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TED's Taboo: What's Too Controversial for the Hipster Confab? TED's Taboo: What's Too Controversial for the Hipster Confab?

TED's Taboo: What's Too Controversial for the Hipster Confab?

by Tim Fernholz

May 18, 2012


Visit the website for TED, the conference for creative techies and do-gooding hipsters that vaulted the 18-minute lecture into an art form, and you’ll find speakers discussing everything from “Sculpting Waves in Wood and Time” to “Building U.S.-China relations … by Banjo.”

What you won’t find is a recent TED talk by Michael Hanauer, a wealthy venture capitalist, that argues income inequality is a problem that threatens the economy, and that higher taxes on the wealthy are part of the solution. 

Though everybody's talking about income inequality, National Journal’s Jim Tankersley reported yesterday that TED declined to post a video of the talk on its website because it was overtly political—“one of the most politically controversial talks we've ever run,” according to TED owner and curator Chris Anderson.

TED has previously featured talks by former Vice President Al Gore on fighting climate change and Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Gates Foundation, advocating for increased access to contraception around the world. These are controversial issues, to say the least, but apparently real talk about rich people is the last taboo at a conference where the entry fee starts at $7,500—and reaches heights of $125,000.

Of course, TED has brought wide public awareness to many important thinkers, and the number of talks freely available online provides a lovely trip down an internet rabbit hole, sans the guilt that comes with massive cat video consumption. (We've written about a lot of these talks.)  New York magazine recently traced the TED conference from its origins as a whimsical experiment in conversation to today’s lucrative confab, and writer Benjamin Wallace suggests that it is beginning to run out of "ideas worth spreading."

Indeed, TED’s stated goal is to circulate ideas—especially ideas that can make a difference—which makes the refusal to publish Hanauer’s lecture all the more baffling. The talk is extraordinarily relevant to the times, after all. While it may be contrarian in some circles, the idea that a flourishing middle class is more important to the economy than protecting the wealthy from higher taxes is hardly out-of-bounds.

Anderson says the talk is too partisan; not because Hanauer endorses a political party or candidate in his speech, but because the idea of raising taxes is confined to one political party. That doesn’t jibe with TED’s published talks about global warming or contraception, which also correlate with one of America’s two political parties. (I won’t name it here lest I offend anyone with partisanship.)

The real offense, it seems, was suggesting that businesspeople aren’t the most important part of the economy. While the folks who can afford to pay to attend TED and the rest of us who watch it for free can bond over exciting new technology, design thinking, and creative solutions to global problems, when it comes to following the money, the divide between these audiences snaps sharply into focus.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user tedxsomerville

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