PHILADELPHIA – Most of the economists had packed up their equations and trudged for the bars, through heated atria and snowbanks and a herd of exhausted graduate students in suits. It was January and the sun had dropped behind Ben Franklin’s statue. Heather Boushey lingered in a ballroom on the 33rd floor of a hotel tower, cornering stragglers and being cornered, looking for people to help her solve some of her big questions.
She’d come dangling money, or at least the promise of it. That helped her stand out among the several thousand researchers gathered for the annual just-after-New-Year’s meeting of all the big American economic societies. She was offering grants, and jobs, and a blend of academic idealism and Washington strategy. What she wanted, Boushey said, was to fund an intellectually honest investigation of arguably the hottest issue in American economics right now: the widening gap between the richest Americans and everyone else. She wanted to learn more how and why that gap might hurt the nation’s overall economic performance.
Six months later, it’s not clear she succeeded. But it’s early yet.
At that January conference, Boushey was newly installed as the head of a start-up Washington think tank, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, which had been spun out of an existing, quite identifiably liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress, which, like a lot its peers in Washington, was known for supplying analysis to partisan policy disputes. Boushey is a former CAP economist who has testified many times before Congress, often at the request of Democrats, speaking in favor of policies Democrats generally support. The equitable growth center is funded in large part by the Sandler Foundation, which traditionally backs liberal causes.
But in Philadelphia, as she worked the sidelines of far-flung conference rooms, Boushey was hoping to sign up an ideologically diverse cross-section of thinkers to her effort.
The grant recipients, she explained, would examine questions of inequality and growth from every possible angle, liberal and conservative. They’d report what was true and what wasn’t. Her think tank would live with the findings, whatever they might be.
“We are new and different,” she told an afternoon panel in the ballroom on the 33rd floor. “Our key motivating questions – in terms of what we are thinking about – are (about) how the growth of inequality is changing our country.” A few moments later she added “Every time I feel like I come to an answer, I realize there’s a whole other body of literature” to explore.
Six months later, Boushey and the center have selected their first frontiers of inquiry. They’ve awarded 15 grants, totaling nearly $500,000, to researchers studying how three channels through which inequality might affect growth: human capital (the skills and talents people bring to the economy), consumer demand (who buys what, and how much of it) and changes in government and labor market institutions (public policy, broadly speaking).
The grantees include research on whether policy could nudge poor and middle-class families to better manage debt, how inequality affects pre-school children as they build skills and the effects of progressive taxation on innovation and growth. In one of the more hands-on projects, University of California-Hastings College of the Law professor Joan Williams will study scheduling practices for hourly workers at The Gap, asking if certain schedules lead to more economic stability and upward mobility.
There are no identifiably conservative economists among the grantees, however. There are a lot of well-renowned economists, and a lot of promising recent graduates of doctoral programs, but not the ideological diversity Boushey repeatedly said in Philadelphia that she was looking for.
“I am hopeful that we can figure out ways,” to get a more ideologically diverse applicant pool for the next round of grants, Boushey said this week. “We are certainly going to try to engage.”
No conservative economists applied for grants, among the 70 submissions the center received, Boushey said. Perhaps that’s because the center has, in its early months of existence, engaged in some high-profile blog-and-social-media fights with conservatives over questions of data and policy when it comes to inequality. Perhaps it’s because it’s relatively rare in Washington for liberal and conservative thinkers to team up to pursue big questions – especially ones that, depending on the answer, could shake party platforms or basic ideological beliefs.
It’s also true, in this case, that a lot of conservative economists have already decided that inequality – as opposed to mobility or the even broader “economic opportunity” – isn’t a problem.
This is the real challenge posed faced by Boushey, and her center, and the work that will now begin thanks to their grants: If most of the research into an economic issue is being conducted from one side of a political debate, consumers of that research could – and should – look skeptically on its conclusions, until persuaded otherwise. The burden is on the researchers, on their data and the stories they tell from it.
It’s a heavy burden. It would help to have a more diverse group of thinkers shouldering it.