In anticipation of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s visit to Swarthmore on Monday, co-Editor in Chief Jon Emont asked Nicholas Kristof some questions about his recent columns, what it would take for a genuine progressive moment to take hold in America, and the best places for students to travel.
In many of your recent columns (“Crony Capitalism Comes Home,” “America’s Primal Scream”) you have switched your focus from struggling people abroad, to the millions who are struggling with poverty at home. You argue that the Occupy Wall Street Movement is the “primal scream” of Americans frustrated with our inability to rein in inequality and radically restructure the financial sector. Are you confident that this “primal scream” will transform into a real mandate for change by 2012, and that Obama will be empowered to increase taxes on the richest and corporations, and actually restructure the financial system? If not, what do you think it will take for the public mood to change?
I’m not confident at all. Yes, inequality is gaining more traction as a domestic issue, but so is disgust at government generally. And so my guess is we’ll see more calls for modest increases in taxes on the rich, but also calls for a flat tax that would lower taxes on the rich. Populism is gaining ground, and the populists on the left see government intervention as part of the answer while populists on the right see laissez-faire as part of the solution. I also think it’ll be very tough for President Obama to be reelected in this economic environment.
You mention in “Crony Capitalism Comes Home” that bankers are not “evil at all.” And this year, like most other years, many Swarthmore graduates will take their first class education and go directly into finance, as analysts at JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and many other banks that pay their workers handsomely without contributing much to the public good (and that, arguably, actively undermine it). In part they do so because, as a society, we avoid taking people to task for dedicating their lives to the pursuit of wealth. Would you be willing to say to Swarthmore students, “If you go directly into finance,when there are so many opportunities for smart kids to give back to the world, you are behaving immorally?” If not, why not?
I wouldn’t scold anyone for going into finance, and I wouldn’t want to demonize bankers. Properly regulated, banking does contribute to the public good – although it’s also true that inadequately regulated it manages to socialize risk and privatize profit in ways that leave the public worse off. I also think it’s a mistake for progressives to self-select out of certain sectors. For example, liberals to some extent opted out of CIA recruitment for a generation or so after the 1970’s, and in retrospect that was probably a mistake: I think the result was an intelligence community that gave more hawkish advice and analysis to policy-makers.
I do hope, though, that Swarthmore grads who go into banking will take principles and ideals with them. That might mean using some of those nice salaries to “give back.” It might mean helping provide banking services to the unbanked. And it might simply mean listening a bit more to your conscience when those around you are suggesting dubious shortcuts that just don’t feel right. Frankly, the graduates will themselves feel better and more fulfilled if their life goal is more than profit maximization, whether for themselves or for a bank.
In your work, you discuss many aid organizations that do great work overseas. Could you suggest some of the ones that are doing the best work?
I’m reluctant to pick just one or two, because there are so many. But big ones like CARE and Mercy Corps and International Rescue Committee certainly do great work. And our book “Half the Sky” is full of examples of little ones that are stunningly effective. We also list some on www.halftheskymovement.org.
I have a roundtrip ticket to any city in the world. Where should I go?
That depends on what speaks to you. I do think that young Americans should spend time in China and India, two countries that will be increasingly important in their lives. And Latin America is right next door, and Spanish will be hugely important. I would suggest that you’ll find a richer experience if you don’t just join a herd of students partying in Paris or Rome. Try to get out of your comfort zone, to a place more like La Paz, or Delhi or Cairo or Chengdu.
I also wish that universities did more to encourage students to take a gap year before college – getting a job in one of those cities, for example. I think the students would arrive at college more ready to study, with better language skills, and with a deeper understanding of the world we live in. For existing Swarthmore students that advice is a bit late, but they can also take a gap year after college.
Nicholas Kristof will be speaking at 7:30 p.m. in Lang Performing Arts Center Pearson-Hall Theatre as part of Swarthmore’s Cooper Foundation series. The topic of his lecture will be, “A Call to Action: Encouraging people to join the ‘World’s Fight.’” The event is free and open to the public.