Why you should care

Because she’s helping define the policy agenda on the left.

As leaves fell to the ground in the crisp Michigan fall of 1986, Thea Lee could be found knocking on doors. Lee was pursuing a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, but when her friend Dean Baker decided to run for Congress, she couldn’t say no to managing his campaign. Lee was itching to get out of the classroom and into the real world.

Though she’s become one of the most influential economic thinkers in Washington, she never did earn that Ph.D. “I got a little distracted,” she says with a laugh, her green eyes sparkling behind rectangular black glasses.

Instead, 59-year-old Lee has spent her career as a translator of economic theory for working people. It’s taken her from a foray into journalism (at the economics magazine Dollars and Sense) to two decades at the AFL-CIO union federation to the presidency of the Economic Policy Institute think tank starting last year.

The post puts her at the center of the country’s most pressing policy challenges. In December, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer appointed Lee to the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission, which is exploring the unfolding trade war. Lee is also on the board of the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center, a nonprofit that amplifies the work of liberal members such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Meanwhile, EPI’s research on the minimum wage and income inequality provides intellectual backing to the debate as more cities and states move toward a $15 hourly wage.

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She doesn’t look distracted to us. Thea Lee in her office in Washington, D.C.

Her lengthy background in trade suits the moment. Lee pioneered early fights to include enforceable labor and environmental standards in the North American Free Trade Agreement and others, says former Michigan Democratic Congressman Sander Levin. Lee isn’t anti-trade but sees a connection between international trade agreements and the growing wage inequality at home. The logic? Poor labor standards abroad create a race to the bottom, resulting in worse jobs for American workers. “She’s tried to push the frontier of economics to meet globalization,” Levin says.

She was “chief organizer,” according to former AFL-CIO chief of staff Jon Hiatt, of the labor coalition’s fight against the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. The Obama administration saw the AFL-CIO’s resistance as an act of disloyalty, which ultimately “burned a lot of bridges,” Hiatt says.

President Donald Trump also pushed for stronger protections for U.S. workers in a renegotiated NAFTA, and he scrapped the TPP immediately upon taking office. Lee, in fact, took some criticism for serving on his manufacturing advisory council after Trump took office — though she says she never was actually invited to any meetings, and she formally quit after Trump’s widely panned response to the August 2017 white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia.

While she’s clearly no fan of the president, Lee says Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign identified that international trade has not been good for American workers. Trump even cited EPI research in a 2016 campaign speech (EPI criticized how he used it, however). She was disappointed by the outcome of Trump’s renegotiated NAFTA, which goes before Congress for ratification this year, and she says the president falls short of “diagnosing inequality as a problem.”

Both Trump and EPI have a “zero-sum view of the economy,” says Stan Veuger, a scholar at American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. He argues their stances are predicated on the assumption of a set amount of wealth or income, while their policy debates — whether about minimum wage or immigration — are about how to distribute that wealth.

Still, Lee isn’t afraid of an intellectual tussle and has never minded long odds. At age 34, in her early days as a trade economist at EPI, Lee debated Nobel laureate James Tobin at Yale University. She notes that men have dominated the top ranks of economics and labor during most of her career. “That’s made me feisty,” she says as she flashes a coy smile from across her desk, cluttered with papers and notebooks. Her nickname at the AFL-CIO used to be “Big Labor” — because she’s 5 foot 2. And there’s no doubt Lee has a competitive streak, perhaps best exemplified by the 50-year Scrabble battle she’s had with her best friend since childhood, Adriane Fugh-Berman.

She’s been steeped in activism for just as long. Growing up in Boston and Washington, D.C., during the turbulent 1960s, Lee had a social worker mother and an architect and urban planner father who was involved with the Poor People’s Campaign in 1968. From a young age, the girls were stamping pictures of doves on balloons for peace marches, Fugh-Berman says.

As a Jewish-Chinese American, Lee also has a unique vantage point on immigration and trade. Her great-great-grandfather came to the U.S. from China to work on the railroads, but the men of each successive generation went back to China to marry and have children due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. “I do understand the roots of what is both beautiful and promising about the United States of America, and what is ugly and shameful about the history of the U.S. with respect to immigrants,” Lee says.

As Democratic hopefuls emerge in the run-up to 2020, Hiatt says EPI — with Lee at the helm — is well-positioned to play a major role, as a think tank “that’s playing in the public common” rather than sitting in an ivory tower. “I’ve chosen to be in the policy world because I want to make change bigger than one person at a time,” Lee says. She expects to work with several of the presidential candidates, so don’t be surprised to see EPI research pop up on policy proposals on trade, the minimum wage, labor law reform or immigration.

As ideas like “Medicare for all” and a federal jobs guarantee shift from the leftward fringe to the Democratic Party mainstream, Lee’s voice will be ever more important both to the new Congress and the 2020 campaign trail. As always, she will be shaping policy on paper — and taking it to the streets.

Read more: Are universal basic assets a smarter fix than universal basic income?

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