Lawrence Mishel is stepping down as president of the Economic Policy Institute. You may not have heard of him — or even of EPI — but it's a bittersweet moment for leftist economics.
Wherever the left edge of mainstream economics can be found in American politics, you will find EPI pushing the envelope. Support for a $15-an-hour minimum wage? Check. Compiling data to show that systemic injustice impoverishes minorities? Check. Arguing the economy's output gap is far larger than most realize? Check. Rejecting the idea that inequality and a perpetual lack of good jobs is a fait accompli of automation? Check.
Now, the entire team at EPI is invaluable, and you should be reading their all work. But the fact that EPI has become a bastion of the American left can't be disentangled from Mishel's leadership. As EPI vice president Ross Eisenbrey put it: "Before the Occupy Wall Street movement or the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders, there was Larry Mishel."
Mishel joined the think tank when it was founded in 1987 as research director and became president in 2002. Those three decades saw the final days of Reaganism, Bill Clinton's centrist third way politics, the jovially pro-corporate George W. Bush, the partially resurgent progressivism of Barack Obama, and finally the descent into the reactionary nationalism of President Trump. Throughout it all, Mishel's work has always been anchored in the value, needs, and experiences of the common American. "He never wavered in his steadfast belief in the value of unions — both to workers and to a healthy, vibrant, sustainable economy," said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, upon the announcement of Mishel's impending departure. "He expanded EPI's scope and reach, further deepening its reputation in policy, academic, political, and media circles as a respected voice for working people."
He also has a way with words. My personal favorite of his quips was during an interview when he called economists' talk of the declining skills of Americans "flimflam language." It was classic Mishel: a bit of blue-collar phrasing, combined with an unapologetic willingness to tell mainstream economic wisdom that it had things entirely backwards.
Mishel's critique of the economy has long been that inequality is not the natural result of workers' individual qualities. Instead, people in power chose to change the economy's basic rules to ensure that a small number of people would be paid a ton and a vastly greater share of Americans would be paid a pittance. In other words, inequality and wage stagnation was done to workers — which means it can be undone. The idea that the economy just can't productively pay some people decently is a load of, well, flimflam.
You see this ethos again and again in Mishel's work, and it's allowed him to make unique contributions to the public debate over the economy. He pioneered data points that are now lodestars in the modern economic debate, like the comparison between CEO pay and average worker pay, or the historic disjuncture between productivity growth and wage growth.
I've also just always found Mishel and his team to be personable, eager to flesh out ideas and arguments, and ready and willing to chat. Their yeoman's work creating user-friendly data presentations is invaluable. It's all part of Mishel's egalitarian and bottom-up approach to what economics should stand for, how it should be done, and who it should be done for.
Happily, while he'll be stepping down as EPI's president, Mishel will still be at the think tank as a senior economist. Whoever takes over his team will be inheriting an outfit that's grown into a media-savvy hard-hitter, arguably the most important liberal institutional voice in economics. That Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez just joined the think tank's board of directors — which also includes Trumka and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), the DNC deputy chair and Sanders ally — is a testament to EPI's reach and prowess.
So Mishel and the team he helped shepherd will still be out there, pounding home the point that every American deserves a decent income. And for that, we should all be grateful.