SNF Agora Receives Hewlett Funding to Create Center for Economy and Society

Multidisciplinary center will bring together thinkers on the left and right to reinvigorate debates about politics and economics and identify new possibilities for change.

The SNF Agora Institute has received $10 million in funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to establish a new multidisciplinary Center for Economy and Society. As our society and our democracy face challenges on multiple fronts—including deep economic disparities, pessimism about economic growth and opportunity, and declining faith in economic and political liberalism—the new center will work to reinvigorate debates about politics and economics and identify new possibilities for change.

Steven Teles, professor of political science, will be the center’s inaugural director. The broader leadership team will include Angus Burgin, associate professor of history; Ling Chen, assistant professor of political economy; and Henry Farrell, SNF Agora Professor of International Affairs.

The Center for Economy and Society is one of a number of inter-related initiatives being funded by the Hewlett Foundation and Omidyar Network. The grants—which together total more the $40 million and are also funding work at Harvard and Howard universities, MIT, and the Santa Fe Institute—will support the establishment of academic centers dedicated to reimagining the relationships among markets, governments, and citizens.

At SNF Agora, the Center for Economy and Society will identify and address the perils facing market democracies as old economic prescriptions fail, and democracy is challenged from within. The democratic left and right are grounded in ideas of political and economic freedom, even if they disagree over where politics should end and markets should start. Both need to confront external threats, particularly from authoritarian regimes claiming to have a better way of organizing politics and markets. These pressures have raised questions about whether and how market democracies can adapt to foster both inclusive opportunity and economic dynamism.

“The Center for Economy and Society aims to be at the center of the conversations that these challenges and possibilities will spur,” Teles says. “There are few places where serious economic thinkers on the left and right can talk and argue in serious and productive ways. The Center will provide a pluralistic space in which scholars and practitioners with different approaches to the open society can thrash out their disagreements, discover common ground, and build new frameworks for governing.”

“This question that the new Center will tackle—about how to understand and reimagine the changing relationship between society, the state, and the economy—goes hand-in-hand with the work the institute is doing to understand threats to democracy and opportunities for change,” said SNF Agora Inaugural Director Hahrie Han. “We are so excited to be working with Steven Teles and the entire team to build the Center for Economy and Society, which will take a pluralistic approach to understanding the history and future of economic liberalism.”

Over the coming years, the center will build a new faculty and help train students in new ways. The Hewlett Foundation and Johns Hopkins together will fund two new endowed positions for scholars who will help build the center further; the university has also committed a Bloomberg Distinguished Professorship to the work of the center. The center will create opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students to learn a deeply inter-disciplinary approach to the economy, drawing together ideas from across the social sciences and humanities.

At the core of the center’s intellectual activities will be a series of inter-disciplinary, cross-ideological convenings that will generate new conversations between scholars, policy makers, and public intellectuals around the challenges facing market democracies. A convening with Ezra Klein of the New York Times on supply-side progressivism is already being planned for this semester, as well as regular dinner discussions on political economy in Washington, D.C. The center will also host Professor Chloe Thurston (Northwestern University), who is a leader in the field of American political economy, in the 2023-2034 academic year. The center’s advisory board will be headed by Professor Margaret Levi, director of Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences.