James Engell on the future of employment, prescriptions for economic inequality, and preventing the next financial crisis

February 2018. GrowthPolicy’s Devjani Roy interviewed James Engell, Gurney Professor of English Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, on the future of employment, prescriptions for economic inequality, and preventing the next financial crisis. | Click here for more interviews like this one.

Links: James Engell’s faculty page at the Harvard English Department | His personal faculty page at Harvard | His research papers on DASH (Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard)

For questions about this interview, contact Devjani Roy.

Growthpolicy.org. Where will the jobs of the future come from?

James Engell: Some will be the same as, or similar to, certain jobs today—let’s not forget that.  Yet, increasingly, jobs will come from new technology and—more importantly— from skills still uniquely human blended with new technology.  This is already happening in medicine and biotechnology, social work, legal research, design, and the execution of complex systems and networks that involve activities such as urban planning and public transportation, or the manufacture, installation, and maintenance of new, non-fossil-fuel energy infrastructure.  Many jobs will continue to be greatly reduced or replaced by automation.  The job that more American males hold than any other is driving a truck or delivery vehicle.  Surely, as just one example, significant changes will occur.

Growthpolicy.org. What should we do about economic inequality?

James Engell: Across the globe as a whole, economic inequality is declining, but within most countries, including the United States, economic inequality—measured by income or wealth—is increasing.  It’s clear that no one single action can fully address this.  It will take a combination.  Here are some:  Provide better neo-natal, infant, and pre-K health and educational opportunities that are truly affordable.  The cost is high but the payback is higher; it’s an investment.  Make more equitable the way we fund public school districts.  Rely more on progressive tax policy that does not favor those at the high end.  Increase financial aid at colleges, especially selective ones that can afford it.  Raise the minimum wage and index it to the CPI as we do Social Security (with variations depending on local cost of living).

Growthpolicy.org. How should we prevent the next financial crisis?

James Engell: Historically, bubbles and ensuing crises have always occurred.  I doubt we’ll be able to prevent “the next” financial crisis, for one will surely occur.  Yet, we should be able to delay it considerably, or weaken its impact.  How?  Regulation can do much, though financial instruments, new modes of speculating, and even, at times, widespread unethical and illegal behavior can outpace even smart regulations.  Try to avoid what are called “moral hazards” and the privatization of profit while socializing the costs of massive losses.  If there are bailouts, set clear and hard, lasting conditions for them.  Prosecute white collar crime vigorously.  Enforce sensible financial regulations.  Keep an eye on the size and interconnectedness of institutions, as well as the variety of financial dealings that they are permitted to make.  There are plenty of lessons from the Savings and Loan scandal and from the Great Recession, if only we heed them.

Growthpolicy.org. You have co-edited a highly regarded edition of British poet William Wordsworth’s Prelude of 1805. It is almost impossible to read Wordsworth’s poetry without noticing his love for the environment. As a humanist, what concerns you about the consequences of climate change today and its impact on our future?

James Engell: We’re not acting fast enough to reduce carbon emissions, to save species, and to build resilience into human development with regard to housing, security, food, and water.  Scientific statements and projections are inherently conservative.  As we’ve now witnessed many times, such statements and projections must increasingly be adjusted to reflect data as it comes in:  climate disruption is happening faster and more pervasively than previously stated or predicted.  There are positive feedback loops, accelerations, and tipping points that we cannot control.  In some cases we don’t even understand them well.  These involve permafrost, ice, bacterial activity in soil, ocean acidification, loss of biodiversity, collapse of ecosystems, and changes in the atmosphere—the list is long.  Climate disruption (which I prefer to “climate change” because it’s happening at a geologically unprecedented rate) is altering everything:  economies, where people live, flows of refugees, strife over water, food prices in many countries, and damage from extreme weather.  In 2017 one-third of total growth in the US was effectively wiped away by damage from extreme weather statistically outside the bounds of past norms.  We’re in for more of it in the future.  The poor will suffer most, here and in other countries, so this is an issue of human rights and responsibilities, too.

As a nation, the United States currently has no concerted, politically unified strategy to deal with climate disruption.  It is possible—as we now see—for a governmental administration at the federal or state level to ignore or even deny climate change.  This inaction is adding to intergenerational costs and heaping them on our children and their children.  We need a new form of species awareness—of our own species and of what we are doing to every species, including ourselves.  We—and emphatically our descendants, too—are in this together.  Eventually, there will be no winners and losers; there will only be a sense of global human success, or distress.

Growthpolicy.org. You’ve written extensively on British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who gave public lectures on politics, religion, the slave trade, and war. In what ways does the age we live in need more active political engagement by writers, artists, and public intellectuals patterned on the same model as Coleridge?

James Engell: Some artists, not all, become engaged and committed.  Their positions are varied and not always on the side of justice, so we need to be careful not to see artists, writers, and public intellectuals as always enlightened.  Yet, they often are.  What gives them this power?  They have read and experienced widely and have taken human suffering and diversity into full account.  They exercise imagination to project what might well happen in the future if we continue with our current habits and actions.  There’s a long tradition in many cultures of seeing writers and artists as prophets, not in the sense of predicting certain events at certain times, or as specifically religious leaders, but as seeing overall trends, the way things are headed, either in the near term or farther in the future.  Writers and artists often warn about the consequences of trends that go unchecked.  Almost miraculously, you can get a rare combination of someone who is a great writer and speaker, who has keen imaginative grasp of crucial issues, and who is also a practicing politician or public figure—Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rachel Carson.  It inevitably turns out that they themselves admired and often patterned themselves after certain writers, artists, and historians.

Growthpolicy.org. At Harvard, you teach a very popular course on “Growth, Technology, Inequality, and Education,” combining the perspectives of both an economist (Benjamin Friedman) and a humanist (yourself). What does sustainable growth, one that aligns economic progress with the progress of humanity, mean to you?

James Engell: It’s not a simple concept and its particulars change over time with technology, population, and conditions.  In the abstract, it means not increasing the costs that will be paid by future generations in order to obtain growth in our own.  But it’s hard to judge when we’re doing that, or the extent to which we’re doing it, because we can’t predict advances in knowledge and technology.  We don’t even have a great track record predicting world population.  Still, it’s a vital concept first widely articulated by the Brundtland Commission (officially, the World Commission on Environment and Development) in 1987.  In more concrete terms, sustainable growth means planning and building, manufacturing, growing, and producing always with an eye to the far-reaching consequences on the environment, as well as making every effort to reduce negative consequences even if their costs are externalities that one isn’t required to pay. (This is what socially responsible investing, SRI, in part tackles, too.)  The fact is, someone will need to pay them in the future.  A classic example are the externalities of fossil-fuel consumption (burning carbon) without a carbon tax; pursuing certain biotechnologies whose effect will be to reduce species diversity; cutting down mangrove forests to establish palm oil plantations; or paving over prime arable land.

Growthpolicy.org. Given the high cost of higher education and growing economic disparity, what changes would you recommend to the current system of education to prepare the next generation for the realities of the labor market?

James Engell: Do all we can to provide for need-blind admission and as much financial aid as possible, for reasonable rates on student loans, and for employers to look at the person, not simply the specific educational degree earned or the school attended (a tall order, but possible).  Question the increasing culture of absolute credentialism.  Stop requiring college or advanced degrees (just because it makes the job search easier) for jobs that really do not require those degrees.  80% of higher education is public.  Cap state public higher education tuition costs at a set percentage of the state’s median family income.  Involve private enterprise more in partnership with education while maintaining the broader, disinterested goals of educational institutions (difficult but not impossible).  Strengthen community colleges.  Develop more advanced technical secondary schools and make them attractive, their graduates attuned to new as well as continuing technologies.  Yes, I know, all this is a fantasy?  But if we don’t begin we’ll have even more economic disparity; we’ll be a nation divided between those with some college or a college degree and those without.  That divide is widening and it’s dangerous.  And the answer is not college for all.  The answer involves some of all the things mentioned here.

Growthpolicy.org. Your research interests cover the long eighteenth century, the long nineteenth century, all the way to the present day—a chronological span that coincides with the age of capitalism. What have you learned about the contradictions embedded within the capitalist system?

James Engell: Capitalism has done a great deal of good and has helped to lift hundreds of millions of people, billions, out of poverty.  Capitalism sure beats feudalism and communism when it comes to overall progress and social mobility.  Yet, it is an open-ended system that can bestow yet more advantages on those who already have advantages and leave some hard workers behind.  It requires regulation.  The greatest internal contradiction of capitalism is that left entirely to its own tendencies it will get out of hand and for many people will subvert its own benefits, especially if it’s believed that the free market can solve all problems and is always self-corrective, and that if one isn’t doing well economically (or can’t even earn a decent living), it must be because one isn’t working hard.  Capitalism can indeed lift all boats on a rising tide but, as with a complex shoreline, the timing of the tides depends what local harbor you’re in.  It’s possible for capitalism to exploit groups of people for long periods of time before genuine improvement comes for them.  To simplify, this is why unions were formed, and why government regulations have been instituted.

The trick is to find the way, socially and politically, to reap the tremendous advantages of capitalism—invention, ambition, entrepreneurship, competition, all resulting in longer, healthier, richer lives in the many senses of “richer”—without permitting the system to devolve into one that exploits some people as if they were things, rather than persons endowed with dignity and inherent rights.  Capitalism, the free market, and democracy are not an uncomplicated and absolute triangle of three points held in magically self-correcting equilibrium.  It’s possible for the first two to produce wealth in the hands of a few who then subvert the third.  That’s why Teddy Roosevelt was a trustbuster and why we have laws against certain monopolies.  In the end, well-informed citizens in their vigilance, critical thinking, and virtue must form the bulwark against the potential within capitalism to tilt the playing field in uneven ways and turn democracy into plutocracy. Still, I’m a capitalist.  My first job was in a stockbroker’s office, and I liked it.  My father spent his life in business.  I also remember that my grandfather was a union man, and that my mother and aunt were union women.