10 Big Ideas on Inequality

October 14, 2016
By Katie Gibson

Wealth distribution. Eviction and housing policies. Racial discrimination and altered history. Unemployment and fiscal policy. The issues around the persistent problem of inequality in the United States are numerous and complicated. But on Thursday, scholars from around Harvard University delivered a series of concise but powerful presentations on how to think about and solve the issue  -- “10 Big Ideas on Inequality.”

Sponsored by the Program on Inequality and Social Policy within the Malcolm Wiener Center at Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), the packed event gave the audience a glimpse into the work of economists, sociologists, and historians from several different schools at Harvard. Bruce Western, chair of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at HKS, moderated the event and led a brief Q&A session with several speakers afterward.

1. Lawrence Katz, Elisabeth Allison Professor of Economics, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Speaking about inequality and the “fissuring of the U.S. workplace”, Katz spoke about the changes, over the past decades, in “who does work and how” and the ways that the “gig economy” – online and off – can put downward pressure on wages and labor standards.

2. Matthew Desmond, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Drawing from his recent book, Evicted, Desmond used the moving odyssey of one family to illustrate the challenges facing the evicted and the cycle that forces many of them into progressively worse housing. “The home is the center of life, and evictions erase the home. Without stable shelter, everything else [in family life] falls apart.”

3. Douglas Elmendorf, Dean of Harvard Kennedy School and Don K. Price Professor of Public Policy

 “High unemployment is very costly for people of modest means,” said Elmendorf, as he spoke about how fiscal and monetary policy could be used “vigorously” to keep unemployment low, which has important advantages for those same people.

4. Theda Skocpol, Victor S. Thomas Professor of Government and of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

The wealthiest .01 percent of Americans are responsible for 40 percent of contributions to political campaigns. Skocpol compared and contrasted the behavior of donors in top conservative and liberal consortia, including the Koch Seminars and the Democracy Alliance.

5. Stefanie Stantcheva, Assistant Professor of Economics, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

“Taxes, as much as we dislike paying them, are a very powerful tool,” Stantcheva began. She discussed capital income inequality and the fairness of wealth distribution.

6. Dani Rodrik, Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy, Harvard Kennedy School

“Let’s globalize the conversation a little bit,” Rodrik said, before asking the audience to answer a tricky question: would they rather be poor in a rich country or rich in a poor country? He then presented data showing that even the poorest people in rich countries earn (on average) five times what the richest people in the world’s poorest countries earn annually.

7. Alexandra Killewald, Professor of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

“Wealth is associated with real incomes that people care about,” Killewald said. “You don’t have to be a multimillionaire to care about” – or benefit from – social goods that wealth can help make possible, such as a better education or a house in a safer neighborhood.

8. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Professor of History, Race, and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School; Suzanne Young Murray Professor, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study

“I want your help writing a new origin story,” Muhammad told the audience, before launching into an impassioned defense of historical and humanistic literacy. “There is no trans-ideological view of the past,” he admitted. “History is messy.” But, he argued, a thoughtful commitment to teaching the history of women, racial minorities and other marginalized groups could begin to reshape the American narrative of inequality.

9.  David A. Moss, Paul Whiton Cherington Professor, Harvard Business School

“Does inequality affect individual decision-making?” Moss asked the audience. “If so, how?” He discussed the causes and consequences of inequality in American life.

10.  Sendhil Mullainathan, Robert C. Waggoner Professor of Economics, Faculty of Arts and Sciences

“Imagine that you’re a first-generation community college student,” Mullainathan told the audience. “You pick up a course catalog and have to decide which math course you’ll take. How do you decide?” He compared the resources available to help students with such a decision – “There might be a guidance counselor on the fifth floor who’s free” – with the data-driven, finely tuned algorithms governing such programs as Netflix and Amazon Prime, to help viewers determine what TV shows and movies they will watch. A behavioral economist, Mullainathan urged the audience to think about the possibilities of smarter policy design to influence behavior and help reverse inequality. 

Tags: Inequality Inequality , Justice Justice , Poverty Poverty , Poverty and Inequality Poverty and Inequality

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What are the big ideas, the most important questions, that should guide work fighting inequality? What have we learned? What are the central puzzles yet to be solved? Experts answered these questions.

 


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