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Truthdigger of the Week: Robert Reich
Posted on Nov 11, 2011
He’s a product of the most influential institutions of our country, has served in three administrations and he even went to Yale Law with Bill and Hillary Clinton. But despite being entrenched within the system for the majority of his career, Robert Reich uses his powers for good, and that’s why he’s our Truthdigger of the Week.
Reich’s pedigree boasts all the right elements for a high-speed career in politics. Dartmouth for undergrad, followed by a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford. Then it was on to Yale Law and, eventually, after he did the usual law clerking, he worked for Presidents Ford and Carter, taught at Harvard and became President Clinton’s labor secretary. And with this Establishment history, Reich has broken the mold by keeping his focus on the needs and concerns of the majority of Americans rather than the interests of the elites with whom he circulates.
On that last note, it’s just that sensibility that Reich brought to his rousing appearance at an Occupy Los Angeles teach-in Nov. 5, drawing high praise at the same event from Truthdig Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer. Footage of both of their speeches figured high among Truthdig’s greatest hits this week—if you haven’t caught those, have a look here.
Reich was clearly drawing on the sensibilities he honed in writing books like “The Next American Frontier” and “The Work of Nations,” as well as the thrust of a UC Berkeley class he teaches called Wealth and Poverty, when he took the Occupy L.A. audience to school last weekend. Here’s his opening salvo: “Because of Occupy L.A. and the Occupy movement around America, this country is beginning to discuss an issue and a set of issues it has avoided discussing for years. And that is the increasing concentration of income and wealth and political power at the very top of this country and what that has done to the economy and what that has done to our democracy.”
There’s the problem, so what’s the answer? “Nothing good happens in Washington unless good people outside Washington are mobilized and energized and organized to make sure it happens,” he observed. Luckily, in Reich’s estimation, the gathered crowd was proof positive that this kind of mobilization is going on around the country. “You are happening!” he said. Reich took on the income disparity issue, pointing out how our economy is richer than ever, for a select few, and broke it all down, countering some right-wing rhetoric while he was at it: “It is not class warfare. What it is is a recognition that the system has gotten out of balance.” The state of the economy and the state of our democracy are intimately intertwined in Reich’s eyes, and so the goal—even for the 1 percent—should always be “a fair and a just economy and a democracy that works for everyone.”
Scheer followed up with his take on Reich’s talk, and we’ll let his words take us out for this week’s Truthdigger: “I think we just witnessed a historic moment ... a Jeffersonian moment. It was what, really, the Founders—for all of their imperfections, and I’m aware of them—had in mind when they thought of this whole idea of a constitutional democracy based on the individual.”
Transcript of Reich’s talk at Occupy L.A.:
Because of Occupy L.A. and the Occupy movement around America, this country is beginning to discuss an issue and a set of issues it has avoided discussing for years. And that is the increasing concentration of income and wealth and political power at the very top of this country, and what that has done to the economy and what it has done to our democracy. But it’s more than just a discussion. Because I can tell you, after having spent years in Washington, that nothing good happens in Washington unless good people outside Washington are mobilized and energized and organized to make sure it happens. [applause]
And it is beginning to happen. You are happening. And that gives permission to millions of other people to not only have the discussion, but also to get mobilized and organized and energized around the same issues. You see, when 25 million Americans are looking for full-time work; when millions of other Americans are too discouraged even to look for work; and when even people who have work are watching their wages drop, a lot of people say to themselves, ‘It’s my fault.’ They say to themselves, ‘The reason I don’t have a job, the reason my wages are going down, the reason I can’t pay the bills, is there’s something wrong with me.’ They don’t know that exactly the same problems affect millions of other people. So that it’s not something wrong with them; it’s something wrong with the system itself. [applause]
This economy is, right now, richer than it has ever been. This is the richest economy in the world; it’s the richest economy in the history of the world. And yet what are we doing? We are cutting education, we are cutting child welfare services, we are disregarding environmental problems, we are saying over and over again, ‘All we need to do is cut this and cut that.’ We are getting rid of teachers, we are saying education—we don’t care about any of this anymore. Because—why? Because we can’t afford it? Well, let me make sure you understand. We can afford it. We can afford it; we, the people, can afford it. This economy right now is twice as large as it was in 1980. But most people don’t know that, because their wages, if they have jobs, their wages have stagnated for three decades. In fact, they’ve been going down; if you adjust for inflation, they’ve been actually going down.
Now, where has the money gone? If the economy is twice as large as it was three decades ago, and if most people have not seen a wage increase—in fact, most people, wages are going down and they’re losing their jobs—where did the money go? [shouting from crowd] It went to the top 1 percent. A lot of it went to the top one tenth of 1 percent.
Now, look. When I talk about this kind of stuff, when you talk about it, many people say, ‘Oh, this is class warfare.’ It is not class warfare. What it is is a recognition that the system has got out of kilter, out of balance. What we want to do is the same thing the progressives did at the turn of the last century, the same thing that FDR did in the 1930s, the same thing that we tried to do in the 1960s and we certainly did with civil rights and voting rights. What that is is to save the system from itself; save capitalism, because capitalism cannot function when so much income and wealth are going to the top. Why do you think there’s not enough demand for the goods and services that are being produced in this country? [shouting from crowd] Exactly! There’s not enough demand because consumers, whose spending is 70 percent of the economy, they’re worried about their jobs; they’re worried about their wages; they’re worried, and so they’re not going to spend. And if they’re not going to spend, who’s going to create jobs, if there are no customers? You see the vicious cycle we get into when so much income and wealth go to the top?
But it’s not just the economy that suffers. It’s also our democracy. [applause] Because when you have an economy in which—and let me just give you some facts, and you probably know these facts already. But we’ve all got to make sure we have the facts together, because they are truth, and we’ve got to speak the truth over and over again. In the 1970s, when I began to look at all of this stuff, the top 1 percent were getting about 9 percent of total income. I thought that was pretty bad, but it seemed to me that, well, maybe that’s what’s needed in order to provide entrepreneurs and inventors enough incentive to continue to be entrepreneurs and inventors. But then, income kept on concentrating more and more and more. By 2007, the top 1 percent was no longer getting 9 percent of total income; by 2007, the top 1 percent was getting 23 and a half percent of total income. And then you know what happened in 2008.
Financial capitalism has taken over from real capitalism. Financial capitalism is taking over from product and services, from people that actually produce goods and services. And that has distorted our entire system. When so much money and so much income are at the top—and by the way, the 400 richest Americans right now have more wealth than the bottom 150 million Americans put together. When you get that much income and wealth at the top, inevitably some people at the top—not all people at the top, but some of them—are going to abuse their income and wealth and corrupt the political system. I don’t want to mention names, like Charles and David Koch; that would not be nice of me; that would not be fair. But they, each of them worth $25 billion—each of them worth $25 billion, what they are doing is using a chunk of their fortune to pollute and corrupt American democracy. And why are they doing that? Because they want to entrench themselves. They make petrochemicals, they want to stop the environmental movement; they want to create doubts about whether there is, in fact, climate change. They want to cut the budget; they don’t want taxes to be raised; they and other people at the top are using their political muscle to entrench their power and privilege, and we cannot allow that in America. [applause]
We must take America back, because it is too precious. Our democracy is too precious to allow it to fall in the hands of a few people. Now, I know some people say, ‘Oh, this Occupy movement; there are no demands, they haven’t got their act together, they’re not a political movement yet.’ Well, let me assure you: Many of you have been, as I have been, involved in years past with the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam movement, many other movements in this country that at their beginning, in their first months or even in their first years, we weren’t sure about exactly what the demands were going to be. But we were motivated by a moral vision. A moral vision. [applause] A moral vision of what America could be. And so I say to you, whenever you come across people that say, ‘Oh, the Occupiers don’t have their acts together,’ you tell them there is a powerful and indestructible moral vision underlying this movement. And it is a vision of a fair and a just economy, and a democracy that works for everyone. [applause]
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