Northwestern University Political Union took on the increasingly debated topic of what impact inequality has on democratic capitalism on Monday night.
Joined by Steven Monacelli, former president of Political Union and a current federal analyst with Deloitte, the group of 17 discussed the economic, political and moral aspects of income inequality.
Monacelli argued in favor of the affirmative resolution that inequality impairs democratic capitalism, while Weinberg junior John Kim took the con (opposite) side. By the end of the debate, nine attendees supported the affirmative side, three supported the con and five abstained. Four students abstained before the debate began and no students supported the con side.
In comments following the two main arguments by Monacelli and Kim, students questioned whether it is preferable to grow the size of the economic pie or to make each person’s portion of the economic pie more equal. Toward the end of the debate, Monacelli challenged the idea that such a tradeoff has to exist.
The debate was fueled with material from two recent, largely discussed publications: a study on influence in American politics questioning the reality of majoritarian democracy in the U.S. and French economist Thomas Piketty’s book "Capital" which explores income inequality. Students combined these contemporary arguments with classic political philosophies to debate the persistent issue of inequality.
The question of unequal political influence by different sectors of society played an important role in the debate. Students challenged that undue influence in politics is a problem regardless of who holds that influence. Others countered that influence does not always necessarily correlate to wealth, considering interest groups can represent groups with lower incomes. Kim’s concluding statement on the con argued political systems are to blame.
“Most problems with buying votes lie with politicians being corrupt, not people being rich,” Kim said. Kim stressed the need to examine flaws in the democratic system and the future of the impoverished in an increasingly service-based economy.
Monacelli’s final statement revolved around the question of morality within the economic and political debate. Pointing to recent Supreme Court decisions, Monacelli focused on the the questions of power, equal citizenship and the law.
One element of the debate was the implications of relative inequality versus absolute inequality, such as the gap between the incomes and the absolute level of each income. Some argued that even if the system brings people out of more absolute standards of poverty, relative inequality is still a problem because of varying levels of influence in politics and society.
Students also discussed problems with the types of jobs high incomes incentivize, such as jobs in high-frequency trading, which some argued are less socially valuable than lower paying positions in education, for example.
While the debate often revolved around incomes, students pointed out that wealth and income are different. For example, wealthy Americans may gain money from capital gains in addition to income. Students mentioned that family inheritances, as well as the social services provided by a government, may also contribute to opportunities and conceptions of wealth.
From the role of government in the economy to the value of democracy, students intrepreted fundamental questions in the social sciences and applied them to modern problems in the U.S. for a productive discussion.