Remaking America – Panel discussion, Part 3

On the final night of a conversation on “Remaking America,” panelists assess how the course of the U.S. can be altered, making it as good as its promise.

The middle class are the new poor. More children are going hungry. People are losing their homes. Must Americans wait on the government to mobilize, prioritize and energize the nation? These are issues that are explored in an in-depth conversation with a panel of thought leaders.

Guests include: Majora Carter, environmental justice advocate and producer-host of the Peabody Award-winning public radio show The Promised Land; Roger Clay, president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development; award-winning journalist and human rights activist Barbara Ehrenreich; Vicki B. Escarra, president-CEO of Feeding America; personal finance guru and Emmy-winning TV host Suze Orman; Oscar-winning filmmaker and activist Michael Moore; and Princeton professor Dr. Cornel West.

Sponsored by:


Tavis: One of the things that Doc and I were talking about the other night in writing this text is that the data is abundantly clear now, simply put – the younger you are in America, the more likely you are to be in poverty. It’s just that simple. The younger you are in America, the more likely you are to be in poverty. The Indiana University white paper underscores that as well.

Suze talked about the difficulty that students have to navigate, but what do we say in this present moment in America about and to a nation that allows that statistic to be the reality?

Dr. Cornel West: What kind of people are we, really, when we examine ourselves and acknowledge that reality? That’s not just sad, that’s pathological. It really is. It really is. Oh, that’s anti-American. No, I’m anti-injustice in America. That’s not the same thing. I’m anti-injustice anywhere, but in America too, and that’s unjust.

But then the question becomes if we’re really serious about being poverty abolitionists and calling for the eradication and abolition of poverty, we’ve got to target the young people, especially from birth to five years old. All the evidence talks about the shaping of their minds and hearts and souls. (Applause)

It’s not just a matter of programs, it’s also a matter of in civic society what kind of discourse – does this kind of discourse take place in churches, mosques, synagogues, civic institutions? No. Other priorities at work. What’s going on?

The renaissance of compassion and the nonviolent democratic revolution that we’re calling for against oligarchy has to take place across the board in every sphere of our society. That’s part of the consciousness-raising that needs to take place.

Tavis: Dr. West a moment ago used a wonderful term, “poverty abolitionist,” and I want to come to Suze in just a second here, after Michael, and juxtapose those of us who – I consider myself, to your term, a poverty abolitionist. All of us on this stage, I guess, are.

But there are also poverty deniers in this country. There are too many poverty deniers; there are too many poverty apologists. I want to know what it is we say tonight to the poverty deniers. I don’t know how it is, with all the data that’s out now, people can still deny that poverty is real and is as real as it is, and yet there are poverty deniers. You see them on television; you see them in the media all the time, as if this is some sort of fantasy. I’ll come back to that in a moment.

But I heard you say that you had an idea, about what Majora said.

Michael Moore: Let me just say something about that.

Tavis: Yeah.

Moore: You can’t do anything about the people that are so clueless. If they’re denying this fact – we’re a big country. That poll that said that 21 percent of Republicans believe that “Barack Obama may be the antichrist,” 21 percent of them actually believe that.

I just think there’s nothing you can do about that. You just have to say we’re a big country, there’s 20 to 30 million people that are just stone cold crazy (laughter) and that’s a lot, that’s a lot of people, but there’s 270 million who aren’t, so let’s work on that. (Laughter)

But I just wanted to say something – you just made such an excellent point. While some of us are trying to abolish capitalism, or if it’s a more comfortable word for you, greed – that’s just another word for it – (applause) while we have to do that, you’re right, the practical things right now, people who if they do have cable and are able to watch this, all right, (applause) –

Tavis: If not, it’s on PBS next Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

Moore: If not, we’re talking on free television. (Laughter, applause) Free public –

West: That’s right.

Moore: Then here’s something we can do. You asked about all these poverty programs, and people complain about poverty, well, here’s a poverty program that everybody should get behind no matter what your political stripe is – jobs. Because isn’t that really at the core of what Suze –

Suze Orman: Yes.

Moore: Everybody’s been saying that if you have a job and you’re paid a decent wage, a livable wage, isn’t that really the eradication of this poverty? If you are paid a wage so that you’re not in poverty? So how do we create these jobs?

Here’s what’s going on right now. Corporate America, the Fortune 500, are sitting on $2 trillion of cash in their bank accounts. Now let me explain that to you. In the past, that has never happened. What corporations do when they make money is they then spend a good chunk of that money to create more jobs.

They say, “Oh, wow, this thing we invented’s doing really well. Let’s build another factory and we can make more of that. We’ll employ more people and that’s how it used to kind of work.”

Now what they’re doing is they’re making record profits and then they’re putting the money in their bank account and they’re doing it in part because it’s their rainy day fund. They know the other shoe hasn’t dropped. They know the crash of ’08 wasn’t the last crash, because they’re still doing credit default swaps and derivatives and all this crazy casino stuff on Wall Street.

They know that another crash could happen. The credit card crash could happen, any of a number of things could happen, and they want to make sure that they’re protected on their Noah’s ark, where they’ve put their $2 trillion of cash.

If we force them, if the Congress could force them to say, you have to release that money, you cannot hoard the money – if I live in a town in northern Michigan, where it’s very cold in the winter, and there’s no natural gas, let’s say; you use heating oil to heat your home.

If the heating oil company down the road was hoarding all the oil and not selling to the people so they could heat their homes in the winter, what would the people do in that town?

Audience Member: Rise up.

Moore: Rise up. (Laughter) But wait a minute, capitalism, our laws say that if that heating oil company doesn’t want to sell you their oil, they don’t have to. Well, that’s got to change. That $2 trillion has to be – it’s been taken out of circulation.

That means it can’t be put into wages. It has to be put back into circulation. We need a Roosevelt-style jobs program right now. (Applause) We need real jobs, with real wages. That would do more right now to kick start this thing and start this eradication of poverty.

Tavis: Let me challenge you –

West: (Unintelligible)

Tavis: One second.

West: Yeah (unintelligible).

Tavis: Let me challenge you on that.

Moore: Yeah.

Tavis: I agree with you. I agree with you.

Moore: No, I may not be right.

Tavis: No, I think you are right.

Moore: But I think I may be.

Tavis: I think you’re right.

Moore: Maybe.

Tavis: But let me challenge that. I don’t know in this era, I don’t know a single corporate CEO who gets rewarded for hiring anybody that he or she doesn’t have to have. So take that argument to its logical extension. One could argue that this economy is never going to come back, because as long as CEOs know that they can do the same with less and they get rewarded for squeezing more out for the shareholder – nobody gets rewarded for hiring more people. You don’t get rewarded for putting more people back to work, Michael.

Moore: Mm-hmm.

Barbara Ehrenreich: That’s what makes this whole discussion about job creation and who’s going to create jobs so silly. All the rewards in our form of capitalism have been for the people at the top who can reduce the number of employees they have. That’s all they know how to do. Romney is not an exception.

The idea is to get lean and mean. That’s all they know how to do, and it just leads me to one little perspective – on capitalism, which is – you know, I don’t think it’s really that we want to destroy it. It’s destroying itself. (Applause) This can’t work. You can’t have an economic system where fewer and fewer people can participate as either workers or consumers, because they don’t earn enough or they don’t have jobs.

That’s one of the reasons we had the crash of ’07 and ’08 – there was so much poverty that kind of was behind the mortgage crisis. You can’t run things like this. There will be nothing to – you can’t have an economy that is just based on the 1 percent plus their personal assistants and masseurs or whatever, and their chefs. I really don’t know how that would work.

So I think it’s not a matter of do we like capitalism or not, it’s a matter of how do we survive when that isn’t working anymore.

Tavis: I’m paraphrasing Louis Brandeis here, but the comment was something to the effect, to Barbara’s point, that you can either have all the wealth concentrated with a small number of people or you can have democracy, but you can’t have both. Vicki, you were going to say something, I think?

Vicki Escarra: So while we’re working on the longer term, and as we think about poverty and all the things that really affect and are a part of poverty, hunger is the one issue that is solvable in our country. There’s enough food produced in America not only to feed every person in this country, but most of the developed world.

So what I would do is find a way to work on the food system so that we can get what farmers grow to the plates of people that need food. A perfect world for me would be – and it’s a stretch, it’s a big stretch, because these programs are really under fire right now on either side of the aisle – a big stretch for me would be to see children and then families have enough food to eat in the United States of America. (Applause)

Tavis: Majora?

Majora Carter: I want to reimagine America in a way that allows every single person in it to see their own value, to see their dignity and to understand that there are ways that we can create economic opportunities to move people up and out of poverty, in particular using the tools that we already have, in particular real estate development.

How do you use it to create true communities that meet the needs of everyone that’s in it, through real job creation, through creating decent open space for people, that allows opportunities for environmental – to not degrade our environment?

We can do that. We have those tools out there that we can be growing food in ways that actually – in our cities, and do it using technology in a way that actually does help redefine what our regional food system actually looks like.

We can do these things right here and right now. (Applause) We absolutely can do it in ways that support, that love, because the best social service dollar spent is actually a job. It adds to the tax base, it creates dignity for people as well. (Applause)

Tavis: Suze?

Orman: We’ve been sitting here now for a few hours talking about poverty and the systems and getting out the truth about it, but I’m also looking at 1,500 people in this room, and I have to ask you, each one of you individually, what are you doing to stay out of poverty? How knowledgeable are you about the money that you are making? Do you have the documents in place today to protect your tomorrows so that if something were to happen to you the little amounts of money you may have doesn’t go to some lawyer to probate what you have?

What steps are you taking to keep yourselves out of poverty, because the more people that go into poverty, the harder it’s going to be for everybody to get out. Have you ever been on an airplane and you hear them say, “When the oxygen mask falls, put it on your face first before your child’s?” That is because if you can’t take care of yourself, you cannot take care of your children.

Tavis, you asked me about student loans, you asked everybody on the stage about children. All of us are passing a silent message of less down to our kids. We don’t talk about money, we don’t discuss money, money is (applause) dirty, money is evil, but I’m talking about your family money.

What you do with it, where you put it, how do you get more out of what you already have, and if you don’t learn about money, if you don’t learn about – I’m just talking about personal finance now, then you’re setting yourself up to be a victim to a system that wants you to fail. (Applause)

So I hope all of you leave tonight not only thinking about what we do for the entire system and how we change the world and how we deal with this, but I hope you go home and you have a good sit-down with yourself and go what am I doing in my life right here and right now to stay out of poverty, because that you can still do.

So you’d better start doing it now, people, because I could be looking at 1,500 people in poverty sooner than later if you don’t get powerful over the money that you have – how you think about it, how you feel about it and what you do with it. So I’m asking you to turn towards yourself to solve that problem in your own family, because nobody else is going to solve it for you. (Applause)

Tavis: Roger.

Moore: This is the point in the program where Suze would like all of you to take your credit cards out right now. Ushers are bringing scissors down the aisles. (Laughter) You can –

Tavis: (Laughs) Roger.

Roger Clay: Yes. So I want to make something clear. I totally agree with everything you said; it’s just not sufficient. So I’m trying to talk –

Orman: Go, boyfriend.

Clay: Yeah, so I don’t think we disagree. (Laughter) I want to go back, though, to about jobs. I think you’re absolutely right – in the short term the thing we need to do is get as many people to work as possible, but they have to be good jobs. They have to pay well.

They have to have benefits, they have to have mobility, they have to do that. (Applause) But if we do that, we still haven’t done a damn thing, frankly, because the system is still the same. We’re staying in a nice hotel and I talked yesterday to the person who cleans my room. I can tell you she’s in poverty unless she’s married to someone else who is not.

That’s all that we’re willing to pay that hotel in order to pay her. So merely getting down or unemployment rate to 4 or 5 percent, which is what we consider to be full employment, that is totally insufficient.

Moore: Can I ask a question?

Tavis: You certainly may.

Moore: My question to you, and I guess to anyone up here who’s African American, is if we’re able to succeed, if we’re able to find these fixes, fixes in the present and fixes in the future, the system itself, do you worry that that new system, which is going to put people back to work and create a middle class again, is that you’re going to find yourselves still, still out there in that group that’s not allowed into the new party, to the new system, to the new? What is your fear of that taking place?

Clay: It depends on the time period you’re talking about, because in the short term, probably in my lifetime, I don’t think it’s going to get a lot better. I would start with young kids and ask ourselves the question what do we want the world, this country, to look like in 20 or 30 years, and that’s what I want to do to build toward it. So I start at birth and I move up.

I probably won’t be around at that point, but I do think, like I said before, one of the things that’s optimistic, I’m optimistic about is because of the 99, which is that things have gotten so bad for so many more people it’s not Blacks and Latinos sort of crying in the wind.

I think other people are beginning to understand, and it’s not going to turn around quickly. We’re not going back. I think, Tavis, at some point the same people are thinking about going back to the old sort of the labor market. Our economy’s changed, and the longer are out of work the more it’s changing. So we’re going to have to come up with a different sort of work force system, a different method of production.

Moore: I think it will be better, like he said, though, with the next generation.

West: Yeah.

Moore: The young people who are sitting in here tonight.

Clay: The other – yeah, the other –

Moore: Because I –

Clay: There’s two other reasons.

Moore: Yeah.

Clay: One, we have more mixed-race people, that’s growing.

Moore: Right.

Clay: A lot of them are influential. Partly they’re influential because as people of color are marrying into white folks’ families, they actually have more power and more money.

Moore: That’s younger people also doing that.

Clay: That’s younger people.

Moore: Because they’re not as racist as the previous generations. (Laughter)

Clay: Yeah, and then – right.

Tavis: (Unintelligible) (Applause)

Moore: Can I just – can I just throw out – can I just throw out one statistic? The only white age group that President Obama won was 18 to 29-year-olds. He lost every other white age group. That may sound depressing, but the hopeful part of it is our young people –

Clay: And that was my theory.

Moore: – they’re going to fix this. You know this. Those of you my age, our kids, they’re not bigots, they’re not homophobes. They don’t look at the way that the grandparents and the great-grandparents did. This is going to get better with this next generation. I believe that.

Tavis: I want to ask a question about labor –

Moore: Sorry.

Tavis: No, no, no, I’m glad you went there because I want to respond to what you said. Since you asked the question of African Americans, Michael, and since I happen to be an African American, (laughter) I don’t really –

West: (Unintelligible) happy to be God made you a Black man.

Tavis: And I’m glad he did. (Laughter, applause) And I’m glad he did.

West: That’s right, a free Black man.

Tavis: I’m glad he did, I’m glad he did.

West: Jesus-loving free Black man.

Tavis: And I’m glad he did.

West: That’s right. Me too, God dang it.

Tavis: Shout “Hallelujah,” yeah. (Laughter, applause)

West: It’s a wonderful thing. But go right ahead.

Tavis: Did y’all sing that song in y’all’s church, “I’m Glad?”

West: “I’m Glad.” (Unintelligible)

Tavis: (Singing) Glad, glad, glad God made me.

West: (Singing) Made me.

Tavis: (Singing) He made me in his image. (Laughter)

West: (Singing) His image. (Laughter) That’s a Pentecostal Baptist. (Applause)

Tavis: Yeah, I love it, I love it, I love it. Pentecostal Baptist, exactly.

West: That’s right, that’s right.

Tavis: I have a – my view, to answer your question, is a bit nuanced from Roger’s, and I’m glad that Roger had on his list one point about optimism and one point about hope, because to my mind, they are really two different things. Doc and I discuss this all the time.

Optimism suggests that there is a particular set of facts, circumstances or conditions, something you can see, feel or touch that gives you reason to believe that things are going to get better, and so you say, “I’m optimistic.” That ain’t never been the case for Negroes in America. Never has been. (Laughter)

Hope, on the other hand, says, since we just went to church, the bible that I read says that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. So that optimism and hope are two fundamentally different things.

I am not, I cannot look at the condition and the state, Michael Moore, of Black people today catching the most hell in this economy –

Moore: Right.

Tavis: – I cannot look at our condition today and find any reason to be optimistic.

Audience Member: Amen.

Tavis: Now, what I can be is –

Audience Members: Hopeful.

Tavis: – hopeful. That’s why I love the Negro national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” We have that line in the third verse that we had hope when hope unborn had died. That’s deep – that Black folk found a way to have hope when hope unborn had died.

When hope got to us, it was already stillborn, and yet we are the most hopeful people in this country, so that optimism and hope are two very different things. (Applause)

I don’t have any reason right now to be optimistic, but I am hopeful. But that is precisely why, and I’m just going to be frank, since you asked, Michael, is precisely why it troubles me, it – I want to be honest here. It doesn’t just trouble me, it almost depresses me at times when some folk don’t understand the critique of Obama from those of us who happen to be free Black men who want a more progressive view of this country.

The reason why I’m so on this is because I think in many ways this is the last best chance that my people have, and if the numbers continue to get worse and if we keep sinking deeper and falling deeper into this hole, there is the chance that my people may never come out of that.

I love Black folk too much to sit back and watch that happen to them and not respond to it. (Applause) That’s all I’m saying. Does that make sense to you? I don’t know –

West: That makes a lot of sense. I’ll say this about young folk in a critical way – that I do not know of a wave of young people who are commensurate to the grandmothers and grandfathers and those ancestors that shaped me in terms of who I am.

I just don’t, and the reason is because young people have been so penetrated with a capitalist culture and a culture of superficial spectacle and instant gratification and overnight success and push-button getting over.

So in that sense there’s a shift from the John Coltranes and the Sarah Vaughans and the Curtis Mayfields and the Ray Charles and the Aretha Franklins into the bubblegum music that’s too dominant. (Laughter, applause) There’s a shift.

Now we got a number of prophetic folk, but that is a shift.

So when we talk about the young people who ought to help make this fundamental social change, if you’re not talking about courage, integrity, a willingness to serve and sacrifice, then you’re going to get bought out. You’re going to sell out, quick. You’re not going to be a long-distance runner.

You’re going to be so obsessed with instant success and superficial status that you’re going to make your grandmamma weep from the grave, because she wanted you to have earned greatness, not quick success. She wanted to measure it by the love in your heart and the service that you rendered, not what your position is and how big your crib is. (Applause)

That’s a very different sensibility, and that’s a tradition we got to keep. We got to fight for that, we got to keep it alive, and of course that’s what Brother Roger’s talking about, because I think we agree. Is that right, though, brother? (Laughter) We are still agreeing on this, right?

Tavis: How about a terrific round of applause for this great panel, please? (Applause) This has been a wonderful conversation that we will continue. We will continue this conversation throughout the entire year. If you missed any part of “Remaking America,” please visit our website at

Thanks to everyone here at this great campus, George Washington University, and listener auditorium. Poverty is, of course, not just an issue here but indeed around the world, and it’s because of that reality that we’ll be talking tomorrow night back in L.A. for the first of two special nights with Sean Penn.

“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” WK Kellogg Foundation – engaging communities to improve the lives of vulnerable children. Learn more at

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: January 20, 2012 at 11:43 pm