Douglas Elmendorf, dean of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, discussed economic inequality in a lecture titled “Make America Fair Again,” sponsored by the economics department as part of its “Economics in the Real World” lecture series.
Elmendorf — who served as the director of the Congressional Budget Office from 2009 to 2015 — began his lecture by discussing what he believes to be the biggest problem in the country today. People have lost confidence in the economic system because of unfair practices, Elmendorf said. They have lost confidence for three main reasons: They are wrong about basic facts, they believe economic reforms have helped everyone but them and the economic system has failed to serve low- and middle-income Americans. Elmendorf dismissed the first two claims, instead choosing to focus on how to remedy the disparity between low-, middle- and high-income individuals.
Elmendorf highlighted what he believes to be the six most important ways to restore economic equality: empowering people through education and training, improving the enjoyment of low-income jobs, buffering the effects of globalization and immigration, continuing public support for low- and middle-income families, increasing investment in infrastructure and supporting regulatory policies that reign in businesses.
Through education and training, Elmendorf hopes individuals will be better prepared for a rapidly changing economy and will possess the skills needed for the modern economy. At the same time, improving the quality of life for employees in low-paying jobs will keep workers satisfied and increase the quality of their work.
Though he still believes that globalization and immigration help raise the long-term economic prospects of the country, he acknowledges that in the short term, many workers are harmed by these changes. Elmendorf advocated for a slowing of changes to better transition workers to these adjustments. Along the same lines, he called for continued public support for low- and middle-income families, especially while workers struggle to adjust to changes.
Elmendorf advocated for increased spending for infrastructure because it would create short-term jobs for low-income workers and would improve transportation for workers across the country, especially low-income families that cannot turn to other sources of transportation. In his final prescription, Elmendorf called for regulatory business policies with the goal of limiting monopolies, increasing competition and generally supporting consumers.
Despite his support of these policies, Elmendorf does not foresee them coming into effect in the near future due to political infighting and the policymaking weakness of the Trump administration, he said. Many of these policies were hampered during the Obama administration due to partisan fighting over specific details, he added, and these fights have continued to hamper overall progress. Furthermore, the Trump administration’s inexperience prevents it from using the right mechanisms to confront economic inequality, despite Trump’s populist campaign, which hinged upon rectifying inequality.
But Elmendorf is optimistic in the long run. Politicians will eventually end their squabbling over details and future presidential administrations will be better policymakers, he said.
After his lecture, Elmendorf fielded questions from the audience, largely focusing on the effectiveness of his proposed policies and the political realities that hinder them from being implemented. Elmendorf acknowledged that job training may not be successful for every worker, but will be successful in general, according to various economic research. When asked why these policies have been unsuccessful thus far, Elmendorf highlighted the press’ failure to successfully defend proven economic tactics, as well as the inability of the Clinton campaign to market economic reforms in a way that resonated with the wider population.
Attendees had mixed reactions to Elmendorf’s talk. Many audience members pushed him in the question-and-answer session, saying that he largely copied points from former President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton that had been political failures. Anna Bogdanok ’21 said that his talk was “relevant, but basic” and failed to sufficiently dive into the complexity of economic inequality. Emily Sauter ’19 agreed with Bogdanok, but added that “it’s hard to address such a huge swath of details in a short talk. He can’t be as thorough as you’d want.”