Employment and Jobs

Economics Reimagined: A Discussion on Building a Human Rights Economy

April 11, 2023  • Natalie Foster & Shelly Steward

For too long, economic policymaking has focused on economic growth at any cost. How might we imagine a different paradigm, centering human flourishing and promoting well-being nationally and globally? To address this question, the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program and The New School’s Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy hosted an event in January, “Economics Reimagined: Building a Human Rights Economy,” which brought together scholars, thinkers, and advocates to imagine a brighter and more just future.

Contemporary economic metrics like stock prices, corporate profits, and GDP translate into economic policies such as deregulation, tax reduction, and corporate subsidies.  Absent from this discussion are metrics of human well being, analysis of how these policies advance collective good and human life, and consideration of the ways economic systems reproduce racial and other injustices. Using the well-being of people as the metric by which we determine economic outcomes would lead to a different set of policy priorities and choices. Opening the event, Economic Opportunities Executive Director Maureen Conway noted that directing economic decision-making toward the needs of people has for too long been outside of the mainstream.

The event explored why this is the case, what the consequences have been, and how we can imagine a better, more inclusive economy built around human rights. Todd Howland, Chief of the Development, Economic, and Social Rights Branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, offered opening remarks. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted 75 years ago by the United Nations, set forth a set of civil, social, and economic rights that inspired the development of human rights’ laws around the world. But Howland noted that the economy and economic policies are too often considered a “human rights free zone.” He attributes this in part to a bifurcation of rights where political rights are seen as “first generation” rights, while economic, social, and cultural rights are relegated to a second tier, and in part to the rise of neoliberal thought, which allows markets to drive outcomes.

A panel discussion built on this historical context, with Binyamin Applebaum facilitating a conversation between Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Darrick Hamilton, Thea Lee, and Jim Wallis. The neoliberal framework sees free markets as the driver of economic prosperity and often portrays government action as a hindrance to the functioning of markets.  This perspective implicitly delegitimizes the idea that the government should protect people’s economic, social, or civil rights or even that such rights exist. By ignoring human rights and failing to account for power, neoliberalism has led to widening inequalities, persistent structural racism, and massive concentrations of wealth. 

New economic models have emerged from times of crisis, as in the 1930s and the 1970s. We are at a similar inflection point today, when we are able to question the relationship between the government and the economy and ask how and for whom the economy should work. Rangita de Silva de Alwis highlighted this crucial moment, describing it as a confluence of the Five Cs: colonization, conflict, COVID, corruption, and climate crisis. To put it bluntly, neoliberalism has failed to create a sustainable economy that works for everyone. Instead, it has driven growing inequity, a hollowing out of America’s middle class, widespread climate crises, and exploitation and extraction of resources and labor around the world. We need a new economic and political framework to guide where we go from here.

Professor Darrick Hamilton argued that every academic and policy endeavor–including building a new economic framework–starts with a set of norms and values. Our current system prioritizes markets and stock prices, and reflects the racism, sexism, and colonialism that has characterized the society in which it developed. A more just and equitable system could start from the belief that an economy should provide the structures and resources necessary for all people to live full, rich lives and create the space for everyone to contribute in dynamic ways. This point was reiterated by Wallis, who noted that building a moral economy requires grounding economics in the best of what we say are our shared values. Wallis noted how markets and morality have long been intertwined, recalling Adam Smith’s assertion that “without morality, the market will fail and crumble.”

De Silva de Alwis took a global perspective on the challenges we face, and described how American exceptionalism has impacted both domestic and international policies. She reminded us that the U.S. stands alone in not ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child and is joined only by Iran in not ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.

Lee also offered an international perspective. She noted that the same frameworks and policies that hollowed out the American middle class – the moving of good jobs for American workers to bad jobs overseas – also hurt workers across the globe. An economy reimagined around human rights has the potential not just to improve conditions in the U.S., but also around the world.

Finally, Hamilton made the vision of a reimagined economy concrete by noting some of the policy priorities that could define it. In addition to guaranteed rights to housing, education, healthcare, and resources, he called for restorative justice to create true equity, including perhaps both reparations and truth and reconciliation. 

This event raised complex questions about the economy we want and the work it would take to get there. By sharing their understanding of history, their willingness to challenge long-held assumptions, and their vision for something better, the speakers encouraged bold thinking. An economy designed for people instead of profit is within reach.


An economy reimagined around human rights has the potential to improve conditions not just in the US, but around the world. Learn more in this blog post by @nataliefoster and @shellysteward.

.@RacePowerPolicy and @AspenJobQuality hosted a discussion on how to build a moral and inclusive economy. Read insights from @RangitadeSilva, @DarrickHamiltion, @TheaMeilee, @jimwallis, and @BCApplebaum.

In sharing their understanding of history and their vision for something better, speakers at this @AspenJobQuality / @RacePowerPolicy event showed that an economy designed for people is within reach.

By ignoring human rights, neoliberalism has led to widening inequalities, persistent structural racism, and massive concentrations of wealth. Read more from @nataliefoster and @shellysteward.

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