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Truthdigger of the Week: Robert Reich

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]
And finally, let me just say it’s not going to be easy. Nothing worth doing, in terms of social change in this country, is easy. It’s going to take time; it’s going to take patience. I know many of you who have been involved, you’ve talked to me about sometimes you feel a little frustrated; sometimes you feel it’s just a huge amount of work; you don’t get very much credit for it; you worry that it’s just never going to change. But I’ll tell you something: There is nothing more powerful than people mobilized and organized and energized to make America stronger and better and truer to its core principles. And that’s what you are doing. [applause] This movement will not end. This movement cannot end. This movement will continue, and nobody—nobody, nothing—will be able to stop it once it has started. [applause]

Now, I want to take your questions, because you’ve got much better questions than I have answers for. … Yes, sir. I’m going to repeat the question, by the way. … Does it make sense to create a system where nobody is going homeless for any reason? The answer is, obviously, yes. We should not have an economy—this economy, the richest economy in the world—in the world. We should not have so many homeless people. Why do we have so many homeless people? We should have facilities for them; we should have provision for them. And it’s not just homeless people. Do you know, today, the chance that any family could find themselves homeless? Any family. Any family, middle-class families, professional families, if they’ve got a medical bill that is a huge medical bill; if they lose their job; if they just fall back down on their luck, they could be homeless. You know how many people are losing their homes now? They are going to be homeless! This is not just a few people. This is potentially all of us.

Another question over here. … The question is, what kind of immunity are the states trying to work out with the administration to give the bank executives immunity from all of the stuff that they did? I don’t know about that, but let me say what this movement should insist on, among other things, and that is accountability. [applause] We have a Wall Street that got totally out of control. Totally out of control. Greed knew no bounds. And then what happened? We all paid, we bailed them out, and then there was supposed to be financial regulation. Well, what did they do? The street, Wall Street and the financial sector, paid a huge amount of money for lobbyists and campaign finance, so they could create loopholes in the financial regulation bill large enough for them to drive their Lamborghinis through. And so right now, instead of the simple rules we wanted—that is, for example, resurrect Glass-Steagall [applause]; separate commercial from investment banking; a simple, simple rule—what did we get? We have 300 pages of a Volcker Rule that is gobbledygook, with all kinds of red tape and exemptions and loopholes that basically are going to allow the banks to do exactly what they did before. And you know what? Let’s be candid. The banks are basically doing exactly what they did before.

Yes, sir. … The question is, why should you support the Democratic Party? And I was president … [laughs]… I was secretary of labor—no, I wasn’t president—when Bill Clinton was president. The only thing that you said wrong: I didn’t support NAFTA. In fact, I said there should be no NAFTA unless there are strong labor and environmental side agreements. [applause] But let me just say—wait a minute, beside that—why should we support the Democratic Party? I think we should support the Democratic Party when the Democratic Party becomes us. [Applause] And you say, when will that happen? Again, we—if we are mobilized and organized, the Democratic Party will seek us out, will want us. … What is a party? A party is a group of people. Our government should be, if it’s a democracy, should be us. And so we need to have a Democratic Party that reflects us. That’s what we need; that’s what we should demand.

Yes, ma’am. … The question is … don’t say climate change, say global warming. OK, ‘global warming.’ [laughter] Look, can I just say something? Because a lot of these are great questions, and I want to continue for a few minutes, I have a few minutes to take them. But I want to just say one thing, and it’s very, very important. Because many of you here, for completely accurate and important reasons, are concerned about the environment. Some of you here for very important, noble and critically important reasons, are concerned about jobs. Some of you here for absolutely, terribly important reasons, want to move to what I think we should have, and that is a single payer system of health care. [applause] Some of you are here—and you are right about this—we need to have a military budget that is half, or less, of the current military budget. [applause] … And many of you have other issues. My point is that if we hang together, if we get out of our own issue silos for just a moment and if we hang together, we have a chance of changing this country. If we get campaign finance reform and get money out of politics, we have a chance of getting our democracy back. So what you need to do is understand this movement is about all of us. It is about all of our issues. It is about everything we want and everything we need to take our country back.

Yes … OK, how do we get our money back from the bailout, and how do we get some people in jail for all of this? That goes back to the question of accountability. And let me just say, not a single top executive on Wall Street has been indicted or prosecuted for what has happened on Wall Street, and that is a scandal. But how do we make sure that that scandal is reversed and we get genuine accountability? How do we do that? The same way we do everything else that I just listed: We demand it. We mobilize, we organize, we show energy. We link up with other Occupiers around this country; we make this movement the strongest and most powerful people’s movement in decades and decades. And we get everything that we want, that is necessary, and that is just.

I have about a minute left … five minutes, OK, we’ve got a chance for a couple more questions. Yes, ma’am … here’s the question: In my opinion, will Obama ever fulfill the promises he made to us in 2008? The answer is this: President Obama, if he is faced with a strong and articulate and powerful progressive movement, President Obama will go along.
Yes, sir … the question is, what could we do with all the dollars that we are spending now on the military? $700 billion a year. Well, if we had $700 billion a year, or even if we halve the military budget to $350 billion a year, we could educate all of our children, provide early childhood education; we could provide health care to all of our people; we could have a first-class infrastructure in this country; and we could provide jobs to people rebuilding America. [applause]

Yes … [question: the proposed constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United, can you address that, please?] … You know, the problem we’re talking about is not only a problem of Congress and Washington; or at least, it’s not only a problem of elected officials directly. It’s also a problem—and let’s be candid about this—it’s a problem of our Supreme Court. [applause] And I’m going to name names. They start with Roberts, and Scalia and Alito, and Clarence Thomas, and too often, Justice Kennedy. And what they have decided—among other things that are heinous, that are ridiculous, that are grotesque—they’ve decided, under the First Amendment, that money is speech and corporations are people. [booing from crowd] I will believe that corporations are people when Georgia and Texas start executing corporations. [applause] Now, look: In order to get a majority of the Supreme Court back for America, reflecting the values of America—and most Americans don’t believe corporations are people. In fact, the Supreme Court, in the way it’s viewing the First Amendment, is basically saying to the rest of us, ‘You don’t have freedom of speech.’ Because we cannot get our message through with all of the money coming from big corporations and from rich people. Now, listen: There is one justice, one justice standing between us and having a majority on the Supreme Court. And we’ve got to make sure that whoever is the next Supreme Court justice pledges to overrule Citizens United against the Federal Election Commission. [applause]

You know, just as a sign of how far you have led this country—can I just say, just an example of how far you’ve led this country—I go around this country, I talk about Citizens United, and people all over this country are apoplectic; they are enraged. I talk about Glass-Steagall and everybody applauds. Six months ago, do you think people would have applauded for Glass-Steagall? [laughter] Do you see the education, the understanding that is being created in this country? Here’s something else. People on the other side say, ‘Oh, corporations—corporations need more money in order to hire people; their taxes have to be reduced; they have to have less regulations.’ Well, the reality is, American corporations are now sitting on $2 trillion of cash they don’t even know what to do with, and the ratio of corporate profits to wages is higher than it’s been since before the Great Depression. Corporations [aren’t] hiring, not because they don’t have the money; they have plenty of money, they’re awash in money. They don’t need tax breaks; they don’t need regulatory so-called relief, which actually means fewer regulations, health, safety, the environment, Wall Street—no. What they need are customers; they need demand, and that means they need people who have money in their pockets, average working people and poor people.

Time for one more question. … How do we rebuild the safety net? Right now, at a time in American history when we have the worst economy since the Great Depression, our social safety nets are in tatters. Only 40 percent of people who are unemployed qualify for unemployment insurance. Only 40 percent. And it’s not even clear, after the end of this year, that unemployment insurance is going to be extended for all of the people who desperately need it. Single mothers—what are we doing for single mothers who need to work? Well, we don’t even have work out there, let alone any safety net for them, any longer. What about young people with loans, college loans hanging around their necks? Unemployment among young people, even with college degrees, is about 9 percent right now. And they have an average of $25,000 that they owe. And what about a safety net for people who have huge mortgage debt, that are underwater? We bailed out the banks, folks; why don’t we bail out average working people, average people, with regard to huge debts they have? [applause]

In closing, let me just say this. Everything is going to … [pause, laughter]… it’s going to work out. This country, if you look at American history, every time it looks like … [yelling from crowd]… wait a minute. Before we get to revolution, let me just say something. [laughter] Every time, in the history of this country, when things have got totally out of whack—and I’m talking about the 1880s and 1890s, and 1920s and 1950s—every time in this country when things have got out of whack, you know what happens? People rise up. The people rise! Americans can do it. And we can do it if we are patient, if we are nonviolent, if we understand the importance of people organized and mobilized, and if we educate those who disagree with us, and listen to those who disagree with us. Thank you very much.

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