to high levels of inflation. Instead, Bernstein is in favor of “can do economics,” which promotes solutions like establishing progressive taxation and boosting government investment.
It is clear that for Bernstein, a background in social work and welfare has proven to be essential in making economic policy that works for the people of our nation. In a 2013 interview, Bernstein argued that after graduation, “Every economist ought to be a social worker for a few years.”
Of course, not every economist-in-training must now drop out of their economics graduate programs in lieu of a social work program. One needs to look no further than Bernstein’s incoming colleagues on the Council to see how others with traditional economics pedigrees have also devoted themselves to a similar people-centric approach to economic policy.
Cecilia Rouse, the incoming chair of the Council, has spent a distinguished career researching workers and the obstacles they face. Rouse, the dean of Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs, will also be the first Black woman to lead the body. Similarly, Heather Boushey, Biden’s third nominee, is the former president and cofounder of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. Her latest book discusses the consequences of inequality on the American economy.
Together, Rouse and Boushey, both Ph.D.s in economics, demonstrate that even those who pursue a traditional economics education are changing. In a field historically dominated by white men, these two women spearhead change as much as Bernstein does.
It is clear that Bernstein’s role on the Council complements those of his future colleagues. Together, Biden’s new team, if confirmed, appears to be the perfect cohort to bring about a new age of economic policy — one that harmonizes economics, public policy and social welfare.
It is a time of economic crisis for our nation. In Dec. 2020, the U.S. economy lost an additional 140,000 jobs, and the pain was concentrated especially for certain groups like Black and Hispanic women. The pandemic has proven that many are suffering not simply because they were left behind, but rather as a consequence of systemic barriers to their advancement.
It is time for change.
We need the social workers as much as the economists in economic policymaking. We need scholars of ethnicity, race and migration as much as scholars of public policy and political science. We need women, people of color and people who understand what it means to face economic hardship. So to all those who strive towards a more just and equitable future for our nation, I believe Bernstein, Rouse and Boushey’s nominations herald the beginning of a new day for economic justice.
AIDEN LEE is a rising senior in Pauli Murray College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.