More often than not, lionized public figures like Tavis Smiley and Cornel West bring out the cynic in me. But both men were intellectual and spiritual giants as they captured the hearts and minds of the packed house at The Paramount theater in Oakland on Saturday evening. Oakland was their last stop in a national tour discussing their new book, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. We have the amazing KALW (91.7 on your dial) to thank for their incredibly hard work to make this important community conversation happen.
I cannot pretend to be objective in my opinion here. My own experiences growing up poor make this a very personal issue for me. I was deeply moved by their thoughtful commentary on the way the expansion of poverty is eroding this county from the inside out. Tavis Smiley told the crowd that a whopping 50% of Americans are in poverty now, or verging on poverty. This is clearly a devastating number. But what moved me even more was the powerful exploration by both men, of American values and the way in which our most cherished values are being terribly violated as they are expressed through our economic and political institutions.
The heart of Smiley and West's message is simple and profound: the United States is far more economically divided than most people want to acknowledge,and this chasm will destroy our nation. They make their case in their book by using vast amounts of very robust data from credible sources, like the Pew Research Center. (Indeed, this is the same data that drives the work we do at EARN to help low income workers save and invest to foster prosperity.)
There are some of you who will quickly dismiss Smiley, West, and their message. You may dismiss them because you don't like their politics, or don't like them as people. You make this dismissal at your own peril, and the peril of our nation. Irrespective of how you view Tavis Smiley or Cornel West, their passionate call to the American public to face the hard facts, is rooted in data that transcends politics or ideology.
In fact, the Smiley-West cautionary message is backed by groundbreaking research from economists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, in their new book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. Acemoglu and Robinson conducted expansive research to understand why some nations fail while others prosper. While much of the conventional wisdom among economists on the issue involves natural resources or cultural traits, Acemoglu and Robinson found that it is open political institutions that allow for shared power, and collective decision making about economic opportunity that drive prosperity.
This thesis cuts straight to the heart of what Smiley and West warn us is coming. Tens of millions of Americans toil endlessly, but never find their efforts rewarded with economic security. Increasingly, these hard working people will be disenfranchised and disengaged from the political process, and have less say in how economic opportunity is fostered and distributed. This is precisely the dynamic that Acemoglu and Robinson found at the heart of poverty, corruption, and human beings at their worst. We're moving down a dangerous path as a nation. Listening carefully to what West and Smiley have to say, however, is a good step back in the right direction.