Ady Barkan: a Great Organizer and a Great Human

Photograph Source: Elizabeth Warren – CC BY 2.0

I was sorry to hear that Ady Barkan died this week. He was just 39 years old. He had ALS, a terrible disease that progresses gradually, impairing more and more of the body’s functions over time.

I first met Ady before he was diagnosed with the disease. He was a tireless and creative organizer. He led the Fed Up campaign, an effort to force the Federal Reserve Board to focus on full employment, and not just fighting inflation. Full employment is in fact a part of its legal mandate, in spite of what many economists might tell you.

Ady pushed the Fed to take the full employment part of its mandate seriously. He organized among community groups, labor unions, and others to press the case.

As research shows, full employment is not just a question of getting the overall unemployment rate down, it is an issue that disproportionately affects Blacks, Hispanics, the less-educated, people with criminal records, and others who face discrimination in the labor market. When the labor market is tight, employers have to hire those who they may not otherwise consider employing.

Not only does unemployment fall most for these disadvantaged groups in a tight labor market, a strong labor market also enables them to secure real wage gains. This is a story we have seen well-supported in the pandemic recovery.

Ady pressed this case with then Fed Chair, and current Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, who took the argument seriously and encouraged the members of the Fed’s policy setting Open Market Committee to meet with Fed Up. Yellen’s successor, the current Chair Jerome Powell, often sounded like he was reading from Fed Up’s hymn book when he touted the praises of low unemployment.

This shift in Fed policy towards promoting full employment, and not just obsessing about inflation, was a remarkable victory. It improved the lives of tens of millions of workers.

Unfortunately, Ady’s disease progressed and he had to cut back on his work. But he insisted on still trying to do what he could and took on a new cause, promoting national health care insurance, and in particular, Medicare for All.

Ady famously confronted Arizona Senator Jeff Flake on an airplane, urged him to vote to keep Obamacare. Flake, a relatively moderate Republican, engaged politely, but ultimately could not be persuaded to vote against his party.

I had the privilege to testify alongside Ady on the first Congressional panel ever devoted to a discussion of Medicare for All. At that point, Ady was in a wheel chair and had to rely on a mechanical voice, since he could no longer speak without assistance.

Nonetheless he made the case forcefully. The United States is a rich country. It can afford universal Medicare. The problem is it needs the political will.

It is a tragedy for the country, but obviously first and foremost for his family, that Ady’s disease continued to progress and has now taken his life. He had a tremendous amount to offer, and he has much to show, even in his short life.

My best wishes to his family and those close to him. This is a huge loss.

This first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.