European countries such as Denmark and France offer practically free health care and college to every citizen. Why can't the United States? Why, too, do American politicians continue to push for tax cuts, when nearly 30 million people in the U.S. live in poverty?
These are among the questions and paradoxes parsed and probed by Monica Prasad, a sociologist who weaves in economics, politics, and comparative history to analyze and draw insights on past and present-day socioeconomic problems, while proffering solutions for the future.
Prasad joins Johns Hopkins University as a new Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Economic and Political Sociology, with appointments in the Department of Sociology in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and the Center for Economy and Society at the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute. In this role, she plans to continue bridging academic disciplines as she tackles complex challenges related to capitalism, neoliberalism, and social policy.
"With a background in interdisciplinary research, a deep knowledge of public policy, and a commitment to teaching, Dr. Monica Prasad exemplifies the values of the BDP program, which aims to address global challenges by bridging Johns Hopkins divisions and schools through innovative, collaborative, and interdisciplinary scholarship," said Ray Jayawardhana, the university's provost. "We are excited to welcome her to Johns Hopkins University."
Settling into her office on the Homewood campus, Prasad comes to Johns Hopkins after 19 years in Greater Chicago as a sociology professor at Northwestern University. There, she published three award-winning books and dozens of academic articles, while racking up honors that include a Fulbright U.S. Scholars Program award, a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award, and fellowships from the Russell Sage Foundation and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.
But Prasad is not exactly a newcomer to Baltimore, or to Johns Hopkins. After graduating from Yale University, where she double majored in English and religious studies, she moved to Baltimore to study poetry in the Writing Seminars at Hopkins, earning her master's degree in 1993. "I thought I wanted to be a poet and enrolled in a one-year program here," she says. "I realized during that time, however, that I wanted to do something that engaged more with the world."
Weighing possibilities, Prasad remembered a religious studies seminar from her time at Yale, where she used various approaches to study religion, including a sociological approach. "I realized in that seminar, and even in classes for my English major, that I was always interested in questions about canon formation and how the stories we read about the world are selected and where they come from," she says. "These are actually sociological questions, and that's when sociology first became a thing in my mind."
Eager to learn more, Prasad read an introductory sociology textbook, finding "the ideas fascinating but the writing not quite up to par with my poetry standards then," she says, laughing. Nevertheless, her reading prompted her to register for an independent study with Christopher Chase-Dunn, a sociology professor who worked, at the time, at Johns Hopkins. "We would sit in his office and talk about classic sociological writings," says Prasad. That's when she knew she had found her niche.
Prasad went on to enroll in a doctoral program in sociology at the University of Chicago, where she earned a PhD and honed skills for the interdisciplinary approach that is now her specialty and a trademark of her books and articles.
The origins and effects of neoliberalism
Much of Prasad's work examines the rise of neoliberal policies—the tax cuts, decreases in spending on social programs, deregulation, and privatization—that took root in the 1970s and '80s, especially in the United States after the oil crisis of 1973 threw the economy into turmoil. The U.S. reaction to the crisis differed significantly from what happened throughout Europe, and this is the focus of Prasad's first book, The Politics of Free Markets (2006), and a key thread of two books that follow.
In The Politics of Free Markets, Prasad compares the growth of neoliberalism across Britain, France, Germany, and the U.S., investigating why practices like deregulation and tax reductions took hold in the U.S. (under Ronald Reagan) and in Britain (under Margaret Thatcher) but much less so in France and Germany. "American and British tax policies were more progressive, American and British industrial policy more adversarial to business, and the American and British welfare states were more redistributive, and these structures (which defined the middle class in opposition to the poor and the interests of business in opposition to the general interest) proved fragile," Prasad writes.
France and Germany, on the other hand, established social programs that helped the people living there, while bolstering business and the economy. Contrary to what many people believe, "Europe has largely been very good at and strategic about economic growth," she says.
Two of Prasad's other books build on her earlier work on neoliberalism, while delving into the steep social and economic costs of the movement's policies. In The Land of Too Much: American Abundance and the Paradox of Poverty, published in 2012, Prasad overturns the conventional view of the U.S. as a laissez-faire economy. She argues instead that the country's tight (and often punitive) regulation of industry and business, combined with a long history of consumption, borrowing, and credit, have created a society in which millions of Americans struggle to meet their basic needs, and inequality remains a key feature.
In her most recent book, Starving the Beast: Ronald Reagan and the Tax Cut Revolution (2018), Prasad dissects another striking aspect of American neoliberalism: the obsession with tax cuts in a country ripe with wealth—and, ironically, poverty.
"Why are tax cuts always on the agenda, whether the economy is doing well or doing poorly, whether the budget is in surplus or in deficit, whatever the actual needs of the moment, and despite the findings from economists that tax cuts are not a reliable recipe for economic growth?" Prasad writes in Starving the Beast.
Her response involves an investigation of how and why the landmark passage, in 1981, of the Economic Recovery Tax Act (ERTA) triggered a widespread fixation on tax cuts that has lasted more than four decades. The result, Prasad argues, is a country not only with insufficient social programs but also a massive deficit—and a weakened economy.
"Long-term [economic] growth requires spending on education, research and development, and infrastructure," Prasad writes. "But all of that depends on tax money."
Since passing the ERTA, Republicans and Democrats have engaged in a back-and-forth tax battle, with Republicans repeatedly cutting federal taxes for everyone and Democrats cutting taxes for all but the top 20%. This progressive tax structure, in which the wealthy continue to pay more, while everyone else pays less, has led to "constrained tax revenue … that means the government isn't able to address emerging concerns, from climate change to the opioid crisis, much less programs such as universal health coverage or a Green New Deal or free college access," Prasad says.
"If Democrats really want these programs, they must somehow break out of that decades-long dance," she continues, and "figure out how to lay the groundwork for the long-term financing of government."
Looking back and ahead
Today, Prasad's office in Mergenthaler Hall is just a few floors away from the office she sat in years ago, learning the ropes of sociology from her professor, Christopher Chase-Dunn. "I even saw that old sociology textbook, the one I thought had terrible writing, lying around here somewhere recently," she says.
Prasad is eager to meet and collaborate with her new colleagues—and to continue her research.
"The Bloomberg Distinguished Professors Program at Johns Hopkins takes seriously the idea of scholarship that tries to solve social problems and extends beyond the walls of academia, which really appeals to me and aligns with the work I've done," she shares.
In fact, Prasad's position at SNF Agora's Center for Economy and Society allows her to work more closely with the Niskanen Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit public policy organization, where she is a senior fellow. Named "The Most Interesting Think Tank in America" by Time magazine in 2023, the Niskanen Center uses a "transpartisan," or moderate, approach to bridge differences and solve challenges across the country, ranging from a sluggish economy and housing shortage to high crime rates and declining life expectancy. "This is exactly the kind of solutions-based policy work I think we need," Prasad says.
"Professor Prasad exemplifies our mission at the SNF Agora Institute," said Hahrie Han, director of the SNF Agora Institute and a professor of political science in the Krieger School. "She asks big questions about the relationship between politics and the economy, and seeks to do her scholarship in a way that leads to practical solutions for civic and political actors. We're thrilled to welcome her back to Johns Hopkins."
"Professor Prasad is a very exciting addition to the faculty of the Krieger School and SNF Agora," said Christopher Celenza, dean of the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. "She is tackling some of the most pivotal questions of our time, and her approach crosses disciplinary boundaries in very specific and promising ways. I'm really looking forward to watching new collaborations unfold with both faculty and students."
Although she did not teach during the fall semester, Prasad looks forward to her future teaching role and plans to work with students on her unique solutions-based approach to sociology—the subject of a book she published in 2021, Problem-Solving Sociology: A Guide for Students, and a method she puts into practice at the Niskanen Center.
When asked to describe the overarching goals of her work moving forward, Prasad says, "Basically, what I've been doing for the last 20 years is trying to solve poverty. One thing I'm doing now is figuring out what lessons from the European welfare state we can bring in and whether we can implement social policies that don't damage economic growth.
"Can we do child care? Can we do vocational training? Can we do low-tuition or no-tuition college? Can we do these things without hurting the economy and dividing the country even more?"
In her search for solutions, Prasad is poring through the literature on economic growth, "specifically the sociological aspects," she says. Her research is leading her beyond Europe and the U.S. to the greater world. She explains: "I'm asking questions like: Why has East Asia been able to grow when other parts of the world haven't? Why was the developmental state able to get off the ground there, whereas in other countries, the state has been riven with corruption and a lack of meritocracy?
"I have a particular take on that," she says. But the world will have to wait for her astute answer.
As a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, Prasad joins an interdisciplinary cohort of scholars working to address major world problems and teach the next generation. The program is backed by support from Bloomberg Philanthropies.