New York Times columnist Bob Herbert

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NYT Op-Ed columnist talks about the growing backlash over Wall Street bonuses, pressure on the working class and the government’s need to address poverty.

Bob Herbert is an award-winning columnist who comments on politics, urban affairs and social trends. He recently left The New York Times to join the Demos think tank, where he will contribute to its Policy Shop blog and The American Prospect. A native of Brooklyn, Herbert has more than 40 years of reporting, broadcast and editorial experience and began his career as a reporter with The Star-Ledger in Newark, NJ. He also taught journalism at Brooklyn College and Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of Promises Betrayed.


Tavis: Bob Herbert is an award-winning journalist and columnist who offers must-read copy for some of us twice a week in “The New York Times.” He joins us tonight from New York. Bob, good to have you back on this program.
Bob Herbert: Hey, Tavis. It’s great to be here, man.
Tavis: I want to start with your piece from this week that a whole lot of folk have been talking about. I want to put a quote up from your piece on the screen and read it to you since you can’t see it, although you wrote it. (Laughter) So you know what you said.
“We’ve spent the last few decades shoveling money at the rich like there was no tomorrow. We abandoned the poor, put an economic stranglehold on the middle class, and all but bankrupted the federal government while giving the banks and mega-corporations and the rest of the swells at the top of the economic pyramid just about everything they wanted.
“And we still don’t seem to have learned the proper lessons. We’ve allowed so many people to fall into the terrible abyss of unemployment that no one, not the Obama administration, not the labor unions, and most certainly no one in the Republican Party has a clue about how to put them back to work.” What got your back up so much?
Herbert: Well, I think the number one priority in this country right now is employment – putting people back to work. We have an employment deficit of approximately 10 million jobs. We have to create 10 million new jobs just to get back to where we were when the recession started back in December of 2007 and we’re still losing something over 200,000 jobs a month.
So even if we come out of this recession – the economists are saying we may be out of it already – and you turn around and you find a month where you’ve created 150,000 or 200,000 new jobs, imagine how long it would take to get to 10 million, and that would only get us back to the start of the recession.
So this economy, which is based on consumerism, is never going to be going anywhere close to full blast until we start putting many millions of Americans back to work and there’s no plan to do that right now.
Tavis: They just handed me a wire copy story, Bob, that I want to read to you right quick. It says the Obama administration plans to order companies that received huge government bailouts last year to sharply cut the compensation of their highest-paid executives. The seven companies we’re talking about here, Bank of America, American International Group – AIG – Citigroup, General Motors, GMAC, Chrysler, and Chrysler Financial.
What do you make of the president now coming out and saying he’s going to make them cut executive pay and going to New York, of course, earlier this week and scolding Wall Street for all the news and the celebration of bonuses they’re about to pass out.
What do you make of the president’s now scolding and trying to hold accountable these companies now?
Herbert: Well, it makes sense to try and do something about the pay of these executives, but that’s essentially a public relations move. Americans are so up in arms over the excesses on Wall Street, but that’s not the real problem. The pay of the executives in some of these corporations, even if you cut it, that’s not really going to address the problem.
The problem has to do with Americans, poor people, working Americans, what we used to call the working class, the middle class, and on up into the upper middle class, either out of work or underemployed, working part-time because they can’t get full-time jobs, or really worried that their jobs are no longer secure.
We’re facing an employment crisis and I think that that needs to be addressed head on, with a sense of urgency and with some creative approaches. We need to be putting the best minds in America to work to address this problem and we just are not doing that at this point.
Tavis: Let’s just keep it real, Bob, the way we do in our conversations when I run into you from time to time. You know as well as I do, pardon my English, poverty ain’t sexy, poverty doesn’t vote, poverty doesn’t make contributions. So you tell me how poverty is going to get to the top of the agenda.
Herbert: Poverty is not going to get to the top of the agenda, but I’ll tell you something else. If we don’t do something about employment this economy is going to crater again, and that does get to the people who vote and that will make a difference to the politicians at all level, state and local and right on up through the federal government and on up into the presidency.
So if something is not done substantively and soon about employment there’s going to be a shudder through this society and it’s going to have political ramifications that are going to be widespread.
Tavis: Too many folks say this with relative ease, it just flows from their lips and it’s just become accepted commentary these days, the notion that jobs are always the last thing to come around. I get sick and tired of hearing that, personally, but that’s what I think about it.
What’s your sense of that statement, that jobs are always the last thing to come around?
Herbert: I get tired of hearing that as well. It’s a cliché, it doesn’t – it’s not helpful. We’ve seen a couple of recessions now where we’ve had essentially jobless recovery, so it’s not that they were the last thing to come around, they never did come around.
We were not in good shape as far as employment was concerned even before this recession took hold. The working people in the United States have not been doing well since the mid-1970s. They’ve gotten by, by hook or by crook. Wives and mothers went into the work force, which was significant and important, but the reason they went into the work force was because men’s wages were stagnant and employment was no longer flourishing.
Then people went into tremendous debt. They built up debt on their credit cards; they pulled equity out of their homes. We floated on a couple of bubbles – the stock market bubble and so forth, the housing bubble.
And so we’ve been doing it with smoke and mirrors for the longest time, almost for three decades. Now the crunch is here. Working Americans don’t have any money; the federal government is out of money. We have to begin to do things differently in this country and the place to start is with employment, even if we have to see the federal government as the employer of last resort. We have to start putting Americans back to work.
Tavis: You’ve been writing about this for a while now, for those of us who read your copy every week. You know because you covered this – I saw you at a couple of these debates – with all due respect to President Obama, then-candidate Obama, then-candidate McCain, three presidential debates – I’ve made this point before – three presidential debates, the word poverty – while the economy was tanking – the word poverty never came up in three debates.
I’m coming back to that again now, Bob, again because I’m trying to figure out how we ever take the issue of poverty seriously in this country when the leaders, for all kinds of reasons, don’t want to address specifically what it means to help the weak working class.
Herbert: Well, you’re on to something there and you’re on to something sad. The politicians, I do not believe, are going to address this issue.
Think about it again. Go back to this idea that we have to create 10 million jobs just to get back to where we were at the beginning of the recession. We’re nowhere near doing that so if we create let’s say optimistically three or four million jobs, that’s just going to put people back to work who are essentially middle class types. It is not going to address the issue of poverty in this country.
I don’t think that we’re going to have anything substantive happening with regard to poor people in this country in the foreseeable future if we’re going to wait for government officials to begin to take the lead on this.
So the only thing that I can see that’s going to be helpful in this area is for community organizations and for leaders who are outside of government to begin to raise this issue, pound the pavement. Maybe we need marches, whatever – just whatever creative ideas we can come up with to get this story out there in front of the public at large.
If you remember back during the civil rights movement even as good as Lyndon Johnson was on civil rights, and he was great on this issue, he still had to be pushed. He had to be pushed by Martin Luther King and the other leaders of the civil rights movement. Women would not have progressed the way they have over the past 30 years if it had not been the leadership that came from the ground up, not from the top down.
They were very successful, and I think we’re probably going to need to do something like that when it comes to the poor.
Tavis: But here’s the difference, in a minute and a half to go. Here’s the difference: Lyndon Johnson wasn’t Black. Lyndon Johnson was White. Many of the poorest in this country – this is not casting aspersion on the president, I’m just calling the facts as they are – many of the poor in this country happen to be people of color. Those people of color voted for Barack Obama.
How do you raise these issues without – and push back, respectfully, on the president, try to hold him accountable, without being called a hater or the White House trying to shut you down for not giving them time to turn it around.
Herbert: Well, the key word you used is respectfully. You can do it with passion, you can do it with energy, you can do it with vigor, but as long as you do it respectfully no one can shoot you down.
You just have to stay at it. Don’t imitate the haters who are out there, for example, that we’ve seen in the healthcare debate. Don’t take your cue from them; take your cue from the civil rights movement. Do it respectfully but do it with vigor, and I think you can get something done. It’ll take time, but it’s got to originate, I think, at the grassroots level. I don’t think that this is going to come from the politicians.
Tavis: In other words, do it the way that Bob Herbert does it every week in “The New York Times.” (Laughter) Bob, glad to have you on. Thanks for your work and delighted to talk to you as always.

Herbert: Tavis, thanks so much. I appreciate it.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm