Meet Randall Akee, new David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the Economic Studies Program

Brookings Institution
Editor's note:

This interview is adapted from a segment in the Brookings Cafeteria podcast called “Coffee Break,” where a scholar new to Brookings introduces their background, research interests, and offers book recommendations. The transcript has been slightly edited from the audio recording.

My name is Randy Akee, I am Rubenstein Fellow here at Brookings, and I’m in the Economic Studies area.Randall AkeeQ: Where did you grow up?

A: I was born and raised in Hawaii. I was born in a town called Waipahu, which is an old sugar cane plantation town, and transitioned into not being such a town over my lifetime. But I spent a lot of time riding my bike on old sugar cane plantation roads and fields as a kid.

Q: What inspired you to become a scholar?

A: Some of what inspired me to become a scholar is based on my background growing up in Hawaii and watching economic transition as different industries changed and seeing the adverse impact on different groups, either by skill levels, or by race and ethnicity. And in that environment, there was evidence that the economy was changing, in Hawaii in particular, but for the country and the world as well, as we became more focused on skills. I became much more interested in that over time.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Here at Brookings I’m working primarily on income inequality across race and ethnicity. A lot of people have brought to our attention the increasing income inequality in the United States and also in other parts of the world. In the U.S. it’s often quite difficult to get a look at income inequality across race and ethnic groups because the data disaggregating the information into those constituent parts are quite few and far between. One of the things I’ve been doing with some colleagues at the U.S. Census Bureau is to look at that, and use clearly administrative data that has much larger population sizes, which allows us to drill down to the constituent parts—different race and ethnic groups in the U.S.—and look at that over time.

In another subset of work that I’m doing with a colleague who is located in Canada at the University of Victoria; she and I have been collaborating on using administrative data in Canada looking at the incidence of mortality for First Nations people —indigenous peoples in Canada. And what we find is unbelievable and just dire results: that First Nations women located on reserve in Canada have mortality rates that are five times that of the Canadian average for women in their respective age groups, even at various age groups along the age distribution. There’s a lot of evidence that there are higher rates of mortality and violence against indigenous women in the U.S. as well as Canada. It was our intent to look and get some definitive numbers. And again, with small populations as First Nations are, and as American Indians are in the U.S., one can only really get at that with administrative data, Census type data sets. I think that’s a new, emerging area that scholars like me are very, very interested in, and realize that there are lots of benefits to using that type of data because it allows us to get information that otherwise is really obscured in survey data or other regional data that collapses information at geographic levels that are not very useful, such as the province or, in the U.S., counties or states.

Q: If you could recommend any book to our listeners, what would it be?

A: There is a book that I just finished reading recently and it’s called Voices of Fire. It’s a book on literature which is sort of unusual for an economist to be recommending. I found it a really compelling book, and it’s by a professor at the University of Hawaii. Her name is ku’ualoha ho’omanawanui. This book is really quite interesting because it examines a native Hawaiian legend, a myth, storytelling of an epic journey of two goddesses, Pele and Hi’iaka her sister, that is quite famous in Hawaii and in some ways similar to the Greek stories of Odysseus or Hercules, those things that we’re a bit more familiar with in the West. But this is from a female perspective going throughout the island chain in Hawaii fighting off monsters, fighting off witches, and going on an epic journey. I found it incredibly fascinating because I had read versions that had been translated previously, but translated by men and non-Hawaiians. This is the first time it’s been translated by a native Hawaiian woman, who also is fluent in the language. It’s a very unique book I think.

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Leah Korn contributed to this post.