By Eric Geller
Judging from the responses on the poster board in Peirce Atrium, the Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) made the right decision when it selected economic inequality as the topic for next month’s three-day conference.
The question on the poster — “Why does economic inequality matter?” — has prompted answers ranging from the philosophical to the sophomoric, causing some students to express disappointment that others aren’t taking the issue seriously. Assistant Professor of Political Science Tom Karako, CSAD’s director, said he was “delighted by the range and number of student responses” on the poster.
“They varied from the exclamatory ‘John Locke!’ to comments about economic inequality at Kenyon to bigger theoretical questions,” Karako said.
After more than a year of planning, the Center will bring together theoretical questions and practical concerns when it hosts its latest biennial conference, “The Politics of Economic Inequality,” from April 9-11. The conference will feature three high-profile speakers giving talks in Rosse Hall: Douglas Holtz-Eakin, the former director of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO); political scientist Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone; and Austan Goolsbee, the former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.
The conference, which will also include panel discussions in the Gund Community Foundation Theater, is the product of collaboration between CSAD, student organizations and faculty groups. Organizers said it will build on what the Center learned from its 2012 conference about global democracy promotion.
Karako said this year’s conference would feature several new elements, including private “sit-downs” where select groups of students could meet conference participants and faculty moderators on the panels. A few chosen students will also introduce several of the speakers.
In organizing this conference, the Center consulted with Student Lectureships, Faculty Lectureships and professors in the Economics Department. “The identities of the people that were invited, in some cases, came about after extensive discussion and cooperation with these groups,” Karako said.
Associate Professor of Economics Jay Corrigan, who will moderate a panel called “Public Narratives About Inequality,” said he “couldn’t have hoped for a better slate of speakers” for the conference.
Corrigan added that everyone could benefit from “a better understanding of the causes of economic inequality, the public policy responses to inequality and the tradeoffs those policies involve.”
The idea of soliciting responses in Peirce to a question about income inequality arose during conference organizers’ meetings with a group of about a dozen students who were selected to join the CSAD Student Advisory Council, of which this reporter was one.
The conference will begin on Wednesday, April 9, when President Sean Decatur introduces Holtz-Eakin, the former CBO director and 2008 McCain campaign adviser, at his 7:30 p.m. talk in Rosse Hall. CSAD will be monitoring the Twitter hashtag #KenyonCSAD throughout the week, and Karako said he hoped several of the speakers would join the online conversation.
“If students would like to submit questions via the hashtag,” Karako said, “I would highly encourage them to do so. That’s something we’ll be asking moderators to be looking at.”
The list of participants originally included former Washington Post writer Ezra Klein, who had edited a popular politics-and-policy blog on the Post’s website, but Klein had to withdraw after the launch of his new, heavily-hyped news website was rescheduled.
Washington Post economic policy correspondent Jim Tankersley, who is heading up a new group at the newspaper focusing on narrative storytelling about policy issues, was added to the program.
The goal of the Center’s biennial event is to stimulate discussion on timely issues, and as Karako said, “ascertaining that the politics of economic inequality would be timely [was] actually not that hard.” Both liberal and conservative think tanks and advocacy groups have discussed the topic heavily over the last few years.
Karako also found that the subject resonated in the Kenyon curriculum.
“Over the past several weeks,” he said, “I’ve had a number of Kenyon faculty stop me on the street and say, ‘We’re talking about this in class this week.’ Or someone else tells me, ‘I’m making every opportunity to bring up the conference topic,’ or, ‘I can’t believe you’re bringing so-and-so. We’re using him in class.’”
Karako encouraged students to “take advantage of this opportunity to come and hear from the people that they’re probably reading in the New York Times or … in their classes.” The conference, he said, features “really fascinating” participants.
“This is the sort of thing that the Center only does every two years,” Karako said. “I would encourage folks to make the most of it.”