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03/01/2023

A Conversation with the Founders of The Library Of Economic Possibility.

A new research and media platform building a more informed, inclusive, and expansive culture of debate around how to design the next economy, one policy at a time.

Authors: Caitlin Morelli

What will it take to redesign the economy to work for more people? Financial innovation? Narratives that shift how we think about economic success? We need all of that and more, including evidence-backed policy ideas to drive change in the public sector. The Library of Economic Possibility is a fiscally sponsored initiative of Common Future that recently launched to bring powerful economic ideas together in one digital library. We spoke with the founders, Oshan Jarow and Kasey Klimes, about the vision behind LEP and where they plan to go next.

CAITLIN: Tell us about the Library, where did the idea for this begin?

OSHAN: For me, it began as an undergraduate economics student struggling to find reliable information about heterodox ideas, much less organized access to the latest research on policies that lay outside the mainstream. Economics programs tend to embrace a singular set of methods and assumptions, which makes research on alternatives that lie beyond them difficult to find. This propels a cycle that reinforces the status quo, and contributes to a sense that deep change is beyond reach.

It took years to begin discovering how much research on alternative ideas already exists, whether from international experience or local pilots in the US. What’s missing isn’t necessarily the research itself, but better ways of organizing and disseminating that knowledge. Neoliberalism, for example, only rose to prominence after decades of careful organization, planning, and platform building. LEP aims to provide a similar platform for organizing this wider scope of economic knowledge and making it available for something new to emerge.

KASEY: I think the 2016 election led a lot of people towards some real soul-searching about the structure and consequences of our economic system. The years following saw a political conversation groping for alternatives to neoliberalism. Land value taxes, codetermination, and even the ideas of democratic socialism gained a lot of energy.

Then the pandemic hit, and the Overton window of economic ideas blew wide open. Suddenly the unthinkable was on the table—covid stimulus checks were effectively a short-term experiment in basic income and even Republicans were proposing universal child allowance. And yet, these ideas were blunted in part because, in a moment of crisis, it was really difficult to understand whether or not they’d actually work! 

I am a design researcher and have done a lot of work on digital knowledge systems at places like Google, researching and designing them to mirror how our brains work so that we can make new connections between ideas. Oshan and I saw an opportunity to build a better system to access alternative economic research and perhaps nudge the conversation forward about what comes after neoliberalism.

CAITLIN: What is LEP and how is it contributing to that change? There is so much publicly available research and reporting on the economy, so I’m curious what gap LEP is filling?

KASEY: LEP is a new research and media platform that is building a more informed, inclusive, and expansive culture of debate around how to design the next economy, one policy at a time.

It’s true, there’s tons of great research out there. The problem is that a lot of great insights are buried in dense academic texts, trapped in PDFs, or locked behind paywalls. The best research isn’t always accessible to the public or communicated in a way that’s approachable without an economics background. 

There also isn’t a centralized, trustworthy resource to explore alternative economic ideas. While journalists help shine light on topics like basic income, they don’t always have the space or time to examine the evidence in a single article. 

LEP is a library, meaning we don’t pick sides. While we believe that we need economic change, our role is to broaden access to reliable and trustworthy research about new ideas than to advance any particular policy. Our hope is that in doing so, we can provide a platform that draws diverse views together into productive conversations that advance evidence-driven policy. 

CAITLIN: How do you decide which policies to include?

KASEY: We wouldn’t include an idea in the Library if we didn’t believe it had some potential merit, but we aren’t just selecting ideas we both support. For example, I’m not sure basic income is a great idea—we have so much crumbling infrastructure, an aging population, and plenty of work to do. I think it makes more sense to allocate public funding towards a job guarantee or a major public works program. But that doesn’t preclude a serious review of the research.

OSHAN: And I’m more optimistic about basic income—the amount of money given out by current experiments doesn’t appear to discourage work, and could nicely complement a job guarantee or public works program. But this reflects our goal of building a trustworthy resource that can be used by advocates and skeptics alike. 

KASEY: Right. We have plenty of disagreements. Agreement isn’t the point! It’s about providing easy access to evidence that can support these back-and-forths. We chose these first three policies to represent the scope of what we might cover. But moving forward, we’re hoping to build a diverse community that participates in the discussion around what ideas to include next.

CAITLIN: Who is the Library for and how do you hope people will interact with it?

KASEY: We think the Library is a valuable resource for policymakers and journalists, but we’re most excited about what the Library can offer to students. Between the reports and the insight library, LEP provides a central resource for ideas that otherwise may not get much attention in their curriculum. 

When I was a graduate student in city planning at Berkeley, I heard land value tax mentioned exactly once—and a lot of students struggled to understand it. That’s to be expected, it’s not a super intuitive policy, but I think a great resource on land value tax could help broaden the thinking for students, many of whom will go on to be very influential in government.

The heart of LEP is a searchable network of economic knowledge. Here, you can search and explore the database through any of our five information classes: insights, sources, authors, tags, and reports. You can also use advanced filters to hone in on specific policies, or relationships between information classes.

For example, you can select “basic income,” and scroll through all of our insights related to it. Or, for more precision, say you want to learn more about how basic income might affect entrepreneurship. Add the “entrepreneurship” filter, and there you have it.

We explain a few more use cases on Substack.

 

CAITLIN: Can you tell us more about how LEP is designed? What does it mean to design a knowledge system that works the way our brain works?
 

KASEY: Our brains tend to operate through associative trails that work in both directions. For example, the color red may be associated with firetrucks just as a firetruck may be associated with the color red. We trace these associative trails in conversation and individual thought all the time. The bi-directional relationships of ideas form a web of contextual associations in our mind, which help us integrate new information via its relevance to existing information. 

Our digital interfaces generally do a poor job of reflecting this, and by extension they don’t do a great job of helping us learn, contextualize, or spark new ideas from seemingly unrelated insights. 

The Library is designed to reflect the bi-directional associative trails of our brains in a structured network of insights, sources, authors, tags, and reports. While we offer reports on each policy as a starting point, we hope that providing insights in this flexible, networked way will help spark new ideas for others.

CAITLIN: What do you mean when you say that we need a new economic system?

OSHAN: Economic paradigms are bundles of assumptions that are commonly accepted even by those who disagree. Although the term gets thrown around a lot nowadays, we use “neoliberalism” to define the specific set of tenets that rose as a response to the 1971 stagflation crisis, and really shaped the post-1980 American economic system. This Includes things like limiting the role of government to correcting market failures, privatizing public services in the name of efficiency, keeping taxes low so as not to discourage investment or growth, tying social welfare to work requirements, deregulation (especially in the financial sector), and the idea that federal deficits lead to inflation.

These ideas promised economic growth and social stability. Today, they’re delivering neither, failing workers and businesses alike. The United States hasn’t seen a decade with average total factor productivity growth of 1% or more since the 1970’s

Nevertheless, these ideas have proved stubborn. One of the most interesting aspects of the 2008 financial crash was how forcefully it discredited neoliberalism, and yet how little changed in its aftermath. One reason we’re so excited to work on LEP is because now, these changes are already underway. Mainstream economists are advocating for governments to take a more active role in shaping markets towards more equitable, sustainable, and productive outcomes. 448 economists signed an open letter in support of the expanded child tax credit, which broke the pattern of tying welfare to work requirements, to name just a few signals. 

A new system is already taking shape, from grassroots movements to the White House. Our focus is advancing public knowledge around policies that deserve a place in the debate over how we actually build that system.

CAITLIN: Talk us through one of the reports in the Library – what excites you about it?

OSHAN: Codetermination was a fun report to assemble. The policy — practiced in varying degrees across major European countries like Germany, Sweden, and France — gives workers the right to vote on decisions made within large corporations by requiring that a certain percentage of the decision-making board is held by worker-elected representatives.

Codetermination is somewhat strange, in that it’s free, polls well across the left and right, is built on extending democratic principles into the workplace, and yet receives very little attention.

Recent findings show that codetermination actually had little economic impact on European economies. It didn’t really affect growth or productivity rates, and neither did it boost workers’ wages.

In part, we can chalk this up to European countries already having strong cultures of worker representation. If you already have strong unions and collective bargaining agreements, codetermination doesn’t shake things up too much. But in the US economy, where workers have significantly less bargaining power, there’s good reason to suspect the effects might be larger (in either direction!).

That being said, if further research affirms that codetermination may not have strong economic impacts even in the US, it could create room for other considerations to play a stronger role in the policy debate, like an emphasis on democratic principles. LEP is founded on the idea that research and evidence are crucial to decision-making, but research can’t decide everything. So with codetermination in particular, I’m excited to see whether we might embrace these broader considerations in policy making. 

CAITLIN: What’s next for the Library and what do you need?

KASEY: We have big plans for multimedia and community-led expansion of the insight library. We’re also eager to add new policies. Some of that will roll out in the months ahead through new features, but we need support! 

In order for the Library to be comprehensive and trustworthy, we can’t build it alone. We need new sources and insights and are assembling a “Library Corps” of independent researchers to help us do that. We also collaborate with economists to help vet our sources and interpretations of the research, so expert perspectives are always welcomed.

Lastly, it’s important to us that LEP remains free and available to the public. To that end, philanthropic support from organizations and individuals are vital to sustain the Library.

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