If you had lived in Ann Arbor in the fall of 1986, you might have opened your door one day to find Thea Lee (A.M. 1984) standing on your front porch. Dean Baker (Ph.D. 1988), a fellow student in her economics Ph.D. program, was running for Congress, and she was co-managing his campaign. “It was an interesting episode in my graduate career,” Lee says with a laugh, “and, possibly, a distraction.”
In the end, Lee never did get her Ph.D. “I eventually went out in the world and took on jobs that were ultimately more interesting and compelling to me than finishing my dissertation, unfortunately,” Lee says. “I got an excellent, foundational education at Michigan. I learned a lot from my professors and my fellow students. I like to say I wrote three thirds of different dissertations — I just never put them all together into one. I wouldn’t advise anybody to take the route I did, but it worked out okay for me in the end.”
Making her own way is the emblem of her career. After U-M and a two-year stint as staff editor at Dollars and Sense Magazine, Lee joined the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a left-leaning think tank, as a trade economist. There, she took on economics luminaries like Nobel Laureate James Tobin, Senator Bill Bradley, and U.S. Trade Representative Carla Hills on a national stage.
“Those were pretty interesting years in terms of trade policy,” Lee says. “The North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization debates were happening at that time, and I became a voice for a progressive, pro-worker critique of mainstream trade policy.” Now, 20 years later, she still is.
“I needed all the econometrics and statistical and economic theory base that I had learned at Michigan to engage in those debates as an economist and not as an activist or just some hack,” Lee says. “It felt important to have the economics expertise and a mainstream economics education to be able to advocate effectively and understand the arguments on both sides of the debate. My goal was to be an effective spokesperson who could critique the forecasts and economic models that were out there.”
Lee says it’s common for economists to use simple top-line models to refute the idea that markets can operate differently. “If you just draw your simple demand-and-supply curve and put your dot, your equilibrium, right at the intersection of demand and supply, it might seem like there’s only one answer to what’s the right wage,” she says.
“But if you get underneath and examine the assumptions about the asymmetry of power in the labor market relationships more carefully, then you might come up with a more interesting analysis that fits the world that we live in better.”
As examples, Lee points to policy decisions that influence the way income is distributed through mechanisms that are considered to be free markets. A free market can be protected by things like pharmaceutical patents and copyrights, she says, and such protections have a huge impact on the way income gets distributed. Learning how to challenge the assumptions behind these policies, she says, helps ensure working people are not lost in the debate.
Work in Progress
After leaving EPI in 1997, Lee went to work for the AFL-CIO, first as chief international economist, then as policy director, and finally as deputy chief of staff. In her two decades with the labor federation, her economic strategy and policy research helped to make her into a recognized authority in international trade and labor. Lee testified before Congress, headlined high-stakes and influential economics conferences, and appeared on programs such as PBS NewsHour, Good Morning America, and CNN to talk about trade deals, wage inequality, and worker rights. Lee stayed with the AFL-CIO for 20 years, until 2018 when she returned to EPI, this time as its president.
"I find the bold policy proposals of the current moment encouraging,” economist Thea Lee says. “There seems to be more of an appetite and an energy for them now.”
Her international trade experience has now put Lee in the center of the economic policy discussions that are happening behind the headlines. In 2018 she was appointed to Congress’s U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, which tracks the national security implications of the countries’ trade relationship — a commission whose profile has reached new heights in the evolving trade war.
Trade tensions between the United States and China have gotten a lot of media, but Lee thinks there are still important details that most Americans don’t know. “I think a lot of Americans do have a general sense that this is a lopsided and maybe unfair trade relationship,” she says, “but the granular details might surprise people.”
Using a moral compass and economics principles, Lee navigates trade discussions into territories that include Chinese and American workers. The way a country treats its workers is a fundamental part of competition, Lee says. “It is essential for countries to agree to respect internationally recognized core labor rights as a necessary condition of production so that countries can legitimately compete,” she says. “Raising this as an international competition issue is, to me, both economically right and socially important.”
Such arguments are staples of public policy debate, but Lee thinks economists’ roles in these debates are beginning to change. “I think economists are playing a more interesting and a more nuanced role in the national conversation — maybe because we’re not quite as predictable,” she says. The idea about who an economist is has also become less predictable — a shift that Lee believes affects economists’ work too.
“Gender, race, and even economic privilege are important issues in terms of how we look at the world as economists,” she says. “It’s important for the policy debate to have a diversity of backgrounds as well as a diversity of views.”
These multiple perspectives have helped to develop new directions in the field, directions Lee believes will create new opportunities for economists to use their expertise and tools — and their data — to expand the policies they’re working with. Such changes, she says, are good for the world.
Because in the end, for Lee, public policy is about making changes that are bigger than one person at a time. “I’ve always cared about social justice, and that’s why I studied economics,” she says. “Economics gives people the tools to ask and answer important questions about how to make the world a better place, and I see the policy arena as a particularly exciting and important place to engage. And I think that’s an important place to be.”