A Job for Everyone? This 21st-Century Keynes Says It's Possible

Monday, September 17, 2018
Ozy

If there’s some future day when the federal government guarantees a quality job to everyone who wants one, an increasingly popular notion as we arrive at the 10-year anniversary of the global financial crisis, historians can trace the program back to a guy who plays the blues harmonica.

William Darity Jr. is an economist and the director of Duke University’s Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity. If you ask him about his musical proclivities, you’ll get a glimpse of his winning smile, bracketed by deep creases on either side of his mouth, and he might tell you that he’s performed with blues bands at festivals and at too many bars to count.

But he’s better known as someone who has authored or co-authored hundreds of economics journal articles, not to mention a macroeconomics textbook. And even more striking than the volume of this musically minded economist’s scholarly output are the questions he’s chosen to explore.

Darity has published papers on skin-shade gradient and unemployment, and on the desegregation of the economics department at MIT, his alma mater. He is a vocal proponent of reparations for Black Americans, and in late 2016 he wrote in The Atlantic a criticism of Barack Obama’s unwillingness, on political grounds, to support a reparations program.

Darity’s devotion to equity and racial justice is rooted in his childhood. His mother grew up in Wilson, North Carolina, which sits 40 miles east of Raleigh along Interstate 95, and when he was a child, his family made regular visits there to see his grandmother. He observed the town was clearly divided by railroad tracks: White people on one side, Black people on the other. While he noticed the divide in living conditions on either side of the tracks, he also observed that not all White folks and Black folks had the same standard of living as one another.

His own life circumstances, meanwhile, were quite comfortable, and he concluded that was the upshot of having been born to successful parents. “If the only reason why you really have the opportunity to start life in a more comfortable place is because of which family you’re born into, then it’s ultimately a matter of serendipity,” Darity says.

From the time he was a child, that troubled him.

Fast-forward half a century and he has an impressive record of devising and advocating for policies that would give a leg up to folks who did not win the birth lottery. “He’s about big and bold ideas,” says Bruce Orenstein, Darity’s colleague at the Cook Center and an award-winning filmmaker who’s currently documenting discriminatory practices in the mortgage industry. Even as they research distressing topics, Orenstein says his colleague remains laid-back. And he always knows when Darity is in the office, because of his distinctive, joyful laugh: “It makes me want to get up out of my seat and go down the hall.”

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