Robert Reich: Making people laugh about economic inequality

BY Robert Reich  October 16, 2013 at 12:05 PM EDT

In part two of our extended conversation with Robert Reich, he explains how he first met Bill Clinton in 1968 and why laughing is so essential to learning. Watch Making Sen$e’s broadcast interview with Reich above.

Friday night’s NewsHour featured about six-and-a-half minutes of an interview with newly minted movie star Robert Reich, professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton. We thought some folks might be interested in the entire discussion and therefore are presenting it in two installments, edited slightly for ease of reading. You can read the first part here. In part two, Reich picks up talking about how the Civil Rights movement influenced his interest in economic inequality.


Robert Reich: Having gone through the civil rights struggle, having gone through the anti-Vietnam War struggle, by the time I was in my 20s, I had something that the current generation doesn’t have. And that is a sense of efficacy. We could actually do something. We could have a Civil Rights Act, a Voting Rights Act. We could actually end an unjust war. We had a certain amount of power, and if we organized and mobilized, we could get things done.

I’m not sure that the present generation of younger people has nearly that sense of efficacy. They haven’t seen the power of a generation or two or three coming together and changing history.

Paul Solman: Isn’t it in part because there seems to be a kind of determinism to the inequality, to the extent that it’s skills-based, to the extent that there’s assortative mating so that you and your wife, me and my wife, are people who are already highly educated, who read to our kids, who read to our grandchildren, who monitor what TV they should watch or not watch, who give them every advantage?

Robert Reich: I am not an economic determinist. If I were, I would throw up my hands; I just would not bother. I think it’s wrong to be an economic determinist. I think it’s wrong to simply say, “Well, inevitably, if you’re poor, you’re going to get a lousy education; if you’re lower-middle class, the cards are going to be stacked against you, and you’ll probably never get anywhere.”

But because of growing inequality and slow growth, even if you are upper-middle class, it’s getting harder and harder and harder. The trend line is not encouraging. My grandchild, if the trends continue, can have every advantage in the world and she may not make it. More and more middle class people are finding that in any given 10-year period, they are poor suddenly, not because of anything they did, but because of bad luck: the employer left town or they have skills that are obsolete or they have bad health.

Paul Solman: But you were saying young people don’t have a sense of efficacy, of being effective, and I’m just wondering if it isn’t because they say, the deck is stacked in some larger sense? Not that it’s a game being rigged, but that some people are more and more advantaged in the emerging global economy.

Robert Reich: I think that the sense of inefficacy and inevitability comes not from thinking the rich are going to have all the educational advantages. No, I think it comes from the sense that politically, the wealthy have overwhelming power in this society and there’s nothing, say a lot of people, that we can do about it. That is simply wrong. That attitude is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you give up on democracy, you might as well give up on everything.

When Bill Clinton Brought Him Soup and Crackers

Paul Solman: Is that why you were attracted to Bill Clinton?

Robert Reich: Actually, there is a little clip in the movie about this. I met him because we all went over to Oxford — all the Rhodes Scholars — in 1968. You went by boat, I don’t know why. We could have taken a plane. The seas were very rough. In hindsight, it was really a stupid idea because in October you get some of the worst weather and most of us never met each other because we were down in our cabins. It wasn’t a team-building exercise.

Paul Solman: You were sick?

Robert Reich: I was sick in my cabin and there was a knock on my door and one of the few Rhodes Scholars who actually was not sick was standing there with soup in one hand and crackers in another. He said, “I heard you weren’t feeling well. My name is Bill Clinton.” He didn’t say at that point, “I feel your pain.” That came later.

Paul Solman: Well, he hadn’t polished his routine yet.

Robert Reich: We struck up a friendship. (I actually knew Hillary even before that from her years as an undergraduate.) I was impressed with Bill Clinton, though if you had asked me at this time, “Will he become president?”, I would probably have said no.

Paul Solman: It wasn’t like you were going to hitch your wagon to this guy because he was going to represent the dispossessed?

Robert Reich: No, not at all. But years later he was elected president and he did call me up and say, “Bob, I’d like you to come down, help me with the economic transition team, help run it.” I didn’t even know what an economic transition team was, but I did it.

Paul Solman: Well, you were already teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; you were not unsophisticated.

Robert Reich: No, I wasn’t. I was unsophisticated, though, in terms of helping a president put together an administration. I’d never done it; I didn’t know what it entailed. But we lucked out. I lucked out in terms of people I managed to attract, and those were good years.

But they were frustrating years for me. I felt like very often I was alone in some of those policy debates. Not to impugn in any way the integrity or the motives of any of my colleagues, because they were very good people and they still are good people, but I was concerned primarily about this widening gap in terms of income, opportunity, wealth and political power, and I was not getting very much help.

Paul Solman: And you resigned. You were also missing your kids (back in Cambridge, Massachusetts), you said.

Robert Reich: I was missing my kids. I went home. You know, the kids were by that time young teenagers, and I knew that if I didn’t go home, I would not see them at all. It was a good decision.

Learning by Laughing

Paul Solman: Just a question. What’s the meaning of that promo picture for the film, with the money taunting the shadow of a bull?

Robert Reich [LAUGHING]: I don’t know. I’m not in charge of publicity. I mean, I assume that it’s that bull…

Paul Solman: From Wall Street…You’re taunting Wall Street, is that what you’re doing?

Robert Reich: I don’t know. I mean, look, I’m a babe in the woods in terms of making movies. Jake Kornbluth is the director; he really is a genius. He came to me a couple of years ago and said, “I want to do a movie about income inequality, growing income inequality. I’ve read a lot of your books; they make sense to me.” And I said to him, “Fine; try.”

I didn’t know what I was getting into, frankly. It’s been a learning experience for me, but Jake has brought extraordinary talents and sensitivity to creating a movie that is not an “eat your spinach” movie. It’s not didactic. People who have seen it have come up to us afterwards and said, “I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve learned so much, but I’ve been entertained.”

One thing I’ve learned from 35 years in the classroom is that people learn best when they are laughing, when they are emotionally hit, that it’s both the brain and the heart and I think Jake intuitively understood that.

Paul Solman: The first time I heard about you was in the early ’80s. When did you go to the Kennedy School?

Robert Reich: 1981.

Paul Solman: So it would have been around ’81. You’d just come from Federal Trade Commission, right?

Robert Reich: That’s right.

Paul Solman: A Harvard Law professor told me he heard you speak and that you began by saying, “When I got to Washington, (a line I’m sure you’ve used thousands of times), I was six-foot-one.”

Robert Reich: Well, look, I have found over the years that the most important way of getting people to relax is self-deprecating humor. I am very short, so one of the things that they may not relax about is, “here’s a guy who’s really very short.” And there are conservative audiences, Republican audiences, who are not relaxed when I get in front of them, not because of my height, but because they think, “this guy is a Democrat and a lefty…”

Paul Solman: A communist, according to Fox’s Bill O’Reilly.

Robert Reich: Yes, Bill O’Reilly says I’m a communist. So self-deprecating humor is helpful in terms of getting them to relax and open up their minds a little bit, and humor itself is a great disinfectant.

It enables people to listen. One of my best friends in the world is Alan Simpson, the former Republican senator from Wyoming. He’s about six-five. We see eye-to-eye on nothing — literally or figuratively — but we both love humor and did a program on WGBH (the local public TV station in Boston) called “The Long and the Short of It.” The point is that he understands also that humor is very important for getting people to listen.

Paul Solman: So in the film, Bill O’Reilly refers to you as a communist. How have you reacted to that? Is he willing to let you come on his show and be humorous, for example, or feisty?

Robert Reich: He doesn’t want to debate. I don’t care about Bill O’Reilly per se, but I use the fact that he’s called me a communist as a way of introducing a big problem we have in this country: And that is, there’s so much more name calling, and there’s so much more ad hominem attacking than there is people listening to each other and engaging each other and debating where there are differences and where there are similarities.

I would love to have a chance to debate. If Bill O’Reilly doesn’t agree with me, well, then let’s talk and let’s model for the country something that the country desperately needs: people who have different ideas coming together, and in a civil way, discussing those differences.

Paul Solman: And you did that show with Alan Simpson for a year at WGBH?

Robert Reich: Alan and I were such good friends, we enjoyed each other so much, that when we had an opportunity on that little show to debate, people enjoyed it, people learned from the debate; I always learned from debating Alan. And he hopefully learned from debating me. We still don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but the modeling for the country of a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat having a constructive, enjoyable, friendly, civil conversation is so critical at this point in time.

Is the Film Propaganda?

Paul Solman: Is that what this film is meant to do? You’re not debating with people who disagree with you on the film, are you? The film is propaganda in some sense.

Robert Reich: Well it’s not propaganda Paul; we’ve tried very hard to make it something else.

Paul Solman: Doesn’t it have an advocacy point of view?

Robert Reich: It’s not even advocacy. We have wealthy people like Nick Hanauer talk about his experience with inequality, saying, “I’m worried because my customers, even the rich ones, only sleep on two pillows at most, and if the middle class doesn’t have enough purchasing power, I’m really in trouble.” We have Republicans like Alan Simpson and others who are saying the same thing. A Mormon Republican couple says in the film, “Look, opportunities are limited; we’re worried about our children.”

This must not be a partisan fight any longer. We’ve got to get beyond that, and the purpose of the movie is to help us get beyond that and have a different kind of conversation in America. The solutions flow from an understanding of the problem.

Paul Solman: What are the solutions? What should we be doing?

Robert Reich: The movie is not about selling a particular solution and there’s not a magic bullet here anyway. At the end of the movie there’s a website. People who are inspired to take some action can go to the website and see a whole variety of things that they can do as individuals.

Paul Solman: For example?

Robert Reich: For example, I think the minimum wage has to be raised. I would raise it to at least as high as it was in 1968, adjusted for inflation, which is $10.40. Personally — and I don’t get into this in the movie — I think the tax code should be changed. I think there are too many loopholes for the wealthy that shouldn’t be there. We have to have a progressive tax system.

Paul Solman: If you raise taxes on the wealthy, won’t they work less and therefore contribute less to the economy as a whole?

Robert Reich: There’s a lot of empirical data on this. In the 1950s and 1960s, we had much higher marginal tax rates on the wealthy and the economy grew faster than it has grown since those marginal taxes were lowered. If you’re going to work if you make $3 million dollars after taxes, you’re probably going to work as hard if you make $12 million dollars after taxes.

But I also believe we’ve got to get big money out of politics. The other hat that I wear, besides professor at Berkeley, is chair of a citizens group called Common Cause, which works very hard to try to do that and reverse Citizens United.

Paul Solman: But won’t that take a Constitutional amendment?

Robert Reich: It may take a Constitutional amendment to reverse, but we can have campaign finance reform; we can have a system — as we did in the post-Watergate era — that worked pretty well for 28 years, where the presidential candidates were limited in the amounts that they could spend because they took public financing.

There are a lot of things that need to be done. I think the Glass-Steagall Act has to be resurrected, separating investment from commercial banking so that the commercial deposits aren’t used to to bet with — so that we don’t invite yet another too-big-to-fail meltdown. Cap the size of the big banks. This meltdown hurt the middle class, the lower-middle class and the poor almost as badly as anything else has hurt them over the last 20 years.

I think what’s also very important is to revamp our education system. Public higher education I think ought to be cheaper, if not free, as it used to be.

Infrastructure spending is critically important. Our infrastructure is crumbling; we have deferred maintenance all over the country. It’s coming back to hurt our economy.

Now nothing I have said should be too controversial I don’t think, but I don’t say this and the film doesn’t push any of this.


This entry is cross-posted on the Making Sen$e page, where correspondent Paul Solman answers your economic and business questions