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Teach-in focuses on inequalities in US economy

Northeastern professor Barry Bluestone answered an audience question yesterday flanked by panelists Liz Cohen and Thomas Shapiro during a teach-in, which he organized with help from former governor and fellow professor Michael Dukakis.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Northeastern professor Barry Bluestone answered an audience question yesterday flanked by panelists Liz Cohen and Thomas Shapiro during a teach-in, which he organized with help from former governor and fellow professor Michael Dukakis.

Political, academic, labor, and activist leaders in Boston yesterday called for nationwide campus teach-ins to inform the public about economic inequalities they say are harming the country’s social fabric.

Taking their cues from the Occupy Boston protesters in the city’s Financial District, politicians, professors, and others descended on Northeastern University for a 1960s-style teach-in and to discuss a severe economic downturn they say is dividing Americans.

Professor Robert Hall from Northeastern attended yesterday’s ‘‘Teach In: Reclaiming Our Economy’’ event, at which ‘‘Reclaim Our Economy’’ buttons were handed out.

Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe

Professor Robert Hall from Northeastern attended yesterday’s ‘‘Teach In: Reclaiming Our Economy’’ event, at which ‘‘Reclaim Our Economy’’ buttons were handed out.

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Participants at “Teach in: Reclaiming Our Economy,’’ which attracted hundreds of people to Blackman Auditorium, advocated for things like a fairer tax code, increased spending on education, and an easing of the financial burden on homeowners facing foreclosure.

Among those speaking at the event, organized by a Northeastern University faculty member who coordinated protest teach-ins during the Vietnam War, were Governor Deval Patrick, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, two members of the Boston City Council, a state senator, the head of the AFL-CIO of Massachusetts, and professors from Northeastern, Harvard, and Brandeis universities.

“I am a capitalist, but I am not a market fundamentalist,’’ said Patrick, a Democrat.

People have to push back against the idea that government does not have a role in the economy and other areas, he said.

“It’s not a radical or socialist idea’’ to support government action, said Patrick, who praised the Occupy movement for forcing people to listen to concerns about income inequality.

“The country needs to be saved,’’ he said.

Menino, who has had a sometimes rocky relationship with Occupy Boston protesters, said the movement’s message is “like an alarm ringing’’ about economic inequities.

“America is more unequal than we were [a few decades ago],’’ Menino told the audience, which included students and adults streaming into the auditorium throughout the daylong series of panel discussions.

The sessions had titles such as “Who’s the system failing? Who’s it working for?’’ and “Politics and economics: What went wrong?’’

Toward the end of the day, as if on cue, about 20 Northeastern students arrived at the small grass quad in front of Blackman Auditorium, holding an “Occupy Northeastern’’ sign and pitching tents.

“We are the 99 percent,’’ the students chanted.

Bryan MacCormack, a Northeastern senior and one of the students on the quad, said the protesters timed their move to coincide with the teach-in but did not tell anyone in advance because they did not want school officials to prevent them from taking over the quad.

He said Northeastern students wanted to avoid what happened last week at Harvard University. There, campus police immediately isolated student protesters and tried to keep nonstudents away from the protesters.

Northeastern’s campus police did not respond to the protesters.

The teach-in was organized by Barry Bluestone, director of Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. Former governor Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic nominee for president and a political science professor at Northeastern, assisted with its organization and moderated some of the sessions.

Bluestone said he helped organize one of the first teach-ins during the Vietnam War while he was a student at the University of Michigan. He said he hopes other schools will hold similar teach-ins on the issues raised by the Occupy movement.

“We’re hoping this really spreads,’’ he said. “We’re starting to galvanize folks.’’

Zoe Wolf, a senior at Northeastern and one of the early organizers of Occupy Boston, said she was honored to speak at yesterday’s event.

“It’s a sign we are making progress,’’ she said. “People weren’t talking about [inequality] before, and now they are.’’

A number of academics provided statistics to back up various claims that recent economic conditions have not been good for those who are not part of the top economic tier of Americans who hold much of the nation’s wealth.

Joseph McLaughlin, a senior research associate at Northeastern’s Center for Labor Market Studies, said corporate profits are up by about $592 billion, or 46 percent, since the economy started to recover from the 2008 Wall Street meltdown.

But workers’ wages have risen less than 1 percent during the past few years, he said.

Thomas Shapiro, a Brandeis University sociologist and head of the school’s Institute on Assets and Social Policy, said there is a direct correlation between income inequality and recent tax cuts for corporations and more affluent individuals.

The average US household lost net wealth from 2005 through 2009, largely because of the collapse of the housing market and the subsequent plunge in home values, he said. The median household income fell by 16 percent for whites, 53 percent for blacks, and 66 percent for Hispanics, he said.

State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Boston Democrat, said the state needs to raise the income tax rate to boost funding for education, which she said is critical for helping poor people to advance.

“Our system is failing America,’’ she said.

Steven A. Tolman, the new president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, said the country desperately needs to create jobs. He criticized congressional Republicans for blocking President Obama’s economic agenda.

“Our economy is not working for the 99 percent,’’ said Tolman, borrowing a line from the Occupy movement.

The Boston Globe was a media sponsor of the event. The Globe’s publisher, Christopher M. Mayer, said the newspaper’s hope is to create dialogue about issues of importance.

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