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Robert Reich: Morality & the Common Good Must Be at Center of Fighting Trump’s Economic Agenda

StoryFebruary 20, 2018
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As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump made a promise to the American people: There would be no cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Well, the promise has not been kept. Under his new budget, President Trump proposes a massive increase in Pentagon spending while cutting funding for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Trump’s budget would also slash or completely eliminate core anti-poverty programs that form the heart of the U.S. social safety net, from childhood nutrition to care for the elderly and job training. This comes after President Trump and Republican lawmakers pushed through a $1.5 trillion tax cut that overwhelmingly favors the richest Americans, including President Trump and his own family. We speak to Robert Reich, who served as labor secretary under President Bill Clinton. He is now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His most recent book, out today, is titled “The Common Good.”

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

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump made a promise to the American people: There would be no cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

DONALD TRUMP: Save Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, without cuts. Have to do it. Get rid of the fraud. Get rid of the waste and abuse. But save it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, that promise has not been kept. Under his new budget, President Trump proposes a massive increase in Pentagon spending while cutting funding for Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Trump’s budget would also slash or completely eliminate core anti-poverty programs that form the heart of the U.S. social safety net, from childhood nutrition to care for the elderly and job training. This comes after President Trump and Republican lawmakers pushed through a $1.5 trillion tax cut that overwhelmingly favors the richest Americans, including President Trump and his own family.

AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest has been one of the vocal critics of President Trump’s economic policies. Robert Reich served as labor secretary under President Bill Clinton. He’s now a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, senior fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. Most recent book is out today, it’s called The Common Good.

Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you back, Robert Reich.

ROBERT REICH: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, respond to what we see today. You have this fall in Wall Street, which doesn’t necessarily reflect what happens on Main Street, and you have this budget that’s been introduced, that we just heard, and the broken campaign promises of President Trump. Who’s winning and who’s losing at this point?

ROBERT REICH: Well, I think we’re all losing. That is actually the theme of my book. The rich in America cannot continue to do well when most others are not. If the social contract, that is the basis of this country, is coming apart, if we are basically saying to everyone, “You’re on your own,” we’re all going to be worse off. There is a common good. At least there was a common good. I think the purpose of the book is to ignite a discussion about whether we can re-establish a sense of common good in America.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, when you say there has been a common good, talk about that historically in terms of the how the concept developed.

ROBERT REICH: Well, in the Constitution, Juan, it says, “We the people.” We, the people, are establishing a government, and one of the purposes is for our own domestic well-being. And the Declaration of Independence and our founding documents and the Gettysburg Address—I mean, go through everything over the last 200 years that has talked about who “we,” what the pronoun “we” means, and it means equal political rights. And that has been a goal. It hasn’t been effectuated. We’ve sought it. We certainly—I don’t want to romanticize a past in which we certainly have not had equal political rights. But there was—for much of our history, we’ve at least been seeking it. The same with equal opportunity. The same with the rule of law, that no person is above the law. And you go—you go down the list. Again, I want to emphasize these are aspirations, these are ideals, that kept us together, again and again.

And I fear we’re losing them. I mean, Donald Trump is sort of the essence of the problem, but he is not the cause of the problem. I mean, his election was, I believe, a result, at least in part, of a great deal of disillusionment and anger and cynicism that many people have toward a system, toward a ruling class, that did not deliver, that has not delivered. And Trump’s conflicts of interest, his narcissism, his sort of inability to understand that there is something called America that is greater and more important than flag salutes and standing for a national anthem or securing the borders, is symptomatic of something that is much deeper that’s gone wrong in America.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Reich, who was the labor secretary under President Clinton. And you had a lot of problems with Clinton. I mean, you talked about walking the streets the day he signed off on welfare reform, what some called “welfare deform,” walking the streets of Washington, wondering where all the people were. Well, today, actually, there are a number of people in the streets. They are young people. They are high school kids, who could turn the entire system on its head, not only around gun control. These are the survivors of the massacre in Florida. They’re on a bus to Tallahassee. They’re doing lie-ins and die-ins in Washington, D.C. And they’re saying what even the media—though the media has come out, except for Fox, pretty anti—pretty much for gun control. They always start off by saying, “Well, you can’t get an automatic weapons ban. We will start there. But what is it you think you can do?” They are questioning everything right now. They’re talking about corruption. They’re talking about money in politics. These are kids in 10th, 11th and 12th grade, and younger.

ROBERT REICH: Well, they give me a great deal of encouragement, Amy, you know, that young lady, Emma González, for example, that very powerful speech she gave Saturday about gun control. What I see around the country is that there’s a silver lining to Trump and to everything that’s going on right now in our nation’s capital and elsewhere. That silver lining is that you have young people, you also have many activists, who are becoming more active than ever before. A lot of people who had given up on politics, had become cynical, are saying to themselves, “I can’t afford to be cynical, because this country is too important to me and my children and my grandchildren.” They are becoming engaged in politics in a way I haven’t seen since the Vietnam War or the anti-Vietnam War movement. I teach young people. And I can say that every day I count my blessings, because I’m surrounded by kids who care about this country, care about the future, and are not going to allow us to continue to ignore the common good.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yet, the supporters of Trump have doubled down even more in their backing of him, as we’ve seen, repeatedly been seeing, most recently the Oprah interview with a group of a cross-section of Americans, half of whom had voted for Trump, and then Trump started blasting, on Twitter, attacking Oprah for the interviews. There is a sense among his supporters that he’s doing exactly what they expected him to do.

ROBERT REICH: Well, I think, to a large extent, Juan, those supporters have been watching, you know, the propaganda arm of the White House, which is Fox News. And if you get into that propaganda arm, you know, you begin to accept the lies that Trump has been propagating and Fox News has been propagating. I mean, he—in his whole life, he has been a con man. And I think there are a lot of Americans, sadly, who have been conned by him.

I mean, look at the tax bill. I mean, the idea that the working class is going to do better under that tax bill is absurd. That tax bill, that went through Congress, tax plan, is overwhelmingly favoring the very wealthy, and it’s being paid for—they’re already talking about paying for it. I’m talking about Paul Ryan and Trump, are already talking about paying for it by cutting programs like Medicare and Social Security and Medicaid, that so many Americans depend on, many Trump voters depend on. I mean, the Trump voters are the ones who are being shafted almost worse than anybody else.

And yet, because of the lies, the big lies, they don’t know it—or at least don’t know it yet. I think they will. They can’t help but understand it. In fact, I have spent a lot of time over the last year and a half in so-called red states talking to people who voted for Trump, and many of them are becoming deeply disillusioned. I mean, look at the—look at even the escapades that are coming out about paying off Playboy bunnies and prostitutes. And, I mean, you’ve got evangelicals in America who are saying, “Wait a minute, this can’t—we trusted that this man was somebody who he said he was, but he’s somebody entirely different.” The truth is going to catch up with them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you wrote recently, though, that in the 2016 election, that “he sucked all the oxygen out of the race by making himself its biggest story. Now, he’s sucking all the oxygen out of America by making himself our national obsession.” And you go on to say, “Schooled in reality television and New York tabloids, Trump knows how to keep both sides stirred up: Vilify, disparage, denounce, defame, and accuse the other side of conspiring against America. Do it continuously. Dominate every news cycle.”

ROBERT REICH: And that’s his—if you want to call it a gift. It’s certainly his technique. And that is what he knows how to do: divide and conquer, make us all feel as if we are against one another, that the most important kind of conflict in America is between them—the “they” being either Trump voters or the people who are against Trump—and disguise the fact that most Americans are now battling over a smaller and smaller share of an economic pie. I mean, you’ve got, for example, white working-class people who are on a downward escalator—they still are on a downward escalator—and they are now being taught to believe that African Americans and Latinos and foreigners and DACA children are somehow responsible for their plight. I mean, it’s taking their eyes off the system, what has happened as a system. This is why I wrote the book. Again, if we don’t start focusing on the common good and what we mean by that, and taking our eyes, at least occasionally, off of this egomaniac in the White House, who knows how to aggravate us and obsess us, then we are going to, in a kind of ironic way, allow him to succeed.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Reich, chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, former labor secretary under President Clinton. He has a new book out. It’s out today. It’s called The Common Good. We’ll be back with him in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: “Silver Dagger” by Joan Baez. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn to President Trump talking about the infrastructure plan that he’s just presented.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This morning I submitted legislative principles to Congress that will spur the biggest and boldest infrastructure investment in American history. The framework will generate an unprecedented $1.5 to $1.7 trillion investment in American infrastructure. We’re going to have a lot of public-private. That way it gets done on time, on budget.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s President Trump introducing his infrastructure plan. From infrastructure, if you can respond to that, to the budget, to the tax plan, talk about what he’s proposed and what would be a plan for the common good.

ROBERT REICH: Trump is proposing what he says is $200 billion of federal money, that somehow, magically, creates $1.5 trillion of infrastructure spending. Well, first of all, there’s no money left in the federal budget. All of the money that was there has been basically taken with the big tax cut. So, he—on closer inspection, he and the White House are saying, “Well, that $200 billion is going to have to come out of other programs.” Now, when they say “other programs,” we know what they mean. That means programs for the working class and the poor. They’ve been the first on the chopping block for the entire administration so far.

But beyond that, where does the rest of the money come from? It comes from private developers, private investors. How can we attract private investors for that much infrastructure? By giving them the receipts of tolls and fees and user fees—basically, turning the future infrastructure of America, and much of the present, over to the private sector. So we pay twice. We pay not only through our taxes, but we also pay through all of the tolls. And money—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But they also expect large contributions from local, city and state governments—


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that would also be us paying, as well.

ROBERT REICH: Exactly. And the state governments are not going to just be able to come up with the money. They are going to have to raise taxes, as well. And so, you’ve got a system that is Trumpian in all its dimensions, again, without any understanding of the common good. It is going to cost more people more money, and it’s not even going to be infrastructure where we most need it. I mean, where we most need it is repairing old bridges and old highways and water treatment facilities. But where do private investors want to see infrastructure? Where can they get the biggest return? On brand-new highways and brand-new bridges, that will basically skirt the poor areas of this country, not only the poor rural areas, but many of our minority communities.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the—in terms of the tax cut, because I remember, before the election, both Democrats and some Republicans, like John Kasich, were talking about using an amnesty for corporate profits that were being held offshore, when they would repatriate it, to use that for infrastructure, because that was a one-time shot in the arm to the U.S. economy. And that didn’t happen, actually. Most of that money seems to have gone into the overall plugging the gap of this plan. But you’ve also focused on stock buybacks and how companies are using stock buybacks now with this tax plan, while all the attention is going into the pittances that they’re giving in bonuses to their workers.

ROBERT REICH: Exactly. And those bonuses have proven to be very, very tiny relative to the amount of profits that companies are now sinking into buying back their shares of stock, which is a technique used by companies to artificially raise stock prices. Why are they doing this? Largely because CEO pay is so intimately related to share prices, that CEOs, even in an era like this, when there’s almost no reason for share prices to go up—in fact, they’re going down—but artificially keep them up, or keep them from falling as much as they would, by buying back the shares of stock. Now, this has nothing whatever to do with the promise that the Trump—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how has the buybacks increased now, in the past year, compared to previously?

ROBERT REICH: Buybacks were already at a record level in 2017. And so far this year, they are even at a higher level. So, all of that corporate tax in the new tax plan that’s gone into effect, that was supposed to inspire and encourage a lot of new investment—you know, the trickle-down economics theory—well, it’s already proved to be bankrupt.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, Senator Sanders questioned Budget Director Mick Mulvaney about President Trump’s budget plan.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Explain to me the morality of a process by which we give the third-wealthiest family in America—major contributor, I might add, to the Republican Party—over a billion dollars a year in tax breaks, and yet we cut a program which keeps children and the elderly warm in the winter.

MICK MULVANEY: Here’s the morality of the LIHEAP proposal, Senator: 11,000 dead people got that benefit the last time the GAO looked at it. That’s not moral, to take your money, to take my money, to take the money from the people that you were just mentioning—

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Eleven thousand people got it who shouldn’t have. Correct that. But 7 million people get the program. To say that 11,000 out of 7 million—deal with that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Bernie Sanders questioning Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. Robert Reich?

ROBERT REICH: Well, morality is very much at the center of all of this. I mean, this is the discussion we ought to be having. I mean, say what you want about Donald Trump. He has at least brought us back to first principles. Why are we together in this nation? What—who are we? Are we just a bunch of individuals who happen to be born here and who should be making as much money and accumulating as much power as possible? Is that the meaning of America? Or is it that we are a bunch of white Christians who were all born here and speak English as a first language? Is that the meaning of America? Well, I’m sorry, that is not the meaning of America as we’ve understood it for much of the 200 years—more than 200 years of our existence. There are ideals that undergird our understanding of why we are a nation. As a great political philosopher Carl Friedrich once said, you know, “To be a Frenchman is a fact. To be an American is an ideal.” You know, we are not a creed. We are not a religion. We are a conviction, a conviction about the importance of certain ideals.

Donald Trump obviously doesn’t understand the common good. He’s never uttered the words “the common good,” I’m sure. But they were understood. You know, I’m old enough to remember people like Robert F. Kennedy, who talked in terms of the common good. I even worked—my first job in government was working for Robert F. Kennedy in his Senate office in 1967. And I, like many of my generation, went out and campaigned for Eugene McCarthy 50 years ago, because we believed so deeply that there was a common good that was being violated by the Vietnam War. Many of us sacrificed our time. And some of my—a friend of mine, very good friend, sacrificed his life in the civil rights movement. Most of us, many of us, were weaned on the notion that this country had moral principles. When Bernie Sanders asks Mick Mulvaney about morality, he is asking a question about what this country once represented and should represent.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in your book, when you’re talking about what are some of the shifts that have begun to tear away at the concept of the common good, you talk about the notion of whatever it takes to win. Can you talk about that?

ROBERT REICH: Well, that has become—and again, Donald Trump is sort of the emblematic of that idea, but it’s been growing for the last three or four decades, whatever it takes to win. In politics, it doesn’t matter what you do, doesn’t matter the effect on the institutions of our democracy, if you can still just win. The same thing with business. If you just show a profit and show a bigger and bigger profit, it doesn’t matter what effect you’re having on communities or on employees or the consequences for the nation. You just win.

All of this win-at-any-cost mentality is actually rather new. You know, we, as Americans, we went through a Depression, we went through World War II. We understood, at some point, that we’re all in the same boat together. It’s not—and again, I want to emphasize this, I don’t want to romanticize the past. It’s not that we were an equal society that adhered in every respect to an understanding of the common good, but we at least strove for it—you know, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Act. We at least were on the road to trying. And then there was a big U-turn, Juan, and you know as well as I. It starts with Ronald Reagan. And we no longer talk about the common good.

AMY GOODMAN: Talking about the common good, let’s talk about immigrants for a moment. You are a professor at University of California, Berkeley. There are many students who have DACA at University of California, all over the country. We’re talking about nearly a million young people, who are threatened now with not knowing what’s happening, because President Trump says he was ending the program, a judge has now stopped it. But what’s happening at universities, for example, in dealing with kids? How do you talk to young people who are dealing with this uncertainty, with this crisis, the ripping apart of their families, and if not them, the possibility that their parents will be deported, immigrant leaders around the country being targeted, being detained, being threatened with deportation right now, as President Trump talks about the national security of the country, explaining that’s why he’s ripping families apart? And yet you have this seven—this 19-year-old shooter, self-confessed shooter, who has easy access to guns, and President Trump hardly talks about this.

ROBERT REICH: Well, I think this is again a good exemplar of the problem we’re in and the ironies we find ourselves. These DACA kids were promised—there was a promise made to them—that if they registered, if they basically provided information about themselves—they came here as children, it’s not their fault that they came here as children—that they would, if they registered, have an opportunity to stay, an opportunity to apply for permanent citizenship, an opportunity to work. And then, suddenly, arbitrarily, we have a president come along, a new president, who says, “Well, all of that is off. You are actually going to be targeted. You should not be here. Yes, well, it’s too bad you came here as a child.”

This kind of insensitive, amoral—in fact, it’s immoral—approach to these kids, at the same time you’ve got guns in schools and guns all over the place, you know, a kind of an insensitivity to the reality of what this nation is experiencing, it seems to me, is, again, the essence of the problem we now face. Why is it so hard to understand that no nation, except the United States, suffers the gun violence we do, and no nation, except the United States, has as easy access to guns? You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to connect up the dots. But you do have to at least have a concern for the common good.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask, briefly—we have about a minute left. You talk in the book about bumping into the CEO of Wells Fargo one day at a light on a street corner at Berkeley and the conversations you had with him. Wells Fargo, probably a racketeering conspiracy all of its own, in terms of how it’s dealt with its clients.

ROBERT REICH: CEOs today—and the CEO of Wells Fargo at the time was just another example—I think, don’t understand that they have public obligations that go beyond public relations. You know, John Stumpf, who was the CEO, he said to me, over coffee—and we did bump into each other—that he wanted to just distinguish Wells Fargo from all the other banks that had been caught up in the 2008 banking crisis, and he wanted to make sure that the public understood that Wells Fargo really was a responsible bank. And he said this with a complete seriousness. I mean, he fooled me.

AMY GOODMAN: We have three seconds.

ROBERT REICH: Well, in three seconds, let me just say, it’s not just Trump. It’s all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: The Common Good is Robert Reich’s new book. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.

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