The University of Dallas hosted three nationally recognized speakers for “A Conversation on Economic Inequality,” sponsored by the American Public Philosophy Institute (APPI), to promote discussion and awareness of a prominent issue in contemporary society.
The first speaker, a professor of law at George Mason University Law School and former American Enterprise Institute (AEI) fellow Michael Greve, argued that economic inequality is not as significant as some might think.
“I don’t think there’s a country … that has thought more seriously about inequality than America,” Greve said during his initial presentation at the event. “It’s not a problem but a slogan and a nasty one at that.”
He also said that the narrow focus on economic inequality prevents Americans from focusing on other issues.
The second presenter was William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton who holds a chair at the think tank, The Brookings Institution. He put the problem of economic inequality in a broader historical context.
“Throughout the West, the triumphalism of the ‘90s led to deep anxiety that an epoch was coming to an end,” Galston said. “The top 1 percent began to break away from the rest of the pack, and [there was] a profound loss of confidence in the future.”
Galston argued that the four most important consequences of economic inequality are the retardation of economic growth, the decrease in social mobility, the loss of social cohesion and the decline of the middle class.
“Declining expectations challenge the ethos … of the American dream,” Galston said.
Finally, Ross Douthat, the youngest New York Times columnist in the paper’s history and former senior editor of the Atlantic, said economic inequality’s possible importance is only a result of its place in a broader context.
“Economic inequality may matter because of the consequences of other trends that we should deplore or at least be concerned about,” Douthat said.
He claimed that the decline in sexual morality has led to an increase in inequality.
“I think we have a sort of sexual-social ethic leading to greater levels of flourishing for the wealthy and well-educated,” Douthat said. “Misery is contained in a signpost-free sexual landscape … Inequality is the consequence of other, bigger problems. If we find ways to address other things, we’ll have less income inequality.”
Dr. Christopher Wolfe, affiliate professor of politics and APPI president, said that both the importance and the complexity of the question of economic inequality made it an important topic for the event.
“It’s a huge question in our society,” Wolfe said. “Some are claiming there are widening gaps, but some deny that. It’s obviously a key political question.”
He said that personal connections allowed him to bring Galston, Greve and Douthat to the university and that he chose the three of them for their different perspectives on economic inequality.
“Two of them I know personally, and the other is a friend of a friend,” Wolfe said. “They have a range of views, both liberal and conservative … for a three-way conversation with different perspectives.”
Wolfe said that the event was important to host at the University of Dallas because of the student body’s concern for social justice and the common good. He also said he hoped students would appreciate the complexity of the issue of economic inequality.
“Intelligent people can take a variety of positions on the issue,” Wolfe said. “We all want the common good, but how we get there is a really complicated question. [I hope students] really get involved in the debate.”
Some professors, including assistant professor of economics Dr. Aida Ramos, prepared their students ahead of time for the conversation.
“One of the things I have done is to initiate ongoing inquiry in my History of Economic Thought class on how different economists have theorized about inequality over time so we can put the information from the event into that context when we have class again after the event,” Ramos wrote in an email. “In Economic Development we did a section on the negative impacts of high inequality on economic growth.”
Ramos also said she invited Aaron B. Fricke, a tax attorney, to speak to her classes on taxation, wealth and inequality to encourage conversation about the meaning of fairness and the consequences of income and wealth inequality.
“I have worked to make inequality a part of the discussion across my courses, to give students facts and to get them thinking about it in multiple ways from multiple perspectives,” Ramos said in an email.