"Politics isn't just about the latest crazy thing that Donald Trump is saying on Twitter," says Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a Ph.D. candidate in government and social policy at Harvard University who researches how businesses shape American politics. "Politics is really a means of dramatically changing the distribution of resources in a society."
To prove the power of politics, Hertel-Fernandez can point to the efficacy of his own policy proposals, one of which is already benefiting many young Americans. As an intern with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., in 2010, Hertel-Fernandez proposed that government funds be used to pay interns in the public sector. "I noticed that all the young people in Washington, D.C., were unpaid or poorly paid interns," he says. They either had to take out loans or rely on their parents for support, and that struck me as deeply unfair, especially because those internships are pretty much required if you want to work in government." (Hertel-Fernandez's internship with the EPI was paid, though his previous internship with the World Health Organization was not.)
Hertel-Fernandez's policy briefs inspired the New York Times to report on unpaid internships, sparking a national conversation about the issue. Hertel-Fernandez's boss at EPI even went on The Colbert Report to discuss the issue. In light of this media scrutiny, a number of companies have begun paying their interns—including the New York Times itself.
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Hertel-Fernandez's current research also has the potential to affect many working Americans. In a recent study, Hertel-Fernandez finds that one in four Americans has experienced some form of political recruiting at work. That includes highly coercive kinds of recruitment, as when an Ohio coal-mining firm forced its miners to attend a Mitt Romney rally by hinting that their jobs were at stake. Hertel-Fernandez is creating policy proposals that would protect workers from similarly egregious forms of political recruitment.
Growing up in Indiana, Hertel-Fernandez became aware of the importance of politics at a young age thanks to his parents, both economists. They loved debating current affairs over family meals, "sometimes fiercely," Hertel-Fernandez says. His mother grew up in Chile under a military regime that threatened ordinary people's livelihoods and, in some cases, even their lives. Her stories of that tumultuous time further convinced young Hertel-Fernandez that politics mattered.
In his spare time, Hertel-Fernandez likes to run long-distance and bake cookies and cakes. He also indulges his "overriding love of pop music," he says. "Don't even get me started on Taylor Swift's 1989 album."
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