A sampler of MIT research on work and economic equity

Research to Policy

Basic research in the humanities, arts, and social science fields is the engine for the School's capacity to effect positive change around the globe. The research of MIT's social scientists informs policymaking in many areas, including healthcare, poverty alleviation, the environmnent and climate, education, energy, food and water, elections, security, and economic well-being and equity.


How to succeed in the innovation era | Daron Acemoglu
In an article in The New York Times, MIT economist Daron Acemoglu says that to succeed in the innovation era we need to build institutions that help us stay flexible in the midst of turbulent lives, including a stronger safety net that enables us to take entrepreneurial, educational, and career risks; because a society that encourages risk will intrinsically be wealthier over all.
Article in the New York Times

Income inequality is costing the U.S. on social issues | Heidi Williams
This New York Times article on the possible public health ramifications of rising inequality cites research by MIT economist Heidi Williams that finds a connection between infant mortality and “excess inequality.”
Article at The New York Times

Incremental reforms could make capitalism a more equitable system | Kathleen Thelen
In Varieties of Liberalization and the New Politics of Social Solidarity, MIT political scientist Kathleen Thelen examines contemporary changes in labor market institutions in the United States, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands, focusing on developments in three arenas: industrial relations, vocational education and training, and labor market policy. Thelen finds that there are distinct varieties of liberalization associated with very different distributive outcomes.
About the book | Interview with Thelen

Caught in the social safety net | Andrea Campbell
Campbell gives a firsthand perspective on the effects of means-tested social insurance programs. “Work has a high cost, because as you start earning income, you lose eligibility for programs,” Campbell says, noting that for everyone without a remarkable long-term care insurance policy, long-term services and support are “extraordinarily expensive, beyond [their] means.” To change that dynamic, Campbell thinks we should either raise the asset threshold or drop means-testing.
Story at MIT News | Commentary in The New York Times

Understanding the growing inequality in the U.S. | Christine Walley
"If you want to understand the expanding class inequality in the United States, one of the places you have to look is the long-term impact of deindustrialization. We have to think historically about how we got into this position and how we can come out of it.” 

In 1980, Christine Walley’s world was turned upside down when the steel mill in Southeast Chicago where her father worked closed abruptly. In the ensuing years, thousands of other area residents would also lose their jobs in the mills—one example of the vast deindustrialization occurring across the U.S. The disruption propelled Walley into a career as a cultural anthropologist. In her book, Exit Zero, MIT anthropologist Christine Walley brings her anthropological perspective home, examining the human cost of deindustrialization in the American heartland.

Story + Video  |  About the Exit Zero Project  | Trailer for Exit Zero video


What is the impact of deindustrialization in the U.S. — on American lives, families, and communities?  

Nobel laureate: Long path to economic renewal, but energy innovation could help
Robert Solow, Professor of Economics emeritus says investments in energy and infrastructure could help revive the economy.
Story by Peter Dizikes at MIT News

All the difference in the world | Daron Acemoglu
In a recent book, economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson assert that above all else, political institutions — not culture or natural resources — determine the wealth of nations.
Story by Peter Dizikes at MIT News

Keep calm, robots aren’t about to take your job  | David Autor
This WSJ article profiles MIT economist David Autor’s research on automation and employment, finding that American workers have little to fear from advances in current technology.
Story at Wall Street Journal

When (and where) work disappears
Study: Overseas manufacturing competition hits U.S. regions hard, leaving workers unemployed for years and local economies struggling. 

Inequality offensive
At MIT forum, economists evaluate the consequences of increasing inequality in America, and suggest solutions.
Story by Peter Dizikes at MIT News

Education really does reduce inequality | David Autor
This article cites MIT economist David Autor, whose research indicates that an increase in wages for the top 1% between 1980 and 2005, if divided among the bottom 99%, would provide each household about $7,000 in additional income.
Article at the Wall Street Journal


MIT PIE Report released | Making in America by Suzanne Berger

America is the world leader in innovation, but many of the innovative ideas that are hatched in American start-ups, labs, and companies end up going abroad to reach commercial scale. When innovation does not find the capital, skills, and expertise it needs to come to market in the United States, what does it mean for economic growth and job creation? Inspired by the MIT Made in America project of the 1980s, Making in America brings experts from across MIT to focus on a critical problem for the country.  

The PIE commission found that potentially valuable innovations occur throughout the advanced manufacturing sector—from academic labs to shop floors—and in companies of all sizes, from multinational conglomerates to specialized “Main Street” firms. However, there are holes in the “ecosystem” of advanced manufacturing in the United States—gaps that particularly inhibit innovative smaller firms. The report suggests that new policies, partnerships and programs can help create innovation-based growth and jobs. Many of the results are detailed in Making in America (MIT Press, 2013), written by Suzanne Berger, with the PIE Task Force. Berger is the Raphael Dorman-Helen Starbuck Professor of Political Science, and a co-chair of the MIT PIE Commission.  

Story at MIT News  |  Making in America (MIT Press, 2013) |  3Q with Suzanne Berger |  Slice of MIT 


On the state of the American dream | Solow
This U.S. News article on inequality and middle-class stagnation quotes MIT economist Robert Solow, who says, “evidence of the importance of the digital revolution is everywhere except in the productivity numbers.”
Story at US News

The American worker | David Autor
In 1979, middle-skill jobs accounted for 57 percent of the jobs in the U.S. economy, according to calculations by David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. By 2009, the share was down to 46 percent.
Story at the Washington Post | Autor webpage


Economy in Society: Essays in Honor of Michael J. Piore | MIT Press, 2012
In Economy in Society, five prominent social scientists honor Michael J. Piore, MIT Professor of Political Science, in original essays that explore key topics in Piore’s work and make significant independent contributions in their own right. Piore is distinctive for his original research that explores the interaction of social, political, and economic considerations in the labor market and in the economic development of nations and regions. The essays in this volume reflect this rigorous interdisciplinary approach to important social and economic questions.

Working in America | Michael Piore

The American labor market faces many deep-rooted problems, including persistence of a large low-wage sector, worsening inequality in earnings, employees' lack of voice in the workplace, and the need of employers to maximize flexibility. This book traces today's labor-market policy and laws back to the New Deal and to a second wave of social regulation that began in the 1960s.

Big Mac test shows job market is not distributing wealth
If the job market — that most critical institution of capitalist societies, the principal vehicle to distribute the nation’s wealth among its people — cannot keep hardworking people out of poverty and spread prosperity more broadly, how will it be done? Article quotes MIT economist David Autor.
Story at the New York Times

The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America | Heather Paxson
An anthropological study of American artisanal cheese and the people who make it. Cheese is alive, and alive with meaning. This study tells the story of how craftwork has become a new source of cultural and economic value for producers as well as consumers. By exploring the life of cheese, Paxson helps rethink the politics of food, land, and labor today.

Life of Cheese websiteUniversity of California Press  |  Video: Paxson on artisan cheese



Is labor’s share of income declining? | Piketty and Rognlie
Questions about the analysis of former MIT economics faculty Thomas Piketty are explored in the Wall Street Journal, including those raised by current MIT economics graduate student Matthew Rognlie.
Story at the Wall Street Journal

Why do people earn what they earn? | David Autor
"As MIT economist David Autor notes in a new paper, leaders in the late 1800s and early 1900s, particularly in the farm states, anticipated the coming tectonic shift in the economy and worked to prepare the population for it."
Story at The Boston Globe

Why do women leave engineering?
Study: Group dynamics of teamwork and internships deter many women in the profession.
Story at MIT News

What can be done about income inequality? | Robert Solow
Redistributing income with taxes and transfers is largely failing to close the income gap. Perhaps it’s time to try a corporate approach.
Story at the New York Times

Workplace diversity can help the bottom line | Sara Ellison
MIT economist scrutinizes firm data suggesting diverse offices function more effectively.
Story by Peter Dizkies at MIT News

What’s the future of wealth — and inequality? | Thomas Piketty
At MIT, “rock star” economist Thomas Piketty presents and defends work on inequality. Piketty has longstanding MIT ties: He was an assistant professor at the Institute from 1993 to 1995, and returned as a visiting professor in the 2000-2001 academic year. He has also co-authored articles with multiple MIT scholars.
Story at MIT NewsRelated from The Guardian: Why is Piketty's book a bestseller?

Q&A | U.S. inequality issues among the “99 percent”
In an article in Science, MIT economist David Autor moves the U.S. inequality discussion beyond the 1% vs. 99% comparison. In the long run, he says, "the best policies we have to combat inequality involve investing in our citizenry. Higher education, and public education, is America’s best idea. Those investments also include preschool, good primary and secondary schools, and adequate nutrition and health care."
Story by Peter Dizikes at MIT News


Labor Day parade, New York City 1909; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Is the American middle class losing out to China and India?
Entering the fray, three economists — David Autor of MIT, David Dorn of the Center for Monetary and Financial Studies in Spain, and Gordon Hanson of the University of California, San Diego — have analyzed the employment consequences of globalized trade and technological advance.
Story at The New York Times

A tangled fate of prosperity and struggle | Daron Acemoglu
For MIT Economist Acemoglu, the co-author of Why Nations Fail, the split personality of these years of crisis and recovery is “no puzzle.” “The United States is still the most innovative country in the world,” he said. The problem, he says, is that the innovations produced by the thriving set don’t necessarily translate into jobs for struggling people.
Story at The New York Times

Ten Ways to Get Serious About Rising Inequality | Peter Diamond, Emmanual Saez
From point 4 of 10: "In a 2011 paper that sparked an interesting debate, Peter Diamond, Professor of Economics emeritus, and Emmanuel Saez of Berkeley [MIT PhD in Economics '99] argued that, based on the costs and benefits to society as a whole, [the top tax rate] should be set at seventy-three per cent—a bit below the level in the nineteen-fifties, but well above today's rate."
Article in The New Yorker

3 Questions | Benjamin Olken on the economic impact of climate change
How is climate change going to affect our economic activity in the future? MIT economist Ben Olken has co-authored a new survey on the burgeoning research about the effects of the changing climate. 

"There has been a lot of emphasis on studying the effects of climate change on agriculture. But if it’s affecting other aspects of the economy — like industrial output, investment, and innovation — the long-run impact could be much bigger."

Ben Olken, MIT Professor of Economics

Polarized labor market shifting more American employees to low skill, low growth jobs
New study by MIT economist David Autor, and economist David Dorn, reveals the U.S. job market is shifting more workers into positions with limited upside, leverage, and rewards. 

A new path for growth | Ben Ross Schneider
In Hierarchical Capitalism in Latin America, MIT political scientist Ben Ross Schneider sets out an agenda for growth with greater equality in Latin America. Schneider is Ford International Professor of Political Science and director of the MIT-Brazil program. 

3 Questions: David Autor on global trade and political polarization
Study finds relationship between U.S. job losses due to trade, and political polarization in Congress.
Story at MIT News

When giants slow down | Acemoglu, Autor, Price 
The most dramatic, and disruptive, period of emerging-market growth the world has ever seen is coming to its close. MIT's Daron Acemoglu, David Autor, Brendan Price, and others argue that the sag in employment growth in America in the 2000s is traceable in large part to the country's unreciprocated taste for Chinese imports.

Venerable Theory of Comparative Advantage put to new uses | Arnaud Costinot
With the growth of China and Latin American economies, among others—many dissimilar countries, with wildly varying institutions, are trading with each other. “The comeback of Ricardian theory today is, in part, as a response to those trends,” Costinot says. Trade between developed and less-developed economies “is on the rise and it seems to be quite different. We may need new theories, or old theories and their extensions may be better suited to it.”

Technology, Jobs, and the Middle Class  | David Autor and David Dorn 
"Computerization is not reducing the quantity of jobs, but rather degrading the quality of jobs for a significant subset of workers....This bifurcation of job opportunities has contributed to the historic rise in income inequality. The good news is that middle-wage jobs are not slated to disappear completely.... How can we help workers ride the wave of technological change rather than be swamped by it?" 
Commentary in the New York Times


To end slump, United States must spend
In MIT remarks, former Treasury secretary Larry Summer calls for the ‘common sense’ cure of more government spending to spur growth. “No thoughtful person can look at the U.S. economy today and believe that the principal constraint on expansion of output and employment is anything other than the lack of demand experienced by firms,” Summers said. That is, not enough consumers in the country have sufficient spending power; government programs employing more people would change that, he asserted. “If the private sector is either unable or unwilling to borrow and spend on a sufficient scale, then there is a substantial role for government in doing that.” 

Saving Social Security | Peter Diamond
The MIT Professor emeritus of Economics and recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in economics answers the big question of how to fix social security. "Diamond is an expert on public finance, especially Social Security, and has consulted for various government agencies on the program throughout the years. With Peter Orszag, he coauthored Saving Social Security: A Balanced Approach, which proposed shoring up the program through gradual, progressive benefit cuts and increases in the payroll tax rate." (Washington Post)
Paper at Brookings | Article at New Republic | Interview at the Washington Post


Reality check in the factory
MIT professor’s new book shows how labor laws actually get enforced, globally.