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Biden challenges Kellogg students to address growing inequality

Former vice president warns society could be at risk without change
(From left): Kellogg Dean Sally Blount, former Vice President Joe Biden, Northwestern Provost Jonathan Holloway and Kellogg Professor Ben Harris.

EVANSTON - Railing against the growing divide between America’s haves and have nots, former Vice President Joe Biden challenged students to embrace policies to narrow the gap in a speech at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management March 9.

Biden, who praised the school and its dean, Sally Blount as national leaders in the business world, said the students can have a huge impact on society but warned that society itself could be at risk without change.

“Name me one society that has been sustained with massive inequalities in income,” he asked the crowd of about 800 people, who packed the Kellogg Global Hub. “Name me one.”

The fiery speech, which was livestreamed on the University’s website, focused on themes of economic disparity among households, cities and regions. He tied lagging wages to a variety of culprits, including globalization, automation and the growing opioid crisis, but placed a lion’s share of blame on policies that limit workers’ rights.

“State laws have undercut organized labor, the right to bargain (for) the labor movement has been hollowed out and good middle-class jobs have been lost,” Biden said.

Increasingly, he said, income has shifted from employees to corporate executives and stockholders. Acknowledging that his ideas might be a tough sell at a business school, Biden said repeatedly that boosting wages and improving infrastructure and programs would benefit all.

“I believe companies should be given free rein to compete but I also think workers deserve free rein to compete, to bargain their skills to the highest bidder without artificial walls preventing them from being able to do that,” he said.

While productivity has skyrocketed in recent years, wages have failed to keep pace.

“This decoupling of productivity and wages is killing American workers and generating enormous resentment,” Biden said.

“There used to be a basic bargain here, signed on (to) by Democrats and Republicans alike, that if you contributed to the productivity of the enterprise with which you worked, you got to share in the benefits,” he said. “It doesn’t work anymore.”

"Name me one society that has been sustained with massive inequalities in income." Former Vice President Joe Biden

He said America can afford to erase economic inequalities without changing the standard of living for the wealthy “one iota.”

“No need to give up the yacht, no need to stop driving the Mercedes, no need to move out of the $400- or $500- or $600- or $800,000 home,” he said. “I really mean this. Think about what I’m saying.”

Since leaving office, Biden has continued working on the issues and causes that have guided his career with the creation of the Biden Foundation, the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania, the Biden Cancer Initiative and the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware.

Biden's work with the Biden Foundation has focused on advancing education, ending violence against women, ensuring LGBTQ equality, protecting children, shaping foreign policy, strengthening the middle class and supporting military families.

Friday’s speech was coordinated with the help of Kellogg visiting associate professor Ben Harris, who served as Biden’s chief economist and economic adviser during his time as President Barack Obama’s vice president.

The former vice president generally steered clear of politics in his address to the Kellogg students, faculty and staff, but he raised strong concerns about the eroding state of civility in political discourse and American democracy itself in recent years.

“How many of you are worried about our democracy and institutional stability?” Biden asked the crowd at one point, pausing and looking up at the tiers of audience members lined along the balconies rising above the central atrium.

“Our political system is broken. We can’t talk to each other,” he said. “What’s happening today? What the hell is happening today — when you personally belittle the opposition? What is the dialogue today in American politics? Tough stuff.”

Underscoring the economic impact of that divisive politics, including the loss of health care and educational opportunities recently for so many citizens, Biden talked about the damage it is doing to the lives of Americans.

“The only thing the American people won’t tolerate is when you change their standard of living,” he said, noting that the measure of a society is whether those who live in success and comfort are concerned about helping the impoverished, as well.

Ending on a high note, the former vice president emphasized that even with all the problems America faces, he remains an optimist. That’s because, he observed, he has seen and lived so much history when the country overcame incredible obstacles.

“It’s never been a good bet to bet against America,” he said. “It’s time to get our heads up. We’re in a position to own the 21st century.”

One of the key engines for the world’s modern economic progress, he concluded, is American ingenuity and innovation, and that comes from the research, labs and breakthroughs that have always emerged from U.S. research universities. 

Speaking directly to his Kellogg and Northwestern audience, but also to American educators and researchers in general, he added, “You are the envy of the world.”

Q&A: On working in the White House

By Hilary Hurd Anyaso

Ben Harris is a visiting associate professor at the Kellogg School of Management. He recently served as the chief economist and economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden and was instrumental in organizing Biden’s March 9 visit to Northwestern University to discuss unequal economic growth across America’s cities and towns.

Harris’ primary areas of focus are tax, budget and retirement security. He has published a variety of papers and policy briefs related to topics in public finance and is regularly cited in media reports related to fiscal policy.

What are you most proud of in terms of the work you did and helped facilitate as chief economist to the vice president?

I am most proud of the work that had a tangible impact on people; where I could imagine how a policy might make someone’s life better. A good example of this is when the Obama Administration changed the rules around how workers were classified for overtime.

The law states that most workers should get paid extra when they work especially long hours. In some cases, employers were taking advantage of loopholes so that they wouldn’t have to pay workers the overtime pay they deserved. You’d see examples of people working 50- or 60-hour weeks and barely making minimum wage, and sometimes even less.

Changing this regulation meant a better life for the 4 million workers directly affected by the change. To announce the new policy, the vice president and some of his staff, including me, went out to Columbus, Ohio, for an event. I tried to imagine just one worker going home to his family that night, telling his kids that he’d either have a little more money or would have more time to spend with them. A lot of people at the White House and Department of Labor were behind that change. I am proud to be a small part of it.

What do you miss about working at the White House?  

I had two stints at the White House, spending a total of four years with the Obama Administration. The first stint was as a senior economist with the Council of Economic Advisers, the group within the White House that represents the economic profession in policymaking and advising. I almost never left the White House, and mostly worked on economic analysis.

The second stint was as the vice president’s chief economist and economic adviser. It was a much more dynamic job. I spent a lot of time in the West Wing and traveled frequently, sometimes internationally. I met with outside groups on behalf of the vice president. It wasn’t just analysis, although that was part of the job, but also speechwriting and representing the vice president in internal policy deliberations.

Working at the White House was just as hectic and chaotic as you might expect. The hours were very long, and the pressure was often intense. I happen not to mind that type of work environment, and sometimes even miss it.

I miss my colleagues, especially those within the Office of the Vice President, but also in other White House offices -- the National Economic Council, the Domestic Policy Council and the Council of Economic Advisers. They were an extraordinary group, all committed to making our country a better place.

What I miss most is working on a mostly daily basis with Vice President Biden. He’s an inspiring man, and I consider myself lucky to have been part of his team. Not many people get to be inspired at their work. It was a privilege.

What would people be most surprised to know about Vice President Biden?

The vice president has a reputation for being plainspoken — an average Joe. He is relatable, and is seen as authentic. These are all true. But what doesn’t always come out is that he has a very sophisticated take on policy matters. He has an impressive understanding of complex economic ideas. He reads a great deal on economic policy and has outstanding recall. This made my job more challenging, but was obviously good for the country to have such an intelligent man as vice president. I sometimes thought that the vice president could have been an economist if his chosen profession did not work out. I’m not sure he would take that as a compliment.