Story by Bailey Walker
Photo Illustration by JaNae Williams
Social Sciences Professor James Davenport’s fourth installment of the Great Debates: Power, Politics, and People featured intellectuals of Oklahoma discussing income inequality in the United States. Panelists included Gene Perry, communications and strategy director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a center-left, Tulsa-based think tank; Craig Dawkins, Rose State professor of economics and personal finance; and Dr. John Wood, political science professor at the University of Central Oklahoma.
One spirited audience member was welcomed into the discussion by Davenport, bringing an impromptu working class perspective to the discussion. His concerns included improving schools as a means of mitigating wealth and income inequality, as well as issues of expensive childcare. Though generally in agreement, for the first time in this debate series the panelists clashed in ideas.
Perry asserted “distortions of democracy” occur when income inequality becomes as high as it is in the U.S.. According to economist and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, the country has between the second and fourth highest rate of income inequality in the world, measuring up near notoriously corrupt nations, Russia and Ukraine. Perry argued that such a rift in resources between the rich and poor, coupled with current campaign finance laws, means the wealthy are the agenda setters for politics. For example, low-wage workers often have schedules only a week in advance, so long-term or short-term planning is nearly impossible. Issues like schedule control are not considered political matters, as corporate tax cuts have dominated recent congressional news.
Wood shared Perry’s views on the influence of money in politics, citing power of interest groups and campaigns funded by super Political Action Committees. Wood called for reform, noting that the biggest booms of innovation and economic equality came during the ‘50s and ‘60s, a time in which the wealthiest were taxed at above 90 percent. The top and bottom of the income spectrum are largely fixed, with 42 percent of people in the bottom one-fifth of income staying in that bottom fifth, Wood explained. CNN reports a more grim picture, claiming 70 percent of those born to low income families stay in the low income bracket. He also emphasized that the Fortune 400, the wealthiest people in the U.S., are most often born into money. According to Wood, 65 percent of the people on this list were born into wealth or inherited their money, while 35 percent did not.
Dawkins moved to counter Wood about the rigidity of the extremes of the income spectrum by citing two examples of wealthy people losing their fortunes: Mike Tyson and an NFL player. This somewhat bolstered Wood’s statistical analysis when only two specific counterexamples were offered instead of contrasting data, though it is true the rich can lose their fortunes due to mismanagement. Conversation about the lives of the wealthy stayed limited; instead the panel moved to address issues ordinary people face, such as education.
A student approached to ask the panelists a question about their opinions on a universal basic income, or a UBI. A UBI is essentially an amount of money given to each U.S. citizen with no strings attached. All panelists supported the idea of a UBI, but they differed in how the UBI would be implemented. Wood and Perry leaned closer to the UBI being set at the poverty line, sacrificing all welfare programs in the process but ensuring all people a standard of living above poverty. Dawkins suggested a UBI that does not meet the poverty line, but still assists people. UBI pilot programs are currently being tested in Finland, Kenya and several other nations.
Income inequality is an issue with catastrophic impacts. While there are many different methods of addressing the problem, it appears all of the paths require radical change, whether that be in redistributing wealth from the top .01%, implementing a UBI or overhauling campaign finance laws to even start discussing solutions. Davenport brings great minds on campus with this Great Debates series, the next of which will be over the great Wealth Explosion, 1800s-present, at 2 p.m. March 6 in the LRC.
The 15th Street News is a student publication at Rose State College.