Gene Sperling, economist and policy adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, reflected on his professional career and discussed economic dignity in an event Monday coordinated by the Ford School of Public Policy and the Center on Finance, Law and Policy as part of its Policy Talks series. This series brings prominent leaders in varying policy fields to campus to discuss their opinions on specific issues. Sperling served as the director and national economic adviser of the National Economic Council.

Public Policy Dean Michael Barr, a friend of Sperling, moderated the event as an informal discussion. Barr spoke about Sperling’s impressive professional repertoire and history.

“Gene is a leading voice in progressive politics in the United States today.” Barr said. “…He’s been a hero to me in Democratic politics and policymaking for a long time. Gene has this wonderful ability to pull together deep substantive knowledge in policy with a great political sense of how to get things done and an ability to communicate with the public and the media that enables policy to become accessible to the public. I think it is an extraordinary gift to have those three sets of skills in one human being.”

In discussing his professional career, Sperling acknowledged there is often not a singular, linear line to success. After serving under Clinton, Sperling became a writer and consultant for the television series “The West Wing.” Sperling discussed how the dramatic environmental change from Washington, D.C. to Hollywood changed his life for the better when he met the fellow “The West Wing” writers for the first time.

“I sit in the open spot, and I turn to my left and introduce myself to the first writer on my left, and that is how I met my wife,” Sperling said. “The moral of the story is that the real West Wing is the best thing in my professional life, and the fake West Wing is the best thing in my personal life.”

Sperling said he admired Obama and Clinton for running their administration in a way that encouraged open discussions.  

“I think that feeling of having everybody around a table and letting everybody speak up, encouraging an active debate, not making anyone feel that they will be punished or hurt by disagreeing with the president … I thought that was outstanding,” Sperling said.

Sperling said he is currently developing his next book, focused on how and why economic dignity is a necessity which must be prioritized. He defined economic dignity as a concept that encourages refocusing the main goal of economics to address human need and wellbeing over economic indicators. He recently wrote an essay on this topic for the Democracy Journal.

Similarly to his essay, Sperling’s book will address the three pillars he has created to define economic dignity. The first pillar focuses on how every person should have the capacity to care for their family and have a good quality of life. This includes health care, paid family leave and a standard for bereavement leave.

“We need to think about the importance of life,” Sperling said. “Being there for your parents, being there for someone you love that has cancer, being able to spend time with your child. Those are maybe some of the greatest joys in life … And they are unbelievably economic.”

The second pillar of economic dignity addresses how the pursuit of potential and purpose should be achievable to every person. Sperling discussed how the United States is often seen as a place for second chances, but the way the economy is structured can prevent economic second chances.

“Are we a country that the accident of our birth determines the outcome of your life?” Sperling questioned. “This is a central assault on the dignity of so many people … This is not lack of value; this is often a lack of luck.”

The third pillar focuses on how every person should be able to participate in the economy while being respected and not facing discrimination and humiliation. Sperling expressed disgust for how people often suffer silently while they pursue their economic potential.

“If the price for you pursuing your potential was sexual harassment, it is a pretty big damn issue,” Sperling said.

Public Policy junior Pranav Govindaraju was excited to hear such a prominent figure discuss the concepts he has been studying. Govindaraju said he resonated with Sperling’s ideas on economic dignity and thought these ideas would be important to implement.

“When we talk about economics … we reduce things to an equation. We don’t really think about economics in terms of its actual social impact,” Govindaraju said. “Looking at economics through this lens of improving the human condition is an idea I definitely agree with.”


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