An economic discussion entitled "The Political Origins and Consequences of Inequality: A Roundtable" was held Thursday night in the Toyota Auditorium of the Howard H. Baker Center for Public Policy on the topic of income inequality in the U.S.
Sponsored by UT's Department of Political Science, along with the Department of Sociology, the Haines Morris Fund, the Global Studies Program and the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program, the discussion included four college professors who are experts on the political impact of inequality, including UT associate professor of political science Nathan Kelly.
The other professors present were Joe Soss from the University of Minnesota, Fred Solt from the University of Iowa and Nita Rudra from the University of Pittsburgh. The discussion was moderated by UT associate professor of political science Jana Morgan. The event was free to the public.
The discussion began with opening remarks by Dr. John Scheb, head of UT's political science department, and was followed by short presentations from each of the panel members.
The first to speak was Kelly, who discussed the levels of income distribution in the U.S. and how the levels have changed over time, saying that the inequality of wealth in our country today is truly of historic proportion. Kelly focused on the political causes of income inequality, pointing to mechanisms of government influence, such as Medicare and Social Security, and an institutional design that favors the status quo as being some of the main causes.
He also placed some of the blame on other political factors, including globalization, a decrease in union membership, the existence of the filibuster and reductions in the income and capital gains taxes.
The next to speak was Soss, who spoke in detail about the struggles of those in the lower portion of American incomes.
"If we want to understand rising inequality in our country," Soss said, "we cannot lose sight of those who have been harmed by it the most."
He was followed by Solt, who put the U.S. in a comparative context, pointing out that the nation's levels of income inequality are much higher than those in similarly developed countries.
He also claimed that income inequality has democratic implications by concentrating power in the hands of the wealthy and increasing apathy among those with the least income.
The final speaker was Rudra, who put the issue in the context of the global economy while questioning the conventional wisdom that globalization reduces inequality, arguing instead that it exacerbates the problem.
She argued that governments of developing countries must focus on pro-poor institutional reform. The discussion concluded with a question-and-answer session, and the speakers were available for additional questions after the event.
Joshua Haston, senior in environmental studies, was among those in attendance and found Rudra's discussion of globalization particularly intriguing.
"I found it very interesting that she was talking about being a fan of globalization while kind of arguing against it," Haston said. "She sees the problems but still supports it."
Haston agreed with Radra's claim that governments must make institutional reforms to reduce inequality.
"Absolutely," Haston said. "They're the one. Governments must take an active role."
Kelly provided cautious optimism about the future of the economic inequality problem.
"These things are not simple to change overnight," Kelly said. "I think the more we learn, the more we know about what needs to change. I do think we are starting to see some literature about some institutional changes that can be made that would give us a better chance to fight inequality."