We at the Council of Economic Advisers are deeply saddened by the loss of our great friend and colleague, Bill Spriggs. But as we mourn this untimely and painful loss, we’re also celebrating the highly impactful life of one of the most important public intellectuals from our field. Bill worked in academia as an inspiring professor, chairing the economics department at Howard University. He served concurrently as chief economist to the AFL-CIO and as chair of the Economic Policy Working Group for the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He also served on the board of the National Bureau of Economic Research. Throughout his varied career, he held a number of government posts, including at the Departments of Labor and Commerce, and at the Joint Economic Committee of Congress.
Throughout all of these diverse jobs, his work was laser focused and incredibly consistent in identifying racial injustices in our economy and society. With academic rigor and relentless energy, Bill used the tools of economics to challenge some of the field’s most basic assumptions. He bridled at these assumptions—ideas like “merit is fully determinative of outcomes,” or “full employment is the labor market’s natural state,” or “discrimination is something for sociologists, not economists, to worry about,” or “minimum wages are dis-employing, full stop.” What’s amazing is that if you randomly draw any Spriggs paper out of his incredibly productive output, you will find deeply rigorous challenges to these and other such assumptions. More than any other economist I know, Bill was unstinting in elevating these arguments, and he was a lifelong inspiration to those of us following in his wide wake.
He was also a thoroughly lovely man. Bill was one of the first economists I met when I began my career at the Economic Policy Institute in the early 1990s. I was too naïve to know how unusual he was and thought “wow, professional economists are much cooler than I thought they’d be.” A few weeks ago, he and I sat down on the sidelines of a conference and, as we always did, began our conversation reflecting back on these old days—and how far we’ve come. And let me be very clear about this: I don’t mean how far he and I had come. I mean the extent to which the ideas that Bill explained to us 30 years ago have now become so much more widely accepted. On discrimination, minimum wage policy, monetary and fiscal policy, international trade, the critical need for more diversity in the economics profession, and much more, the influence of Bill’s work is pervasive.
We smiled and mused on all this and then slowly walked away together, much older and grayer than when we’d first started. But along with a real love for each other, we also shared a quiet, unspoken sense of the power of Bill’s work. As one of his early disciples, I’m acutely aware of that power today, and while I and so many others will struggle for a long time to cope with this loss, we will never forget the indelible contribution Bill made as we devote ourselves to carrying on his work.
Please see also this statement from President Biden.