Working for Bernie Sanders: a UMKC professor's perspective
Meet Bernie Sanders’ Kansas City economists.
They’re Stephanie Kelton and William Black, and both hail from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Each has signed on as economic adviser to Sanders’ presidential campaign, formalizing the kind of work they’ve done with the senator from Vermont in recent years.
Sanders’ campaign promises a political revolution fought on many economic battlefields. Sanders wants government-funded health care for all and free tuition at public colleges. He proposes spending $1 trillion on national infrastructure and breaking up the biggest banks. He has called income inequality “the great moral issue of our time.”
Kelton and Black make for a natural match. Each is a key figure in UMKC’s economics department, which has a long-standing reputation for embracing unorthodox explanations of the economy that often challenge mainstream thinking.
Black said he’d gladly provide his advice to the other top presidential candidates, but for one reason.
“No one else is going to ask me,” he said.
For Kelton, advising the campaign extends the close work she did as Sanders’ chief economist on the Senate Budget Committee in Washington, D.C., last year. Now back at UMKC, Kelton stays up with the campaign from home, live-streaming Sanders events sometimes two or three times a day.
“My son can probably give most of his stump speech,” Kelton said.
Kelton and Black are part of a team of economic advisers, including former labor secretary Robert Reich and James Galbraith at the University of Texas in Austin, who help the Sanders campaign develop policies.
Randall Wray, a fellow UMKC economics professor, credits Sanders for embracing thinkers from outside the economic mainstream. “The mainstream is a complete disaster and a complete disaster for our country,” Wray said.
The alternative thinking at UMKC includes calls for the federal government to become an employer of last resort, essentially guaranteeing work to those who want it just as Franklin Roosevelt’s programs did during the Great Depression. UMKC’s economics department also is a leading voice in modern money theory, an explanation of federal spending’s role in the economy that some have dubbed “the Kansas City school” of economic thought.
Kelton, for her part, rejects the notion that she’s an unconventional economist. In her view, conventional economists are unconventional. Besides, she said, they’re adopting more and more of “what we’ve argued” for decades.
Sanders’ work with UMKC economists stretches back years.
In April 2009, Black took part in a two-hour Sanders town hall in Vermont. The topic was the economic crisis, as the nation had yet to escape the Great Recession and was looking for answers the mainstream couldn’t seem to supply.
Eight months later, Sanders tapped Black again. This time, it was a news conference on Sanders’ effort to block then-Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke from a second term as head of the central bank.
Black said he and the senator both thought that giving Bernanke a second term at the Fed “was a terrible idea, given his track record.”
With his credentials in law, economics and criminology, Black has made a name for himself by decrying wrongdoing and pushing for reforms in the financial system as well as pressing for prosecution of key players in the financial crisis.
He said advising Sanders is a natural extension of their agreement on some issues, such as breaking up the biggest banks. Both, Black said, understand that the government’s designation of the largest banks as “systemically important” really means they pose a danger to the financial system.
Each attacks campaign contributions from Wall Street. This is one tenet of a group Black helped form called Bank Whistleblowers United. It asks candidates to “pledge not to take campaign contributions from financial felons. That group, according to the federal agencies that have investigated them, includes virtually all the largest banks.”
Black currently is working at the University of Minnesota law school as a distinguished scholar in residence.
He still teaches at UMKC in the fall semester but “winters” in Minnesota to be with his wife, June Carbone. She also had been on UMKC’s faculty before becoming the initial Robina chair in law, science and technology at the University of Minnesota.
In 2011, Sanders turned to Black, Kelton and Wray. Each served on a 12-member panel of experts to help the senator draft legislation to reform the Federal Reserve.
It was Kelton’s first Sanders connection, and they didn’t actually meet. The panel, spread far and wide, worked by telephone.
Still, Sanders chose Kelton for a much bigger role.
It was shortly before Christmas 2014 and Sanders was about to become the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee. The body oversees the Office of Management and Budget, working directly on federal spending, and he needed a chief economist.
To Kelton, who was chair of the UMKC department at the time, it was a big step as well as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. After a whirlwind of interviews and paperwork, she soon landed in the nation’s capital.
Although they didn’t talk about it then, Kelton said she felt in her gut that Sanders would run for the White House. Moreover, she made her decision to go to Washington based on that decision.
“I don’t think I would have moved halfway across the country — left my family, my kids — if I didn’t believe I was going to be working alongside someone who was likely to run for president,” she said.
As Sanders’ chief economist on the committee staff, Kelton worked constantly. Some days, she found herself working all day at her apartment, still in pajamas, at 5 p.m. and “not sure I’d brushed my teeth yet.”
Kelton began to work directly with Sanders more and more. They also regularly had dinner together.
On one of their first dinner runs, a woman recognized Sanders and wanted a photo with the senator. Kelton obliged.
“Over the months, I became a photographer,” she recalled as the presidential race began. “We couldn’t go anywhere without people rolling (car) windows down, honking, waving, hollering across the street.”
Another dinner led to an impromptu meeting between Sanders and the mother of Sandra Bland, the Chicago-area woman who was jailed in Texas after a routine traffic stop and then was found dead in her cell.
Blogger Hannah Adair Bonner wrote a firsthand account of the meeting and posted a photo of Sanders with Bland’s family on Twitter.
As Sanders’ economist at the committee, Kelton provided updates on world economic events and scads of economic data — Sanders likes a lot of stats, she said. She drafted remarks and questions for committee hearings, wrote press releases and worked on speeches and other presentations.
Kelton had a breadth of knowledge that affected the committee’s work on many subjects, said Robyn Hiestand, the committee’s education staffer who worked on Sanders’ college affordability platform.
“Stephanie was instrumental in how to think about that, what should we be saying, what should Bernie be doing on college affordability,” Hiestand said.
Kelton had a hand in crafting letters and getting economists and others to sign on to them as endorsements of Sanders’ policies on Wall Street reforms, Medicare for all and raising the minimum wage, said Warren Gunnels, Sanders’ former staff director on the budget committee and now his policy director on the presidential campaign.
Gunnels said Kelton’s own published works helped Sanders see that she was like-minded on important topics such as the federal budget sequester.
Kelton left the budget committee post at the end of last year and is back at UMKC. Clearly, she is on board with Sanders’ key ideas and even has done a little campaign work, knocking on doors in Des Moines the day of the Iowa caucuses.
And her advice to the campaign remains the same.
“It’s time to get back to thinking about investment in infrastructure and education, those sorts of things that drive long-term economic growth,” she said. “This is what Senator Sanders is looking for.”
Other Kansas City presidential input
▪ Michele L. Watley, the Kansas City-raised national African-American outreach political director for Bernie Sanders working out of Atlanta.
▪ Jeff Roe, longtime Kansas City-based political consultant who is Ted Cruz’s campaign manager.