KINGSTON, R.I. – September 21, 2016 – Jefferson Cowie, the James G. Stahlman Chair in Vanderbilt University’s Department of History, will speak Tuesday Oct. 4 at the URI Honors Colloquium, “Inequality and the American Dream.”
Cowie will offer historical perspectives on inequality at the free public lecture at 7 p.m. in Edwards Hall, 64 Upper College Road.
The Nation magazine described Cowie as “one of our most commanding interpreters of recent American experience.” His most recent book, The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics, was released in early 2016 and attempts to reinterpret a wide swath of the American political history in the 20th century. Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, received a number of “best book” awards, including two of the profession’s most prestigious: the 2011 Francis Parkman Prize for the Best Book in American History and the Merle Curti Award for the Best Book in Social and Intellectual History.
In addition to his scholarship, Cowie’s essays and opinion pieces have also appeared in the New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Education, American Prospect, Politico, Democracy, The New Republic, Chicago Tribune, Inside Higher Ed, Dissent, and other popular outlets. The recipient of several fellowships, including the American Council of Learned Societies and Andrew Mellon Foundation, and the Society for the Humanities at Cornell, he has also appeared in a variety of media outlets including C‐Span’s Booknotes, NPR’s Weekend Edition, as well as documentaries and radio broadcasts.
The Department of Marketing and Communications asked him a few questions about his work and his upcoming lecture:
Q: What specific topics or issues will you be addressing in your talk at URI?
A: I’ll be exploring the historical roots and contemporary politics of economic inequality in the United States. We’ll ground the beginnings of the issue in the 1970s, and then move forward to try to understand the elusive roles inequality plays in politics—or, more often than not, doesn’t play. We’ll end with reflections on the contemporary situation and the rise of the types backlash populism we see with the success of the Trump candidacy.
Q: In your Vanderbilt University biography you talk about a variety of influences in your life, including your father and his work as a school custodian. What did you learn from your father and how does he influence you today?
A: In some ways, I think I have a pretty good perspective on questions of inequality. My dad pushed a broom at my high school, we were renters, we moved a lot, and had a lot of economic instability. I also went to one of the greatest public universities in the world (UC Berkeley for cheap). But I could see it was different for different people, and that most people tended to assume their class position was the normal one. Since I crossed class boundaries as a kid—and certainly in my adult life—I think I might have a bit more cultural fluency than some who study these questions from a more pure academic position.
Q: Statistical data indicate a massive widening of the income gap. What effect can this gap have on the U.S. economy if left unchecked? Is there a way to narrow the income gap?
A: There are economic problems: sluggish demand, too much wealth accumulating at the top, too much credit, low wages, etc, but there are also a host of other issues that are correlated with inequality from unhappiness to pregnancy to drug use. So it is an issue with multiple dimensions. As for solutions, there are a number of approaches from fiscal policy to trade unions to tax policy to changing the culture of what we find acceptable. The first step is to not see this as all an inevitable outcome of globalization. That attitude defeats everything and anything from the outset.
Q: A recent CNN.com poll shows that Americans are more optimistic about the economy than any time since before the 2008 economic crisis. Is this surprising, given the rising economic inequality?
A: Income went up for a whole lot of people this year. It’s great news and suggests that we are really putting the Great Recession behind us. But there was a crisis of inequality well before 2008, and just getting back to 2008 doesn’t really solve the problem. In fact, we remain vulnerable to another financial crisis if we do not find some mechanisms to redistribute the economic bounty.
Q: How can a widening income gap affect the mood/morale of the country, particularly the middle and lower classes?
A: High levels of inequality are correlated with a host of sociological/epidemiological issues: obesity, lack of trust, incarceration, teen pregnancy, happiness, and even math literacy. People live longer in more economically equitable countries — even the rich live longer!
Q: Are there any recent historical examples of countries that have seen similar economic inequality that could provide some insight into potential consequences?
A: Northern Europe is, in general, doing much better in this regard. Even upward mobility, which was the foundation of the American dream, is easier and more prevalent in European countries. If you want the American dream, go to the Netherlands.
Asked about his influences, he names scholars such as Leon Fink, Jacquelyn Hall, John D. French, and Charles Bergquist. Other, less obvious, influences include his father’s working life as a high school custodian, his mother’s creativity, fifties jazz, Stax-Volt soul, Bob Dylan, James Baldwin, Bruce Springsteen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Steinbeck, The Clash, John Dewey, the Dead Kennedys, Deep Springs College, and almost everyone he shared a climbing rope throughout the mountains of North America. Above all, he points to raising his kids as the most important experience of his life.
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