Working with Jared Bernstein, Larry Mishel is the originator of the famous graph that shows the split between productivity and wages. Mishel is also notable for helping some important and good economists early in their careers. He’s therefore one of the people I am willing to give a tribute to on this site.
WHEN LAWRENCE MISHEL came to Washington during the height of the Reagan revolution, the options for a young leftist economist looking to make a difference were nearly non-existent.
“The liberal position was represented by the Brookings Institution,” Mishel told The Intercept, “which at the time was very free trade uber alles, hostile to industrial policy, not interested in workers and unions. The debate was between Brookings on the left, and [the American Enterprise Institute] and the Heritage Foundation on the right.”
And then there was the Economic Policy Institute, a new think tank designed to fill the ideological gap and shift America’s economic debate to the left. In 1987, Mishel joined EPI as a research director, later becoming vice president and eventually president in 2002. As his thirtieth year at EPI winds down, Mishel gets to see the Democratic Party finally move closer to the positions the think tank has always had. Now, he is stepping aside.
“The hallmark has been to center that an economy is only working if it’s working for the benefit of the vast majority,” Mishel said. “We hammered that every day.”
From the beginning, EPI elevated the daily struggle of those on the economy’s margins. Starting in 1988, Mishel and colleagues produced a biennial report, The State of Working America, with comprehensive data on wages, incomes, jobs, and wealth. The reports found a discordant trend in the economy: wage stagnation amid increasing productivity. Prior to the late 1970s, these two measures followed one another: as workers produced more goods, they made more money. When that changed, others made excuses for this bifurcation while EPI insisted that conscious policy choices shortchanged workers and funneled the gains to the very top, as evidenced by rising CEO compensation and the erosion of living wages. In other words, EPI argued, natural forces didn’t lead workers to their plight — those in power pushed them there.
If these themes of rising income inequality sound familiar today, they were practically a foreign concept at the outset. In 1994, Mishel and Jared Bernstein created a now-famous chart showing the split between productivity and the median hourly wage.
Much of EPI’s work under Mishel served to reject pernicious myths about the economy, hardened into perceived wisdom by self-interested forces. EPI’s research found that social and economic disadvantage, not failing teachers or schools, depressed student achievement. It refuted that high school graduation rates were collapsing, an alternative fact used to push vouchers or charter schools. It proved that automation played little role in inequality. It laughed off the idea that CEOs were paid nearly 300 times more than the average worker based on a competitive race for talent.
As Mishel steps aside, he believes America needs a broad set of policies to rebuild worker power, things like raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, empowering union organizing, ending worker misclassification in the “gig economy” to deny benefits and overtime pay, preventing arbitration agreements that limit worker options in a dispute, and banning non-compete clauses that stop workers from moving to similarly situated employers. These moves to strengthen worker bargaining power, collectively and individually, cut a path to robust wage growth for the 99 percent. “It will take bold proposals,” Mishel said. “If not, we won’t have a vibrant middle class, or a democracy.”
Mishel’s mission in 30 years at EPI was not only to identify the economy’s problems, but to demonstrate how to fix it. And he consistently brought complex insights down to a level of popular understanding, striving to reach the ordinary worker rather than the academy. The way he talked about the economy mirrored who he fought for. A garrulous man with a shock of white hair, Mishel cherishes that EPI has become a fixture in Washington, and that the poles of the economic debate have finally trended in his direction.