» Pragmatic people

An interview with Robert Reich from the documentary Inequality for All

Robert Reich provides an impassioned lesson about the economy and the widening income gap in Jacob Kornbluth’s Inequality for All. Reich’s political and public service career spans decades and includes positions in the Ford and Carter administrations. He was Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton. Reich is the author of numerous articles and books including the best-sellers The Work of Nations and Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future. A former professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Reich is currently Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

You’ve been communicating these issues for a long time, now you’vechosen to make a film. What’s the power of the documentary form to you?

Since this is the first one that I’ve ever hosted, its difficult to say. We’ll find out. My sense from other powerful documentaries is they can reach people in ways that other media can’t. I’ve written 14 books, I spend a lot of time on radio and television, and yet I have a sense that people – particularly young people – are best reached through videos, films, documentaries. Very few people buy books any longer, we’ve seen an erosion of readership, yet people still go to the movies and are increasingly getting video on demand. One of my sons, who is 28, after seeing a screening of Inequality for All said, “Dad I’ve watched you and read your stuff ever since I can remember, but this is the first time I’ve ever understood what you’ve been saying.”

The film cites examples from Europe in countries where people have a better chance of pulling themselves out of poverty than in the United States. Can you talk about this difference?

Europe invests substantially in education, job training, and skill development for all of its young people, it brings almost everyone up to a high minimum level of competence. Europe is also more unionized than the United States so workers have more bargaining leverage. Most European nations have a more progressive tax structure than the United States does. Put them all together and you find that in Europe, it’s relatively easier for someone born into poverty to escape poverty. In the United States, it has become harder. 44 percent of children born into poverty in the US are still in poverty as adults, that’s higher than anywhere in Europe.

When you saw Europe making decisions to implement austerity measures, what did you think?

Austerity economics, I believe, will prove to be a terrible mistake. Britain, Spain and other nations that did not begin with severe budget problems, should never have regarded their budget deficits as their largest economic challenges. They are now beginning to pay the price. In Greece, the deficit really was significantly out of control. Another documentary at Sundance about Dick Cheney made me think about the enormous debt and burden that’s been created by the wars, and how that has affected the middle class. What we attempt to do in the film is connect the dots.The enormous costs of the wars the United States has undertaken have driven up the budget deficit, at the same time that we had a very deep recession – and at the very same time the highest tax rates on the wealthy were dropped considerably under George W. Bush. It’s an impossible combination.

So what’s the way out? Is it getting money out of politics and investing in infrastructure and education?

Those are part of it. We also need to unionize those sectors of the economy that are sheltered from international competition and not really affected by technology. For example big box retail chains like Walmart and fast food chains like McDonald’s and many other places where low-wage workers really have no bargaining power at all. Only 6.6 percent of private sector workers in the United States are in unions.

I just don’t see any way things will turn around without getting money out of politics. Am I being naive?

I think that has to be one of the first priorities, the overwhelming dominance of big money in politics makes it almost impossible to get anything done that is not in the interests of big money.

Do you remain hopeful the middle class will be able to turn this corner?

Of course. You have only to look at history. The unique and remarkable thing about the United States is its capacity to put ideology aside and get on with what needs to be done – when Americans understand the nature of the problem. We’re very pragmatic people, the problem is we often don’t understand that we’ve got a problem, until quite late in the game. As Winston Churchill once said, “You can always trust Americans to do the right thing after they’ve exhausted all other alternatives.”_

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