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US economy needs ‘fundamental changes’ to expand opportunity: Nicholas Kristof

New York Times columnist and 'Tightrope" author, Nicholas Kristof, joins 'Influencers with Andy Serwer' to discuss the health if the U.S. economy.

Video Transcript

ANDY SERWER: We talked about wealth and income inequality that's part of "Tightrope." But that the rich and the super rich in the Silicon Valley and the billionaires, particularly during COVID, inadvertently, getting even wealthier than they were before. How can we address this, or should we?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: I think we should address inequality. And, you know, but maybe inequality is the wrong framework. You know, inequality is a word that tends to get liberals focused, but it tends to turn off conservatives. Opportunity is a word that everybody unites around.

I think I saw a poll that 97% of Americans agree there should be more opportunity for America's kids. And 97% of Americans don't agree that the world is round. That's a huge consensus. And so, you know, I think the fact that you can predict a child's outcome based on a zip code in which they are born should be a scandal.

The fact that in, at least, three American counties, life expectancy is shorter than in Cambodia or Bangladesh. That's-- you know, that's not because those kids are showing a lack of personal responsibility. It's because we as a country are showing a lack of personal responsibility.

And one of the things-- one of the reasons we wrote "Tightrope" into this documentary is really an attempt to highlight the need for fundamental changes to provide greater opportunity for kids in ways that not only help those kids, but also restore a better future for the country as a whole.

ANDY SERWER: You know, I love the zip code work that you do. And I saw that you did it in that tax cheat story comparing this woman in prison to President Trump. And then that audit by zip code thing where the most audited zip codes are these impoverished county, the one in the number one in Mississippi with a high-- a level of African-American residents, right?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: Yeah, that's right. That's Humphrey's County, Mississippi and has the highest rate of tax audits in the country. And it's a majority African-American county with I think a per capita income of $28,000 or something. And the idea that that is where the IRS is focusing its resources. And, meanwhile, if I remember right, only 0.8% of 2018 tax filings of more than $10 million have been audited.

You know, there-- there is something wrong with this picture. And it reflects an inequality not only of wealth and income, but an inequality of opportunity and inequality of political power and of a kind of human rights. So I think we need to look at these sort of basic issues of fairness of who we are. And these are complicated. They're hard. They're no easy policies. But other countries, Canada manages to largely figure these out. So does Germany. So does Japan. You know, I think we-- we can do better than we are.

ANDY SERWER: Another hot button topic right now, Nick, is stimulus and what Washington should do to get our economy back on track. Do these checks to Americans work? What's the best way for the government to help us out during the pandemic, you think?

NICHOLAS KRISTOF: The fact that we can't manage a new stimulus package when, 10% of American households with children now say they don't have enough food in the last week is just unconscionable. And I-- I worry that if it doesn't happen before the election that it won't happen before January either.

We also have troubling indications that suicide is up, that use of-- of drugs is up. One person in "Tightrope" who runs a drug treatment program, she estimated to me that-- that relapses are up 50% because of the pandemic. And so what we have is a pandemic of disease that is now followed by a pandemic of hunger of school dropouts, of mental health crises, of drug dependency and of suicide.

And there-- you know, there are no easy ways to address it. But we do know that that early effort in the spring to send checks to homes did seem to make a huge difference. And it also, as best economists can tell, did not seem to impede people returning to jobs. So I would very much like to see a new stimulus package aimed at sending out-- sending out checks.