How do we create a better world?
Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz and numerous other speakers considered this question on Friday at the day-long TedxColumbiaSIPA Conference, an initiative organized by School of International and Public Affairs students.
Stiglitz, a SIPA professor who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2001, was featured on the panel “A Fairer World” and discussed the consequences of an increasingly polarized income distribution in the United States.
“The American Dream is really part of the American psyche,” he said. “But if you go to the numbers, they don’t support this view.”
Stiglitz noted that the share of wealth going to the top 1 percent of earners has doubled since 1980, a trend he compared to the economic conditions of the Gilded Age and the 1920s.
“In both of those instances, Americans looked over the brink. They decided they didn’t like the direction in which we were going. We pulled back from the brink,” he said. “Will we once again pull back from the brink?”
Krugman, the 2008 Nobel laureate in economics and a New York Times columnist, addressed unemployment on a panel about happiness.
“Now is a unique time when expansionary government policy actually creates jobs,” he said. “Only now, only until the economy has recovered some more, is this true.”
Teachers College professor Christopher Emdin said that educators, especially those who work in crime-ridden communities, need to provide students with ways to relate their classroom experiences to problems in their neighborhoods.
“Urban public education, to be truly urban public education, must open youth up to the reality of their experiences, to realize people are making decisions about them without them,” he said.
Emdin proposed teaching math lessons that have students “calculate the fact that there are these awful things going on in their community,” driving home lessons that would show them the issues in their neighborhoods.
The conference featured SIPA faculty members and experts in economics, political science, media, and public health. Divided into four sessions on health, safety, equality, and happiness, it addressed topics such as the economy, terrorism, citizen journalism, and youth empowerment.
Other notable panelists were News Corporation Executive Vice President Joel Klein, who is the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and BBC Media Action USA Executive Director Yvonne Macpherson.
The TEDx conference also featured presentations from current students in SIPA and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The student organizers set up a competition for student speakers, and over 30 applied.
Event co-organizers Ethan Wagner and Caroline Le Viet, both SIPA ’13, described it as a full-time job since November. They were initially interested in planning a TED talk on microfinance, as both are members of Microfinance Working Group, a student organization at SIPA.
“After thinking about it more, we agreed that TED events are supposed to be more multidisciplinary than that, not just focused on a single topic,” Wagner said.
Wagner and Le Viet, along with other SIPA students, coordinated every aspect of the event, applying for a TED license and contacting potential speakers.
Though they are graduating this year, they hope SIPA students next year will pick up where they left off and host another TEDx conference.
Wagner said the project “should be a good lesson to Columbia students, undergraduate or graduate, that if you take charge, don’t be afraid to take on something like this.”
Daniel Cohn, SIPA ’14 and a Master’s of International Affairs candidate, was one of the student speakers.
His presentation in a panel on safety explored the ability of hip-hop to generate social movements and awareness, referencing the use of rap as a protest tool in Tunisia’s 2010 revolution.
In his presentation, Cohn said, “Allow me to reintroduce to you hip-hop music and what it can do: immobilize the lives of disenfranchised youth, and it’s proven to be good for the community too.”
He said he was amazed that he would be presenting—and rapping—at the same conference as Krugman, whom he called one of his childhood heroes.
The audience included many SIPA students, such as Tanita Preston, SIPA ’13, who saw connections between the talks and her own studies. Preston said she was “happy to see that people are talking about the things that we were talking and thinking about” in the classrooms at SIPA.
Sarah Thontwa, SIPA ’13, said the conference and the presentations inspired her. Still, she added, “I would have liked to see a lot more female speakers and topics that particularly relate to women’s health, for example.”
Ramya Ahuja, CC ’16, appreciated the interdisciplinary nature of the dialogue.
“I love the mix of speakers. It was really interesting to notice the intersecting ideas of looking at solutions in addition to the problems,” Ahuja said. “Whether it was journalism or microfinance or economics, they were all looking at the big picture and the bigger problems, taking everything into account. I love that there were intersections within fields.”
Josephine McGowan contributed reporting.