CSAD: Public Policy and Inequality

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Professor Tom Karako inaugurated the first panel of the CSAD conference on the politics of inequality on a light note: “I’m going to say this all day long, but I think this will be my favorite panel.” He also acknowledged that an enthusiastic—and at times heated—online discussion had already begun among some of the conference’s featured speakers.

Ross Eisenbrey opened the period of opening statements. He presented a chart showing that tracking GDP per capita from 1979 to the present day which shows an increase of nearly $22,000. He asserted that this is a positive development, because it has led to more wealth being available for equitable distribution, although I do not believe he demonstrated how this could be done. The problem, of course, is that most of this new wealth has been funneled in the direction of the top 1% of the country. I believe his most important point was the link between the decline of union strength in America and the decline of the ability of workers to negotiate wages, and how closely this is tied to inequality.

Scott Winship, who followed Eisenbrey, questioned the assertion by his predecessor that more wealth would be available to working class families if it was less concentrated in the hands of the very wealthy. He argued that the most extreme concentration of wealth lies in the top 10% within the top 1%, and that the amount of wealth held by the bottom 90% of that same group has not changed profoundly. While I do not agree personally with many of his assertions on policy matters, I think this is something we must take into consideration if we are to form a practical approach to inequality.

Suzy Khimm was the third speaker, but the first who is not a professional economist. However, she possesses, to my mind, the most impressive familiarity with the nature of policy discussions in Congress and with the way that issues of economic inequality are depicted in the media. Her most salient point was that the debate over inequality has been mistakenly framed primarily as a debate over minimum wage laws and the prospective extension of unemployment benefits. She also lamented the fact that the only acceptable debate under the Obama administration has been whether to cut Social Security or not to cut it—I would refer any individuals who express discontent with the expansion of government under the present administration to this claim. Finally, she said that improvement is almost wholly in the hands of policymakers, which may be more simplistic than is helpful, but is nonetheless an important assertion.

William Galston appeared to be the most rhetorically powerful of the four panelists—he spoke with obvious enthusiasm, at times lightly pounding the podium or using forceful hand gestures for emphasis. At one point, he said, “Let me be very brisk,” which I think characterized his compacted speaking style. Besides that, he had a ready wit at his disposal, as exemplified when he poked fun at himself by likening one of his statements to a line from a Marx Brothers film. Galston admitted that he is not, like Eisenbrey or Winship, an economist. However, he mentioned that the nation’s aggregate growth has not matched job creation since the Great Recession ended, which is an unsettling fact. Most interestingly, he proposed the creation of a “productivity fund”, for which businesses would be required to furnish information about the gap between productivity and worker compensation, and would be required to make a donation to the fund if disparities were significant enough.

The spontaneous and unscripted nature of the question and answer period was as enjoyable as it was edifying. In some instances, those who had stood out in their opening statements were not the most outstanding participants in Q&A. Although their speaking styles are very different, I thought that the deliberative and reasoned responses of Winship and the impassioned yet genial responses of Galston were the most effective in this portion of the program.

Some aspects of the Q&A period were simply unexpected—for example, I was surprised by how resoundingly Galston disagreed with Eisenbrey over the possible opportunities for reducing inequality by re-unionizing the work force, given that both identify with the left in some form and agree on many other issues.

Winship made a relevant argument at one point that a change in societal values can explain the change in relationship between productivity and compensation. In the 1940s and 1950s, he explained, men were paid more than they produced, because it was assumed at that time that they would be the sole breadwinners of their households and their wives would stay home. This was, I thought, a critical insight, and was besides delivered in a thoughtful and thorough way.

Khimm argued that unemployment benefits allow people greater amounts of free time with which “to have the job of looking for a job” when they are out of work. This is a critical reminder that logistics can often be a huge barrier to finding work, which is a fact that is not generally injected into the dialogue.

Galston suggested that that a populist revolt is possible sometime in the next decade, which I believe to be an interesting argument, and that this is only likely to be averted if the American people have suddenly given up their habitual desire for a better future.

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