Changing the Economics Conversation

Economist Kate Bahn on the evolving world of feminist economics, labor organizing, and the new narratives of policy change

Income inequality in the United States has been rapidly growing over the past 30 years. So, too, are conversations about inequality, and how the disparities caused by race and gender discrimination exacerbate those gaps. 

Kate Bahn (PhD Economics 2015) is helping shape those conversations, with the bigger goal of changing what we think about when we think about the economy. 

“High-quality, cutting-edge academic research is really important to moving the policy narrative,” Bahn says. “There’s a big demand for narrative change work right now. We see a lot of people talking about big structural economic policy change in a way that it hasn’t been talked about before.”

Bahn is the Director of Labor Market Policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, an institution that aims to build strong bridges between academics and policymakers “to ensure that research on equitable growth and inequality is relevant, accessible, and informative to the policymaking process,” especially on issues around labor standards, gender inequality, taxation to business competition, wages, and innovation.

Translating complex concepts for a variety of audiences is a valuable tool for effecting policy and inspiring both real understanding of and sustainable change around economics. Bahn does this important work behind the scenes and publicly, publishing articles on key topics in economics in academic journals, Equitable Growth’s website, and major popular publications such as The Guardian, The Nation, and Salon

The Monopsony Framework

Bahn focuses on inequality across gender, race, and ethnicity in the labor market, care work, and monopsony, a condition in which one buyer has substantial control over the market for a particular good or service offered by many sellers. She can easily trace her current interests to her past work for labor unions and topics she studied at The New School for Social Research.

“I first got introduced to the concept of monopsony in my first labor economics class at the graduate level taught by Teresa Ghilarducci [Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis and head of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis]. She had us read the book Monopsony in Motion by Alan Manning,” Bahn remembers. “It just struck me as an intuitive way to ground our understanding of the labor market in a framework that can accommodate for power.” She went on to write her dissertation on monopsony, using it as a lens to compare labor and feminist economics, and continues to develop thinking on the topic today; this past October, she explained monopsony while testifying at a U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee hearing.

Guided by NSSR Dean and Professor of Economics Will Milberg, Bahn also completed an independent study surveying NSSR’s feminist economics literature and took one of her qualifying exams in feminist economics. She cites Dean Milberg’s support of her intellectual pursuits as crucial to her academic and professional development.

After receiving her doctorate, Bahn worked as an economist at the Center for American Progress, where she looked at how gender can inform what is valued in the economy, and the possibilities of creatively recognizing the value of gender in occupations or women workers. Since joining Equitable Growth in 2018, Bahn has shifted away from specific policy proposals and toward more narrative and explanatory work.

NSSR Alumni Collaboration

Equitable Growth also offers her the chance to work with one of the most influential voices on economic policy in the United States today: fellow NSSR alum Heather Boushey (PhD Economics 1998), who co-founded Equitable Growth in 2013 and serves as President and CEO.

“We have a similar perspective in our educational background,” Bahn says of Boushey and of NSSR, well-known for its heterodox economics department. “We understand each other. We can speak the same language. When we have conversations at work about narrative change and consensus building, we ask questions like, ‘How do you change the economics profession in order to change economic policy?’ We both fly into talking about philosophy of science or political economy or recognizing that there are multiple schools of thought in economics.” Bahn and Boushey recently co-authored the article “Women’s Work-Life Economics” for LERA Perspectives on Work, a magazine published by the Labor and Employment Relations Association.

Heather Boushey returned to NSSR in 2016 to deliver her talk,
“The Political Economy of Time and Work-Life Conflict”

Who Gets to Be an Economist?

Bahn also challenges traditional ideas surrounding economics and gender in another narrative space: on Twitter, as @LipstickEcon. “I do think the question of what it’s like to be a woman in economics in this moment is important, but it’s a little bit complicated,” she says. In addition to the harassment that women in economics face, gender and concepts of gender influence what is considered good economics research and who is largely considered to be worthwhile subjects. 

“I’m a particularly feminine-presenting woman in economics, I don’t fit the typical mold of an economist. I still demand to be taken seriously,” she says. “The work I do [as Executive Vice President and Secretary of] the International Association for Feminist Economics (IAFFE) — which is also very related to the broad range of schools of thought I was exposed to in economics at The New School — is about realizing that there is more than one way to do economics, and that there are some ingrained biases in what I would call mainstream economics towards a particular viewpoint.” 

Tackling major structural change within the economy and within the economics field is tough work. But as Bahn understands it, these are the conversations that matter most — and are the ones most worth having. 

Photo: BriAnne Wills, Girls and Their Cats