The hour-long conversation, entitled “Why the November Elections Matter and How You Can Help,” was held at Riverside Church on September 24. Co-sponsored by the Columbia College Democrats and TMaC, it encouraged students to organize for and vote in the upcoming elections, and also touched on a variety of policy issues.
Stiglitz began the policy discussion by highlighting economic inequality in the United States, an issue Ocasio-Cortez said she believes will resonate with voters in 2018. Even though overall economic performance is strong, she said, it was clear that “the richer are becoming richer and poor are getting poorer.”
Ocasio-Cortez suggested that the U.S. is blaming other nations for its economic woes “instead of looking inward” to fix what is wrong with its own public policies. She said that trade wars are distractions from domestic income inequality and would cause instability. But she also said that the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA, created “environmental imbalances” and exacerbated inequality. Stiglitz added that protectionism without social protections is dangerous.
On the issue of student debt—a matter of great interest to the many students in the audience— Stiglitz said that most of the current $1.2 trillion debt comprises compound interest rather than new lending. Ocasio-Cortez said that because of the student loan debts, “an entire generation is delaying the milestones of getting a house, getting married, or buying a car.”
Citing several crucial issues for the United States, including the economy, climate change, and social justice, the discussants took time to focus on challenges facing Puerto Rico in particular. That U.S. commonwealth has over $74 billion in debt, and is under pressure to implement austerity measures in the wake of the devastation brought by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Ocasio-Cortez said the island is the victim of “disaster capitalism” and climate change; its average income had gone down for the past decade.
Since U.S. bankruptcy law does not apply to Puerto Rico, Ocasio-Cortez and Stiglitz pointed to smart and sustainable economic growth as the answer. Ocasio-Cortez called for a “Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico” that invests in education and 100-percent renewable energy as an alternative to austerity measures. She encouraged students to directly confront decision makers of the institutions holding Puerto Rican debts, including at Columbia. Rather than having the Federal Emergency Management Agency rebuild the infrastructure the way it was prior to the disaster, she said, Puerto Rico should be rebuilt with sustainability in mind.
Schiffrin pressed Ocasio-Cortez on the current state of the media, noting that the candidate has enjoyed extensive coverage. Ocasio-Cortez addressed the issue of media bias across the political spectrum, but also said it was “profoundly dangerous” for a democracy when institutions like the media are attacked and it becomes increasingly difficult for people to discern the truth. The shrinking of local media outlets, Schiffrin observed, has also contributed to the lack of factual reporting on critical issues.
Ocasio-Cortez underscored the importance of providing “economic dignity for all people,” citing a poll that found more than 70 percent of Americans support improved and expanded Medicaid for all. Many democratic countries that are less wealthy than the United States can afford universal healthcare and free college education thanks to the right set of policies. Schiffrin suggested raising taxes on the top income earners as a possible starting point, which Stiglitz agreed is “a matter of choice.”
The wide-ranging conversation closed with a discussion of the #MeToo movement and the need for women to run for elected office. The current political climate, Ocasio-Cortez said, has led to a record number of women, 255, to be nominated by their parties for U.S. House and Senate seats in 2018.
“The solutions are not in D.C.,” Ocasio-Cortez told the students. “They are in the room.”
— Jeenho Hahm MPA ’19