Why Economists Should Focus on Human Dignity
Gene Sperling, who served as an economic adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and frequently contributes to The Atlantic, has come to the same conclusion. “As someone who has had a box seat in the national economic dialogue for the last 25, 30 years, there was just increasingly something that bothered me,” he said last Saturday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “I noticed that there was a tendency, as time went on, to take your eye off the ball. You’re there to help people’s lives. You’re there to increase the happiness and fulfillment of real people.”
But, he said, economists and policy makers too often set their sights on certain goals—high GDP and low unemployment—that can disregard how Americans actually feel. To re-center economics in people’s lived experiences, Sperling proposed the adoption of a different goal: dignity.
Dignity should not be framed as a new metric to fulfill by checking off items on a list or to quantify with percentages and dollar signs, he said. Instead, it should be treated as a protective sphere akin to the Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment in the criminal-justice system: an assured base-level quality of life.
Economic dignity would mean being able “to care for your family and enjoy the most meaningful moments of family life, without economic deprivation taking away those most meaningful moments,” Sperling said. It would mean being able “to pursue your potential and your purpose.” And finally, it would mean being able “to participate in the economy without domination and humiliation.”
By Sperling’s criteria, he said, America is failing on all three fronts. Even as the unemployment rate in the United States is hovering near a 50-year low, the country has no universal paid-family-leave requirement to ensure that new parents have time to spend with their infant children or to heal after birth. No law grants employees bereavement leave with which to mourn loved ones and begin to piece their lives back together in their absence. The federal minimum wage falls beneath the poverty line for families of two or more. Officially, about 13 million Americans—and likely more unofficially—have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. The U.S. also fails to provide adequate support for people who have lost their jobs, Sperling said, and adequate resources with which to find new ones. Students are taking on crippling debt to go to college. In 2017, 12.3 percent of Americans were living in poverty.
Together, Sperling observed, that adds up to millions of Americans living without what he defines as economic dignity: unable to provide a basic quality of life for themselves and the people they love, enduring unfulfilling or downright exploitative work conditions out of a desperate need for money. And with the nation’s economic mobility in sharp decline over the past few decades, many workers and their families could remain mired in that state for generations.