Inequality Not Who We Are: de Blasio & Krugman at CUNY

38% of CUNY students live in a household with an income of less than $20,000.

42.2% of CUNY students are the first in their family to go to college.

CUNY and other public universities, play a distinct role in advancing equality.

CUNY Graduate Center President, Chase Robinson, opened last Thursday’s “Inequality in NYC and Beyond Discussion” with these remarks.

What followed was a lively panel discussion between Mayor de Blasio and Paul Krugman on inequality. Moderated by Janet Gornick, Director of the Luxembourg Income Study Center at CUNY, de Blasio and Krugman discussed issues around how we got to be such an unequal society, ways we can fix it, and challenges that remain.

Gornick began by asking de Blasio why he made inequality a focal point of his administration. He offered some personal thoughts. “We have not climbed out of the recession,” he said. He expressed frustration at watching people try to rebuild their lives after the financial crisis. “People in my family were struggling with things I associated with the Great Depression,” he said. “Something very different was going on. It would require change.”

Gornick followed up by asking Krugman, a Distinguished Scholar at the Luxembourg Income Study, if economists were up to the task of understanding inequality. Krugman said, “It is intellectually challenging and hard,” but he also thought there was great will to do so. “Inequality has ebbs and flows,” he offered, but he characterized economists as getting better at understanding its complexities.

The discussion then moved on to specific issues around inequality like Universal Pre-K. de Blasio characterized Universal Pre-K as “hope-inducing” and providing a foundation for kids to succeed in high school and beyond. It is a program, he said, that “pays for itself.” The audience applauded loudly.

Housing was the next issue discussed. Krugman noted that “housing in NYC does not need to be as expensive as it is” and de Blasio reiterated his support for developments with substantial portions allocated to affordable housing units. “No affordable housing, no development,” de Blasio stated.

Bringing the discussion full-circle, Gornick, brought up minimum wage. de Blasio noted how it is impossible to feed a family and pay rent on the current minimum wage. Krugman debunked myths about the market not being able to tolerate a rise in it. Both agreed raising the wage is necessary and feasible. de Blasio also mentioned parental leave and retirement savings as two initiatives NYC is working on to further protect workers.

Moving to the upcoming election, de Blasio shared his thoughts on why he is supporting Hillary Clinton. Krugman defended his view on why Sanders’ economics don’t work. Both de Blasio and Krugman were glad to see Democratic candidates fighting it out to portray themselves as the more progressive. “The current presidential race has our country talking about inequality in ways we didn’t before,” de Blasio said.

Finally, the discussion turned to the state of race relations in our country. de Blasio shared his experience as the husband of an African-American woman and the father of two African-American children. He noted the structural racism embedded in our country and the important role of the Black Lives Matter movement in opening up the door to the truth about it.

Throughout the evening’s remarks, both de Blasio and Krugman pointed to the unique moment we are now living through and the impulse for change that is coursing through the public. “Inequality does not comport with who we are as a country,” de Blasio remarked at one point. He seemed to capture the tenor of the evening with that one statement.