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“We Need to Make a Ruckus”: Robert Reich Hails Occupy for Exposing Concentration of Wealth and Power

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In his new book, “Beyond Outrage,” former Labor Secretary Robert Reich opens with a dedication to the Occupy Wall Street movement. He writes: “To the Occupiers, and all others committed to taking back our economy and our democracy.” We speak to Reich about the success of Occupy in reshaping the national dialogue on the economy and why strong grassroots movements are needed to push elected leaders in Washington to enact a progressive agenda. Reich also discusses why austerity is not the answer to the economic crisis at home or in Europe. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, if President Obama were not re-elected, and it was a Republican in office, it was President Romney, do you think it would be any more extreme?


AMY GOODMAN: In what way?

ROBERT REICH: Are you kidding? Well, I mean, look at—

AMY GOODMAN: Because the people on the outside, who you say got demobilized when President Obama was elected, and perhaps when President Clinton was elected, would be far more mobilized, because they would not expect to have a friend in the White House.

ROBERT REICH: Well, but the cost of a Romney White House, in terms of everything we believe. I mean, he has embraced Paul Ryan’s budget. He says it’s a marvelous budget, which means that we not only get a larger military and we not only get huge cuts in domestic discretionary, including education and Medicare, Medicaid, every safety net, every public investment, but we also at the same time get huge tax cuts for the very rich. We put the economy and our society on a track back to pre-New Deal. And think of the Supreme Court openings that are going to occur. I mean, I—you know, the most elderly judges—justices who are there have been appointed—were appointed by Democrats.

Now, I think the cost of a Romney administration is so huge, even if it would generate more public outrage, that I would say, let’s all get behind Obama for a second term; let’s make sure, to the extent possible, we have a Democratic Congress; but let’s understand that that’s just the beginning of our task. We’ve got to make them move in a progressive direction. It’s just like 1936, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was running for re-election and somebody said to him, “Mr. President, if you’re re-elected, I want you to do this and this and this and this.” And he said, “Ma’am, I want to do all these things, but if I am re-elected, you must make me do them.” You see, democracy—you know this. I mean, this is what Democracy Now! is all about. Democracy is a practice. It’s a living form of ongoing citizen engagement. And we cannot allow ourselves to be lulled into either complacency or cynicism. Cynicism is the worst form of cop out, because—

AMY GOODMAN: You were on the inside as secretary of labor. What did you feel was the most effective way for people on the outside to have an effect? As you said, you walked through the streets on the day that welfare reform is going to be signed, and you look and you see that no one is around. What makes the difference? And talk of today, about Occupy, as well.

ROBERT REICH: Well, yeah, I think, number one, it is very important for people to visibly demonstrate. Now, it’s hard to break through in the media, but visible demonstrations with a lot of people do help. They shift the media’s attention. The Occupy movements put inequality on the front page. The Occupy movement succeeded in changing the tenor and the shape of debate in this country about what was happening and allowed the President of the United States to say that the defining issue of the campaign is fairness, who gets what. The Occupy campaign—without the Occupy campaign, none of that would happen. Number two—

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised by it?

ROBERT REICH: I was surprised that in a relatively short time—you know, I’ve been around for a while—civil rights, Vietnam, anti-Vietnam, so on. I was surprised that in a matter of months the Occupy movement could claim so much attention and so effectively shape the debate around the concentration of wealth and power in this country. And that, to me, is an indication of how much can be accomplished.

But that’s not all. I mean, we have to go on. We’ve got to also get involved in electoral politics. In relatively safe Democratic districts, it’s important to put up progressives, so that the center of gravity doesn’t keep on moving to the right in this country. It’s important to get behind a plank of specific ideas, like resurrecting Glass-Steagall, like breaking up the big banks, like making sure that taxes are increased on the very wealthy and the earned income tax credit, which is basically a wage subsidy for the working poor, be expanded, and so on. Get behind six or seven major ideas that we all think are critically important to the future and push them, and push them dramatically. Get big money out of politics. You know, I’m the chairman, the national chairman, of Common Cause, an old organization. It’s been doing this work for years. But if we don’t get big money out of politics, everything else we want to do is hopeless. And that is a fundamental, fundamental, basic goal, reversing Citizens United. All of these things can be done.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about President Obama too much appeasing the Republicans, but isn’t it also the people who will fund his campaign, expected to raise more than a billion dollars?

ROBERT REICH: Yes, and we’ve got to have campaign finance reform and lift the lid on the amount of campaign finance, so no president or no would-be president is at a disadvantage in accepting public financing.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you concerned about the police crackdown on the Occupy movement, a level of militarization of the police in this country that we have rarely seen before?

ROBERT REICH: Yeah, and it’s ironic that, under the First Amendment, we now have a Supreme Court that says corporations are people and money is speech, and yet when the people really do mobilize under their First Amendment rights to free assembly, the police, in city after city, crack down and don’t allow the people to be heard. I mean, if corporations are people and if money is speech, then it becomes even more critical that we expand and enrich the definition of First Amendment—of the First Amendment to allow people to express themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: It would be interesting to see this militarized police force deal with corporations as people.

ROBERT REICH: Yes. I mean, I will—I’ve said before, I’ll believe that corporations are people when Texas executes a corporation. I mean, once we go down the track of treating corporations as people and money as speech, there is really no end to the distorting effects of big money and corporate money in politics. That’s why it’s not just Citizens United. It’s also several Supreme Court precedents that have got to be changed—if necessary, by a constitutional amendment.

AMY GOODMAN: A constitutional amendment that would…?

ROBERT REICH: That would say, effectively, corporations are not people and money is not speech. And it is perfectly appropriate for Congress to regulate, especially in a major—in a presidential campaign, to regulate and restrict big money.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the issue of austerity and what’s happening abroad and how it could affect what’s happening at home. In the headlines today, reading about German Chancellor Angela Merkel rejecting calls by the newly elected Socialist French president, François Hollande, to renegotiate the European fiscal pact that’s led to widespread austerity measures across continent—across the continent. What’s happening in France? What’s happening in Greece?

ROBERT REICH: Austerity doesn’t work. You know, there are two doctrines perpetrated by the right, in the United States and in Europe. One is supply-side, trickle-down economics. We know that doesn’t work. They keep on trying to convince us it does. We’ve seen, under Reagan, under George W. Bush, that when the taxes are cut on the rich and on corporations, nothing trickles down. The other, first cousin, is austerity economics. When you have high unemployment and a lot of underutilized capacity, the idea is you cut public budgets. That’s insane, because that leads to a shrinking of the entire economy, when the real problem is, to the extent that you’re worried about fiscal discipline, the ratio of debt to the size of the economy overall. If you shrink the economy, that ratio becomes worse and worse. That’s an austerity trap. That’s what happened to Spain. It’s what’s happening even to Britain. It’s what’s happening to Europe as a whole.

Angela Merkel is absolutely wrong. You need jobs and growth first, before you embrace austerity. Now, we’re going to come to exactly the same decision point in January, because we’ve got the sequestration cuts coming up. If nothing is done between now and then, we are going to be forced to embrace our own version of austerity economics at a time when there is still going to be high unemployment and still a lot of underutilized capacity here in the United States. We have got to understand, as Europe has got to understand, as I think François Hollande is going to push Germany to understand, that jobs and growth have to come first, before so-called fiscal austerity discipline.

AMY GOODMAN: So, finally, you think Occupy is the answer?

ROBERT REICH: I think Occupy is certainly part of the answer. You know, I would say we need to make a ruckus in this country. We also need to get very, very much more clever about politics. We need to get involved in electoral politics. We need to—wherever we see it, Amy, we need to fight cynicism. We need to understand that this is a long haul. You know, take civil rights, women’s suffrage, anything that we’ve got accomplished that expands the franchise and expands opportunity in this country, it did not happen in six months. It didn’t happen in four years. It happened over 20 years. I’m not saying we should be patient, but we’ve got to understand that mobilizing and changing the allocation of power in society is a serious and long-term and very difficult process. It’s necessary for our children and our grandchildren, but it is not going to happen overnight.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Reich, I want to thank you very much for being with us, professor of public policy at University of California, Berkeley, former secretary of labor in the Clinton administration. Time Magazine named him one of the 10 most effective cabinet secretaries of the last century. He has written many books, among them, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future. His latest is an e-book called Beyond Outrage: What Has Gone Wrong with Our Economy and Our Democracy, and How to Fix [Them].

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to talk about Guantánamo and the military tribunals that are taking place right now. Why aren’t American civilian courts good enough? Stay with us.

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