What an aspiring black economist believes will fix the economy : The Indicator from Planet Money Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman is a rising star in the world of economics. Today, she joins us to talk about the collection of essays she edited, Black Agenda: Bold Solutions for a Broken System.

Black Agenda: A conversation with Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Hi, my name is Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman. I'm the editor of "The Black Agenda: Bold Solutions For A Broken System."

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

And also - I mean, for our purposes - an economist.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Oh, I mean, depending on who you ask.

(LAUGHTER)

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Some people would say that's a bit premature (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: OK, so not yet an economist - no Ph.D. - but a very accomplished 25-year-old graduate student studying public policy and economics at Harvard. And she has come out with a new book that she's edited called "The Black Agenda: Bold Solutions For A Broken System." It's a collection of essays from Black scholars and experts in education, climate, health and, of course, economics.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: I'm just really, really excited that the first book that I put out was a group project - one, because it doesn't feel like I'm alone but, two, because it also shines a light on some amazing Black voices that folks ought to hear from.

VANEK SMITH: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show - a conversation with Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman. We'll take a look at some of the economic issues and potential solutions she addresses in the book, like how the Federal Reserve can better help Black workers. Also, why, she says, the whole way that we look at economics needs to change.

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VANEK SMITH: So let's dive into some of the problems and solutions that come up in essays in the book. Of course, I want to start with the economics chapter. I couldn't help it.

(LAUGHTER)

VANEK SMITH: You knew this was coming.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Naturally.

VANEK SMITH: There is a really fascinating essay by Karl Boulware from Wesleyan University, which may not be super exciting for most readers. But I was, like, off-the-charts excited. My heart rate went up. And the title is "How The Federal Reserve Can Help Black Workers."

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yes.

VANEK SMITH: For a lot of people, the Federal Reserve is a very kind of esoteric - you know, it's like, they raise and lower interest rates. They give very boring speeches. It's like, how can they possibly help Black workers in the U.S.? So lay out the strategy that Karl presents.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: So essentially, he talks about the FOMC, which is the Federal Open Market Committee's statement on the longer-run goals and monetary policy strategy. The FOMC right now is being used to ensure that not only is the recovery broad-based, but it's also as inclusive as possible. And he cites it as a way to think about, OK, if we're going to ensure that, you know, we have inclusive economic recovery moving forward, Black workers are a really, really good proxy for that. So we can't say that the unemployment rate is dropping for everyone if Black workers are still very much out of work and their unemployment rate is rising.

So, for example, I think there was some chatter some time ago where people were saying, oh, things are improving. But then if you actually disaggregated the data, Black women's unemployment rate actually jumped.

VANEK SMITH: Right.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: So that's kind of what he's getting at where it's - you know, we don't want to say that economic recovery for some is economic recovery for all.

VANEK SMITH: So Anna, let's talk about another essay from economist Kyle Moore. It's about stratification economics. And traditionally, I think people think of economics as, you know, how to best allocate scarce resources. That's sort of the initial puzzle.

But from what I understand, stratification economics is a way to explain economic inequality that looks at how different groups of people are separated or stratified in a society. And the essay starts out talking about how we need to actually look at all of economics a little bit differently in order to address and solve these issues.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Absolutely, yes. I think that his essay is really shocking.

VANEK SMITH: Yes.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: And, I mean, the entire book is pretty shocking. It's just facts, to be frank. Like, the facts are pretty bad, so we need, like, way better solutions.

And his essay - I really love it because he lays out the facts in a very clear way. Like, this idea, for example, that, you know, the racial gap in earnings or in employment is due to some sort of education and skills gap is something that we should actually question, right? And this is very much where stratification economics comes from. There are structural factors that essentially limit opportunity from the very get-go. And so how do you then factor that into someone's, quote-unquote, "individual decision to maximize their utility"?

And so the way that he thinks about stratification economics is that he says, look - it should be used to evaluate the structural influences that impact the U.S. economy at the intersection of race, class and gender. And the economists that have really pioneered this who have sort of said, look - racial injustice is in the DNA of America. We can't just ignore it when we're talking about the economy.

VANEK SMITH: I also feel like it kind of looks at the economy more of - as, like, a living thing...

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yes.

VANEK SMITH: ...Rather than, like, a machine. And you put...

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Right.

VANEK SMITH: ...X in one side, and Y should come out the other side. But, of course, it's messy. It's like a living organism - all the good and bad that come with that.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: That's exactly it. That's - I love the way you describe that. The economy is living, right? And one thing that I loved from my microeconomic theory class was that, you know, my professor said, you know, not every efficient market equilibrium is a fair equilibrium or a welfare-maximizing equilibrium. And I think that that's a really poignant point, right? This idea of, like, yeah, you might have the market work out an efficient outcome, but that efficient outcome might be completely unfair to different groups.

And I think that that's what Kyle's essay ultimately gets at, that the way that the market is constructed currently, you know, the economy is constructed currently, is unfair to Black people. So we need to think about ways to mitigate that.

VANEK SMITH: And one really interesting solution comes up in the book, in the essay of William Darity Jr., who...

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: ...Is a very well-known economist, often called Sandy Darity.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yes, Sandy, Dr. Darity.

VANEK SMITH: He talks about reparations and an economic bill of rights. Talk a little bit about those two concepts.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yeah. So reparations, from the perspective of Dr. Darity's essay says, if you are African American, meaning that your descendants are formerly enslaved African Americans, then America definitely owes you something, and they owe you money, right? Like, this idea of, the entire economy was built off of the slavery system that existed, then segregation, then Jim Crow and arguably the prison system, the prison-industrial complex.

And so all of these things compounded upon each other have made folks who are not Black lots and lots of money. And that's why it's incredibly important that folks who are looking to mitigate the economic realities that Black Americans are facing disproportionately think to reparations as a possible way to do that.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. And he brings up this statistic, which is very stark, which is, he says one-fourth of white households have a net worth of more than a million dollars - so a quarter - and 4% of Black households have wealth of more than a million dollars.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yep.

VANEK SMITH: And he, like, directly ties this back to slavery, to the systemic racism in the U.S. and how that's played out in markets, in housing, in everything.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: And he also talks about, you know, the economic bill of rights, which he sees as a program of universal benefits guaranteed to all Americans. And so the way that he breaks that down is that, you know, everybody gets internet. Internet is something that connects us all, but it also connects us to opportunities, specifically economic opportunities. And so we need to think about bold solutions that address those disparities and get at the root cause of them.

VANEK SMITH: Anna, you put this book together. You gathered experts from all these different fields and collected these essays. I'm wondering what your takeaway was from this project.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yeah. So my takeaway really boils down to three words - oh, actually, four. Listen to Black people - seriously. Like, listen to Black people. And when I say that, I mean, Black folks have been saying a lot of these ideas for a very, very long time, you know?

And the truth of the matter is, the best outcome for Black people is a better outcome for everyone else, and that is the biggest takeaway from this book. Whatever is happening with the Black American community in the United States is indicative of what is happening to those who are most marginalized and, in my opinion, those who might become marginalized in the future. And so it's incredibly important that we use our policy solutions to gear them towards the Black American community to ensure that they have the resources that they need to thrive and live an incredible life in the American context.

VANEK SMITH: Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman edited the new book "The Black Agenda: Bold Solutions For A Broken System."

This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by our wonderful senior producer Viet Le with help from Isaac Rodrigues. It was fact-checked by Corey Bridges. THE INDICATOR is edited by Kate Concannon and is a production of NPR.

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