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Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz to speak at BCC on income inequality

Joseph E. Stiglitz, Ph.D

Baltimore. Ferguson. Staten Island. Beyond the individual events and decades-old tension and distrust between police and public, there is a common link. Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz draws a direct line between economic policies that create income inequality and the rioting in the streets.

“What we’ve seen not only in Baltimore but in Ferguson and places all over the country, a kind of discrimination, inequities in our system of justice, I think it’s staring people in the face in a way that a lot of Americans couldn’t believe before that,” said Stiglitz, who will be speaking Monday at Bergen Community College on the subject of inequality.

“That is one of the reasons why inequality has risen to the top of the political agenda. I think Baltimore, Ferguson, New York, all of these things have really crystallized something that has been latent for a long time.”

If you go

WHO: Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz.

WHAT: Lecture, discussion and Q&A on income inequality.

WHEN: 7:30 to 9 p.m. Monday.

WHERE: Bergen Community College, Technology Center, 400 Paramus Road, Paramus, bcc.edu.

HOW MUCH: Free with a suggested donation of $10. Seating is limited, reregister at njppn.org.

Monday night’s event, which will be moderated by Rutgers economics professor Bruce Mizrach, is sponsored by the North Jersey Public Policy Network (NJPPN), a non-partisan, all-volunteer organization whose mission is to educate the public on public policy issues.

“The matter of income and wealth inequality is significant nationally and internationally,” NJPPN’s Rhoda Schermer wrote in an email. “Dr. Stiglitz is an authority on this issue and its challenges.”

Unlike so many other topics up for political debate, there are no deniers of the idea of great inequality in the United States.

“I found it very striking that conservatives have not tried to make an attack on the basic thesis,” he said.

That is not to say no one fights Stiglitz’s push to fix it.

“There are a lot of red herrings that get raised,” he said. “People will say no society can function with complete equality, and that’s not what I’m saying. It’s that the U.S. has moved to an extreme of inequality where it is undermining the way our economy, democracy and society work.

“Then some people say, ‘Oh it’s more important to have equality of opportunity, not equality of income.’ Then I say, ‘Yes, but we don’t have equality of opportunity.’ ”

Stiglitz’s new book, “The Great Divide,” is a collection of his essays on the topic that were written for various media outlets, including Vanity Fair, The New York Times, Time magazine, Harper’s and Politico.

“I wrote these various articles and I was focusing on the different aspects of inequality,” he said. “I thought it was important to get a more realistic view about what was going on. The second reason [for ‘The Great Divide’] is there are different readerships for these different media. Some people read Vanity Fair. Some people read The New York Times. A lot of people don’t read. I thought, in a way, the sum was greater than the separate parts, and by putting it together and then writing the narrative that I did that brought it all together, it would have a bigger impact.”

But who exactly is he trying to influence — policymakers or the general public? Both, he hopes, particularly on the issue of trade.

“Right now we’re debating the new trade agreements, and several of the essays deal with the new trade agreements,” he said. “One of my main theses is that the way our policies structure our economy leads to more inequality. Several of the essays try to explain how these new trade agreements actually are likely to result in more inequality.

“So I hope that motivates ordinary citizens to get engaged in this issue. But I also hope that it motivates some people in Congress to vote no on what the president has put forward. I don’t expect President Obama to read it and say, ‘Oh, I made a mistake.’ That would be nice if he did that, but I don’t anticipate that happening.

“But I do anticipate — and I’ve seen it happening already — people reading it and getting angry, writing a letter. That’s part of the democratic process.”

Stiglitz can speak about economic policies in layman’s terms so non-economists can understand. Sometimes, however, he struggles to convince people these inequities can be changed — and they can make the difference.

“The hardest thing to get people to believe is that we can change the political system,” he said.

Stiglitz finds people with a “kind of resignation and lack of hope.”

“That’s not what I want them to conclude,” he said. “I want them to conclude we can do something about it.”

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