If you’re plugged into the Internet, chances are you’ve seen a TED talk—the wonky, provocative web videos that have become a sort of nerd franchise. TED.com is where you go to find Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg explaining why the world has too few female leaders, or Twitter cofounder Evan Williams sharing the secret power of listening to users to drive company improvement. The slogan of the nonprofit group behind the site is “Ideas Worth Spreading.”
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There’s one idea, though, that TED’s organizers recently decided was too controversial to spread: the notion that widening income inequality is a bad thing for America, and that as a result, the rich should pay more in taxes.
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TED organizers invited a multimillionaire Seattle venture capitalist named Nick Hanauer—the first nonfamily investor in Amazon.com—to give a speech on March 1 at their TED University conference. Inequality was the topic—specifically, Hanauer’s contention that the middle class, and not wealthy innovators like himself, are America’s true “job creators.”
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“We’ve had it backward for the last 30 years,” he said. “Rich businesspeople like me don’t create jobs. Rather they are a consequence of an ecosystemic 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.”
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You can’t find that speech online. TED officials told Hanauer initially they were eager to distribute it. “I want to put this talk out into the world!” one of them wrote him in an e-mail in late April. But early this month they changed course, telling Hanauer that his remarks were too “political” and too controversial for posting.
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Other TED talks posted online veer sharply into controversial and political territory, including NASA scientist James Hansen comparing climate change to an asteroid barreling toward Earth, and philanthropist Melinda Gates pushing for more access to contraception in the developing world.
TED curator Chris Anderson referenced the Gates talk in an e-mail to colleagues in early April, which was also sent to Hanauer, suggesting that he didn't want to release Hanauer’s talk at the same time as the one on contraception.
Hanauer’s talk “probably ranks as one of the most politically controversial talks we've ever run, and we need to be really careful when” to post it, Anderson wrote on April 6. “Next week ain't right. Confidentially, we already have Melinda Gates on contraception going out. Sorry for the mixed messages on this.”
In early May Anderson followed up with Hanauer to inform him he’d decided not to post his talk.
National Journal e-mailed Anderson to request an interview about what made a talk on inequality more politically controversial than, for example, contraception or climate change. Anderson, who is traveling abroad, responded with an e-mail statement that appeared to swipe at the popularity of Hanauer’s speech.
"Many of the talks given at the conference or at TED-U are not released,” Anderson wrote. “We only release one a day on TED.com and there's a backlog of amazing talks from all over the world. We do not comment publicly on reasons to release or not release [a] talk. It's unfair on the speakers concerned. But we have a general policy to avoid talks that are overtly partisan, and to avoid talks that have received mediocre audience ratings."
You can read the text of Hanauer’s talk here.
You can read the full story of Hanauer and his warnings about the decline of the middle class on Thursday as part of National Journal’s Restoration Calls series.
Update: 4:09 p.m.
In a May 7 email to Hanauer, forwarded to NJ, Anderson took issue with several of Hanauer's assertions in the talk, including the idea that businesspeople aren't job creators. He also made clear his aversion to the "political" nature of the talk.
"I agree with your language about ecosystems, and your dismissal of some of the mechanistic economy orthodoxy, yet many of your own statements seem to go further than those arguments justify," Anderson wrote.
"But 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."