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Updated: Under Pressure, TED Releases 'Income Inequality' Talk

Talk was deemed 'too partisan' for non-profit group who champions "ideas worth spreading"

- Common Dreams staff

UPDATE: After a spirited twenty-four hour online campaign aimed at TED, which urged the group to make available a talk given in March by venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer, on the negative impacts of income inequality on the economy, the non-profit group released a statement addressing what they termed "a non story," offered their side, and posted the video.

Here it is:

TED's statement addressing the controversary is reprinted here in its entirety:

Today TED was subject to a story so misleading it would be funny... except it successfully launched an aggressive online campaign against us.

The National Journal alleged we had censored a talk because we considered the issue of inequality "too hot to handle." The story ignited a firestorm of outrage on Reddit, Huffington Post and elsewhere. We were accused of being cowards. We were in the pay of our corporate partners. We were the despicable puppets of the Republican party.

Here's what actually happened.

At TED this year, an attendee pitched a 3-minute audience talk on inequality. The talk tapped into a really important and timely issue. But it framed the issue in a way that was explicitly partisan. And it included a number of arguments that were unconvincing, even to those of us who supported his overall stance The audience at TED who heard it live (and who are often accused of being overly enthusiastic about left-leaning ideas) gave it, on average, mediocre ratings.

At TED we post one talk a day on our home page. We're drawing from a pool of 250+ that we record at our own conferences each year and up to 10,000 recorded at the various TEDx events around the world, not to mention our other conference partners. Our policy is to post only talks that are truly special. And we try to steer clear of talks that are bound to descend into the same dismal partisan head-butting people can find every day elsewhere in the media.

We discussed internally and ultimately told the speaker we did not plan to post. He did not react well. He had hired a PR firm to promote the talk to MoveOn and others, and the PR firm warned us that unless we posted he would go to the press and accuse us of censoring him. We again declined and this time I wrote him and tried gently to explain in detail why I thought his talk was flawed.

So he forwarded portions of the private emails to a reporter and the National Journal duly bit on the story. And it was picked up by various other outlets.

And a non-story about a talk not being chosen, because we believed we had better ones, somehow got turned into a scandal about censorship. Which is like saying that if I call the New York Times and they turn down my request to publish an op-ed by me, they're censoring me.

For the record, pretty much everyone at TED, including me, worries a great deal about the issue of rising inequality. We've carried talks on it in the past, like this one from Richard Wilkinson. We'd carry more in the future if someone can find a way of framing the issue that is convincing and avoids being needlessly partisan in tone.

Also, for the record, we have never sought advice from any of our advertisers on what we carry editorially. To anyone who knows how TED operates, or who has observed the noncommercial look and feel of the website, the notion that we would is laughable. We only care about one thing: finding the best speakers and the best ideas we can, and sharing them with the world. For free. I've devoted the rest of my life to doing this, and honestly, it's pretty disheartening to have motives and intentions taken to task so viciously by people who simply don't know the facts.

One takeaway for us is that we're considering at some point posting the full archive from future conferences (somewhere away from the home page). Perhaps this would draw the sting from the accusations of censorship. Here, for starters, is the talk concerned. You can judge for yourself...

No doubt it will now, ironically, get stupendous viewing numbers and spark a magnificent debate, and then the conspiracy theorists will say the whole thing was a set-up!

OK... thanks for listening. Over and out.

*  *  *

Earlier:

TED -- the non-profit group behind the popular TED Talks and whose self-asserted mission is devoted to promoting "ideas worth spreading" -- has come under fire today as news spread that it is refusing to post the video of a talk by venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer, given at one of its regional events earlier this year.

In the talk, Hanauer, an early investor in Amazon.com and a multimillionaire, argued that income inequality was a detraction to a healthy economy and scoffed at the familiar rightwing talking point that the wealthy are the de-facto 'job creators' in the marketplace. He further argued that cutting taxes is harmful to the middle class and the overall economy. According to reports, the talked received a standing ovation when initially presented at TED.

"When businesspeople take credit for creating jobs," Hanauer said in his talk, "It's a little like squirrels taking credit for creating evolution. In fact, it's the other way around."

But now, Chris Anderson, director of TED, refuses to release the video of the talk on its website, saying that the message is overtly controversial and too partisan for broad consumption.

In an email sent to Hanauer and shared with Jim Tankersley at the National Journal, Anderson wrote:Seattle venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer. (Photo: Jeffery A. Salter)

"... even if the talk was rated a home run, we couldn't release it, because it would be unquestionably regarded as out and out political. We're in the middle of an election year in the US. Your argument comes down firmly on the side of one party. And you even reference that at the start of the talk. TED is nonpartisan and is fighting a constant battle with TEDx organizers to respect that principle....

"Nick, I personally share your disgust at the growth in inequality in the US, and would love to have found a way to give people a clearer mindset on the issue, without stoking a tedious partisan rehash of all the arguments we hear every day in the mainstream media. 

"Alas, my judgment - and it is just a judgment, and that's why my job title is 'curator' - is that publishing your talk would not meet that goal."

The Huffington Post's Jillian Berman argues "Hanauer's remarks shouldn't have been too much of a shock to TED organizers, considering that he'd been an outspoken critic of the notion that lowering taxes on the rich will help create jobs. In December, Hanauer penned an op-ed for Bloomberg, which included many of the same arguments featured in his TED talk. It even used some of the exact same language."

And Ezra Klein, writing at The Washington Post, remarks: "Whether the idea is “worth spreading” or not is up to you to judge. But TED won’t be spreading it. Because as we know, the history of ideas worth spreading is that they never offend society’s entrenched interests."

*  *  *

Here is a transcript of Hanauer's talk, followed by the slideshow that accompanied it during the original presenation (via The Atlantic):

It is astounding how significantly one idea can shape a society and its policies. Consider this one.
 
If taxes on the rich go up, job creation will go down.  
 
This idea is an article of faith for Republicans and seldom challenged by Democrats and has shaped much of today's economic landscape.
 
But sometimes the ideas that we know to be true are dead wrong. For thousands of years people were sure that earth was at the center of the universe. It's not, and an astronomer who still believed that it was, would do some lousy astronomy.  
"I can say with confidence that rich people don't create jobs, nor do businesses, large or small."
 
In the same way, a policy maker who believed that the rich and businesses are "job creators" and therefore should not be taxed, would make equally bad policy.  
 
I have started or helped start, dozens of businesses and initially hired lots of people. But if no one could have afforded to buy what we had to sell, my businesses would all have failed and all those jobs would have evaporated.
 
That's why I can say with confidence that rich people don't create jobs, nor do businesses, large or small. What does lead to more employment is a "circle of life" like feedback loop between customers and businesses. And only consumers can set in motion this virtuous cycle of increasing demand and hiring. In this sense, an ordinary middle-class consumer is far more of a job creator than a capitalist like me. 
 
So when businesspeople take credit for creating jobs, it's a little like squirrels taking credit for creating evolution. In fact, it's the other way around.
 
Anyone who's ever run a business knows that hiring more people is a capitalist's course of last resort, something we do only when increasing customer demand requires it. In this sense, calling ourselves job creators isn't just inaccurate, it's disingenuous.
When you have a tax system in which most of the exemptions and the lowest rates benefit the richest, all in the name of job creation, all that happens is that the rich get richer.
 
That's why our current policies are so upside down. When you have a tax system in which most of the exemptions and the lowest rates benefit the richest, all in the name of job creation, all that happens is that the rich get richer.
 
Since 1980, the share of income for the richest Americans has more than tripled while effective tax rates have declined by close to 50%.  
 
If it were true that lower tax rates and more wealth for the wealthy would lead to more job creation, then today we would be drowning in jobs. And yet unemployment and under-employment is at record highs.
 
Another reason this idea is so wrong-headed is that there can never be enough super-rich Americans to power a great economy. The annual earnings of people like me are hundreds, if not thousands, of times greater than those of the median American, but we don't buy hundreds or thousands of times more stuff. My family owns three cars, not 3,000. I buy a few pairs of pants and a few shirts a year, just like most American men. Like everyone else, we go out to eat with friends and family only occasionally.
 
I can't buy enough of anything to make up for the fact that millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans can't buy any new clothes or cars or enjoy any meals out. Or to make up for the decreasing consumption of the vast majority of American families that are barely squeaking by, buried by spiraling costs and trapped by stagnant or declining wages.  
Here's an incredible fact. If the typical American family still got today the same share of income they earned in 1980, they would earn about 25% more and have an astounding $13,000 more a year. Where would the economy be if that were the case?
We've had it backward for the last 30 years. Rich businesspeople like me don't create jobs. Rather they are a consequence of an eco-systemic feedback loop animated by middle-class consumers, and when they thrive, businesses grow and hire, and owners profit. That's why taxing the rich to pay for investments that benefit all is a great deal for both the middle class and the rich.
 
Significant privileges have come to capitalists like me for being perceived as "job creators" at the center of the economic universe, and the language and metaphors we use to defend the fairness of the current social and economic arrangements is telling. For instance, it is a small step from "job creator" to "The Creator". We did not accidentally choose this language. It is only honest to admit that calling oneself a "job creator" is both an assertion about how economics works and the a claim on status and privileges. 
 
The extraordinary differential between a 15% tax rate on capital gains, dividends, and carried interest for capitalists, and the 35% top marginal rate on work for ordinary Americans is a privilege that is hard to justify without just a touch of deification.
 
We've had it backward for the last 30 years. Rich businesspeople like me don't create jobs. Rather they are a consequence of an eco-systemic feedback loop animated by middle-class consumers, and when they thrive, businesses grow and hire, and owners profit. That's why taxing the rich to pay for investments that benefit all is a great deal for both the middle class and the rich.
 
So here's an idea worth spreading.  
 
In a capitalist economy, the true job creators are consumers, the middle class. And taxing the rich to make investments that grow the middle class, is the single smartest thing we can do for the middle class, the poor and the rich.
 
Thank You.

TED 2012 More Slides Final1

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