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TED Talks refuses to publish income inequality speech

By Stephen C. Webster
Thursday, May 17, 2012 10:49 EDT
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A man gives a TED Talk. Photo: Flickr user tedxsomerville, Creative Commons licensed.
 
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Update (below): TED posts income inequality talk following media outcry

TED Talks, a group that promotes some of the world’s greatest thinkers in a traveling presentation series, recently refused to publish a “controversial” examination of income inequality in societies, even though the group featured a relatively similar speech several months before the “Occupy Wall Street” protests flared up in 2011.

TED Talks curator Chris Anderson said a talk given in March by multimillionaire Seattle venture capitalist Nick Hanauer was “one of the most politically controversial talks we’ve ever run,” according to emails obtained by National Journal reporter Jim Tankersley.

In the speech — which included a series of slides — Hanauer explained where the true wealth of market societies lies, saying that he’s confident rich people do not create jobs, and neither do businesses.

“Rather they are a consequence of an ecosystemic feedback loop animated by middle-class consumers, and when they thrive, businesses grow and hire, and owners profit,” he said, according to a transcript of the speech published by National Journal. “That’s why taxing the rich to pay for investments that benefit all is a great deal for both the middle class and the rich.”

Hanauer went on to explain that this feedback loop between capitalists like him and middle class consumers is what’s truly creating jobs, and that growth happens only when tax policies are designed to aid the consumer by taking more from the ultra-rich — and that it all, ultimately, benefits both classes.

“That’s why our current policies are so upside down,” he said. “When you have a tax system in which most of the exemptions and the lowest rates benefit the richest, all in the name of job creation, all that happens is that the rich get richer,” he said.

“Since 1980 the share of income for the richest Americans has more than tripled while effective tax rates have declined by close to 50 percent.

“If it were true that lower tax rates and more wealth for the wealthy would lead to more job creation, then today we would be drowning in jobs. And yet unemployment and under-employment is at record highs.”

While it’s certainly not the first time TED Talks has declined to publish a speech on its website — it only publishes one per day — Hanauer told National Journal that he was surprised by the decision against his talk because another TED staffer had responded enthusiastically.

“‘I want to put this talk out into the world!’ one of them wrote him in an e-mail in late April,” Tankersley notes in the report. Despite that apparent excitement, Anderson decided against publishing it in early May.

“We do not comment publicly on reasons to release or not release [a] talk,” he told National Journal in an email. “It’s unfair on the speakers concerned. But we have a general policy to avoid talks that are overtly partisan, and to avoid talks that have received mediocre audience ratings.”

The group has, however, featured talks by former Vice President Al Gore and NASA climate scientist James Hansen, speaking about climate change, and Melinda Gates giving a talk on the importance of birth control — so it’s clearly not the firs time a TED talk waded into partisan political waters.

But perhaps most interesting: TED Talks published a speech last October — originally given in July, well before the “Occupy Wall Street” protests spread nationwide — on “How economic inequality harms societies.” The talk was given by author and epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, who’s published a book that examines the most corrosive effects of how growing wealth gaps corrode societies.

His presentation includes a chart showing how rates of mental illness increase in tandem with a society’s wealth gap. So too do high school dropout rates, he observed. “If Americans want to live the American dream, they should go to Denmark,” Wilkinson said, to laughs and applause from the audience.

Apparently even that wasn’t too “controversial” for TED — but that, again, was before “Occupy Wall Street” happened. Oddly, they followed up his July speech with a Q&A interview months later, in which he directly addressed the “Occupy Wall Street” protests and noted that the same sentiment is shared by lower-income people in Britain.

“You gave this talk in July — at a time when people were already talking about this meme of the 1% versus the 99% — but now it’s front-page news in a really interesting way because of these protests,” the TED interviewer said.

“Yes, inequality has come back on the agenda and its prominence is rapidly increasing,” Wilkinson replied. “There were signs a couple of years ago of growing interest, and I think the interest in our work is largely a reflection of that. You’re probably not aware of how our book has taken off in this country; It’s probably sold about four times the numbers of copies in Britain (despite the much smaller population) as in the United States, and it’s been on the best-seller list several times.”

He added that in Britain, some people are setting up “Fairness Commissions” in their own communities to help reduce inequality on a local level, and that while many people disagree with the idea of forming encampments and “occupying” a space, there is “a lot of good will towards the purpose of it.”

“I think people are realizing the way top incomes have taken off over the past 20 years or so is unacceptable,” Wilkinson told TED.

It’s unclear why Wilkinson’s talk and interview were published while Hanauer’s talk was rejected for being “controversial.” TED’s media relations group did not respond to a request for comment.

Update: TED posts income inequality talk following media outcry

Under pressure from websites like National Journal and The Raw Story, TED Talks published Hanauer’s allegedly “controversial” speech on Thursday, and TED curator Nick Anderson explained in a blog post that his initial refusal to release it was not an act of censorship.

“For the record, pretty much everyone at TED, including me, worries a great deal about the issue of rising inequality,” he wrote. “We’ve carried talks on it in the past, like this one from Richard Wilkinson. We’d carry more in the future if someone can find a way of framing the issue that is convincing and avoids being needlessly partisan in tone.”

Read Hanauer’s full speech here, or watch the video embeded below. Wilkinson’s speech is embeded further down.

Photo: Flickr user tedxsomerville, Creative Commons licensed.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
 
 
 
 
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