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Economic Policy Institute Names Economist Heidi Shierholz Its Next President

With Joe Biden in the White House and Democrats holding the slimmest of majorities in Congress, progressives have managed to put their economic agenda at the center of the nation’s political debate. And whether it’s a $15 per hour minimum wage, expanded unemployment insurance, or continued deficit spending to bolster the economy, there’s probably a pile of research from the Economic Policy Institute making the case for it.

The left-leaning think tank is more relevant than ever. The center of the Democratic Party has shifted on policy over the last decade, and some of the institute’s long-shot objectives, like a massive overhaul of U.S. labor law, are close to reality. The prospect of a GOP takeover of the House or Senate next year has made the debate all the more urgent.

Heidi Shierholz, EPI’s new leader, called it a “remarkable time.” 

“This is a moment that EPI has been kind of steadfastly laying the groundwork for,” she said. “EPI formed 35 years ago. In all that time, there’s just never been a time like this.”

Shierholz, a former chief economist for the Labor Department, was most recently the group’s policy director. She takes the reins from Thea Lee, who in May was named the Labor Department’s deputy undersecretary for international affairs.

Shierholz said she believed EPI, founded in 1986, was meant to be a counterweight to “the neoliberal consensus” that people are “paid what they’re quote-unquote worth.” If there’s one idea the think tank’s economists and researchers hit upon over and over, it’s that low wages and economic inequality are not inevitable but the result of specific policy choices made in Washington and inside statehouses. 

Pressure from progressive activists and unions, underpinned by research from groups like EPI, has pushed elected Democrats into more aggressive economic policy positions in recent years.

The broad acceptance on the left of the need for a $15 federal minimum wage is one example of that transformation. But so are the different responses to the 2008 financial crisis and the more recent pandemic-induced recession, Shierholz said. This time around, there has been much less hand-wringing about debt and more concern with achieving full employment. 

“In the aftermath of the Great Recession, we didn’t do enough and turned to austerity immediately,” she said. “It’s obviously very different what happened this time: Interventions on the scale of what needed to actually get the economy going. It’s been a remarkable shift.”

If there’s one idea that EPI’s economists and researchers hit upon over and over, it’s that low wages and economic inequality are not inevitable but the result of specific policy choices.

Shierholz and other EPI experts are often the ones Democrats pull into hearings to make the case for progressive policies. The group has been a prominent voice for the additional unemployment benefits that Congress passed to help jobless workers weather the downturn and that are now coming to an end. It has also spent a lot of time boosting the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, or PRO Act, Democrats’ proposal to make sweeping changes to collective bargaining law.

The bill has passed the House but doesn’t have enough support to overcome a filibuster in the Senate, where not even all Democrats are on board yet. Some lawmakers want to try to push through certain aspects of the law by using the budget reconciliation process, which would allow for a party-line vote.

Shierholz argued that no other legislation being considered could do more to reverse wage stagnation than the PRO Act.

“There is nothing that’s bigger, that’s more important to the kind of economy where overall growth is more broadly shared and not just captured by people who already have the most,” she said. “There is no substitution for that [bill] that could move the dial on the scale that’s needed.” 

Despite the tight labor market that’s boosting wages in many industries this year, Shierholz is doubtful that workers’ leverage will last without systemic changes like the PRO Act.

“I see nothing that makes me think that there’s been any sort of permanent change,” she said. “These pockets of economic leverage created by massive flux in the labor market, they will dry up.”

Former President Barack Obama tapped Shierholz to be the Labor Department’s chief economist in 2014, a role she held until the end of that administration. The Labor Department became a focal point for ambitious economic policies during the latter half of the Obama presidency, but some of it was done too late to matter. 

The Obama administration’s plan to greatly expand overtime protections to more workers was bottled up in court and then watered down by the Trump administration. Other policies carried out through the rulemaking process were similarly undone by the GOP as soon as Trump arrived in the White House.

There was a lesson there, Shierholz said, and one she believes the Biden administration understands. “If you look back, the biggest regret [was] stuff getting unraveled because it got implemented late,” she said. “There is no time to waste. You have to get moving on this stuff and get it implemented quick.”

Democrats in Congress may end up with only a short window to get things done if Republicans pick up enough seats in 2022, or their own most centrist colleagues manage to block the party’s legislative agenda. Whatever happens, Shierholz said she expects an ideological backlash now that so many progressive policies are on the table. 

“There are certainly huge pockets of resistance to the idea that rising inequality is anything other than just a natural outgrowth of the modern economy,” she said. “In any shift in thinking, there will likely be a backlash. It will be a big job of EPI to limit the damage done or the steps backwards that always happen.”

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