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Making Presidential History

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Nov 13, 2012    •    307 Views

President Obama has been having dinner with historians.

Described by the NY Times as a “largely left tilting group,” the names I consistently discovered that attended the dinners were: Doris Kearns Goodwin, Michael Beschloss, Robert Caro, Robert Dallek, Douglas Brinkley, H. W. “Billam” Brands, David Kennedy, Kenneth Mack, and Garry Wills.

Politico reports that during the May 2011 dinner, historian Robert Dallek asked the President how they could help him. The President replied, “What you could do for me is to help me find a way to discuss the issue of inequality in our society without being accused of class warfare.”

How to discuss inequality? I hope that people look at comments from Branko Milanovic, a former lead economist at the World Bank. Perhaps a dialogue on inequality should involve the key questions that Milanovic presents in The Haves and the Have-Nots.

  1. What is the cause of inequality? For example, does income inequality increase or decrease as the economy grows. (Called the Kuznets Hypothesis, one theory says inequality is like an inverted “U.” As an economy grows, it moves from equality–lots of poverty–to inequality when some prosper, and then as an advanced economy, to more equality because the state redistributes income.)
  2. What is the impact of inequality? For example, does inequality create positive or negative economic incentives? Does it lead to more foreign investment, education and growth? How is governance affected?
  3. What are the ethical implications of inequality? For example, are there good and bad ways to have ascended to affluence? Are the absolute incomes of the poor increasing? Is inequality because of work more acceptable than inequality because of inheritance?

 

How would you connect public policy and your answers to these questions?

And, finally: When the President told the group he was considering “A New Foundation” as the theme for his administration(s), Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of books on Lyndon Johnson, FDR, Abraham Lincoln, the Kennedys suggested that “A New Foundation” might not be the best choice. “Why not?” the President asked. “It sounds,” said Goodwin, “like a woman’s girdle.”

Other slogans? Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal, FDR’s New Deal, Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

Sources and Resources: My information about the President’s historian dinners was primarily from the NY Times and Politico. But, what I most recommend is the Branko Milanovic book, The Haves and Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality. A combination of great vignettes and scholarly ideas, it is a good read.

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