My mother, Class of 1984, told me that in her day Princeton was a largely apolitical place. I graduated with the Class of 2016, but during my four years here, I didn’t think that was true. We had the Praxis Axis protests sophomore year, the Michael Brown protests junior year, the Big Sean and Urban Congo protests junior year, and the Black Justice League sit-in senior year. There have been campus debates on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and freedom of speech, to name a few.
One thing that hit me after I graduated, though, was that economic issues were almost entirely absent from the discussions. The top one percent owned 21.2 percent of income in 2013, and while worker productivity increased consistently since 1973, hourly compensation has flat-lined. Meanwhile, just eleven percent of workers today belong to a union, compared with about one-third in the 1950s. Princeton graduate students have been trying to unionize for some time, with some opposition from the University. How many of those topics do students know about, and how many do they talk about?
When people say that Princeton is “liberal,” they’re referring to social issues. And while college students may not generally care about economics as much as their wage-earning elders do, University of California students still turned out in large-scale protest against tuition hikes when I was in high school and again a month ago when the Board of Regents increased tuition after a six-year freeze. As far as I know, Princeton has never had tuition protests, and the Occupy movement never gained much traction on campus.
Why are economics not a factor here? The obvious reason is that Princeton students are a wealthy group, and therefore removed from inequality or poverty. Still, about 60 percent of Princeton students in 2014-15 were on financial aid. And some white students were present at the Michael Brown vigil in Palmer Square during my junior year, presumably because they cared even though the issues didn’t affect them directly. If Princeton students unaffected by racial issues care about their classmates who are, why don’t Princeton students unaffected by economic issues care about their classmates who are?
The real reason is related; even if some students are low-income, there is an expectation that everyone at Princeton (unlike those at many universities) will eventually be successful and overcome any temporary financial disadvantages. This is not the case for other disadvantages, because the sad reality of America is that no matter how many degrees you might have or how successful you are, some people will always judge you on the color of your skin or your gender or your sexual orientation. Therefore, those inequalities are more common topics of discussion, while economic inequality receives less attention because we are taught that it can be surmounted.
So if we’re all going to become investment bankers anyway, why should we care?
The first reason has to do with current politics, and everyone’s favorite orange elephant in the room. Trump rose to the top by tapping into inert racism, but he also tapped into a sentiment of economic malaise. You can say that people who voted for the Trumpinator are stupid, racist, and undeserving of sympathy, but calling them idiots isn’t going to stop them from voting for future Trumps. Future politicians, some of whom will no doubt be Princeton grads, need to make economic overtures if they want to prevent a repeat of Trump.
And the irony of progressivism that is exclusively social is that such progressives can end up unconsciously echoing Republican talking points. The idea that lower-income white people deserve their falling standards of living because they’re ignorant and lazy is similar to rhetoric that Republicans have been using for years, with the difference being that these “welfare queens” are white and not homeless.
The second reason that the economy matters is local. Apart from the Hidden Minority Council and Yik Yak posts about low-income students being made fun of, there was very little discussion of income inequality on campus when I was there. In writing this, I realized that I have very little idea what kind of struggles low-income students might face on campus, which is kind of the point: we should be talking about it more.
And just as we need to understand the present of Trump, we need to understand the past. During the 1960s there was a schism in the Democratic Party between older working-class voters who largely supported the Vietnam War and antiwar, culturally progressive “Baby Boomers” who did not really care about economic matters. Social progressivism has made some advances since the 1960s, such as the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision. Meanwhile unions, derided by young people in the 1960s as establishment fossils, lost ground, inequality rose, and just over half of thirty-year-olds earn more than their parents did compared with 92 percent of thirty-year-olds in the 1970s.
Even if you think unions are harmful for growth, they provide working people a platform to air their grievances, influence policy, and have a ‘check’ on the power of business. Even if you think income inequality is a natural result of the free market, it can distort the free market by enabling those at the top to rig the system in their favor and deny opportunities to everyone else. I would like to see the ‘Millennial’ generation avoid the mistakes Baby Boomers made when they turned their backs on economics.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but (hopefully) I’m not the only one.
Paul Phillips ’16 is a News Editor Emeritus for the Daily Princetonian. He could be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.