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Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich calls growing inequality a moral issue

by dan pine

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Robert Reich has beaten the drum of income equality for so long, he’s probably destroyed several drums. For the former secretary of labor and current U.C. Berkeley professor, the beat goes on.

Since serving in the Clinton administration, the unabashed liberal Democrat has written many books on the subject, and he’s been a fixture on cable news programs. Reich recently added movie star to his resume with the 2013 documentary film “Inequality for All,” which is both biopic and economic call to arms.

Robert Reich
Robert Reich
The film, which follows Reich as he attempts to raise awareness of the country’s widening economic gap, will receive a free public screening at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El on Thursday, May 1, followed by a Q&A with one of the film’s producers, Jen Chaiken, an Emanu-El congregant.

Directed by Jacob Kornbluth, a Berkeley-based filmmaker and the brother of monologist Josh Kornbluth, the 89-minute film has been out on DVD since January, and is also available for instant viewing on Netflix.

Reich, who is Jewish, says outreach to faith-based communities has been part of the film’s marketing strategy from the start.

“So much of the issue of widening inequality is fundamentally a matter of public morality and social ethics,” Reich, 67, says. “Judaism is concerned not just with charity but also the underlying social structure of society. Not only doing individual good works but taking responsibility for how society ensures broad-based prosperity as well as adequate provisions for the poor.”

The Scranton, Pa., native says he grew up in a middle-class home that embodied Jewish values. Born with a condition known as Fairbanks disease, Reich never grew taller than 4 feet 10 inches, suffering much bullying as a child. That played a role in his career path, which has been about fighting for the proverbial little guy.

The former Rhodes Scholar first served in the White House during the Ford administration. He also served as an assistant to the late Judge Robert Bork, a conservative favorite. But he became nationally known when his friend from the University of Oxford, Bill Clinton, appointed him labor secretary in 1993.

That’s when his mission to make economic policy more comprehensible took shape.

DVD cover of 2013 film
DVD cover of 2013 film
“I’ve always thought of myself as a teacher,” he notes. “Even in the Clinton Cabinet a large part of my job was explaining to the public why certain policies were critically important. The fundamentals should be understandable to everyone. That’s the way our democracy works best.”

These days, Reich believes that democracy is threatened.

He says income inequality has widened, with the top-earning 1 percent of Americans accounting for 23 percent of the nation’s income, the bottom half only 2.5 percent. He also cites recent Supreme Court rulings — one that struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act and another (the ruling on the Citizens United case) that further concentrated election clout in the hands of powerful corporations and the wealthy.

Reich hopes citizens will unite to oppose these developments. He wants Congress to impose public funding for national elections, mandate greater donor transparency and begin the process of amending the Constitution to overturn Citizens United.

“The amendment process is difficult,” he says, “but the mere undertaking will put pressure on Congress and the Supreme Court to reconsider.”

Though he continues to sound the alarm, Reich remains upbeat because he is “absolutely certain we will save capitalism from its own excesses, as we’ve always done.”

He points to the Progressive Era at the turn of the last century, as well as the New Deal, as moments in American history when those ideals manifested.

He also points to the Clinton years, though he says he wishes more could have been done. “We are a remarkably resilient society,” he adds, “in terms of our ability when we understand what’s at stake, to put ideology aside and get on with what needs to be done.”

His optimism even covers the normally divisive topic of climate change. He sees that challenge as an opportunity for individuals and governments to invest in non-fossil fuel remedies, spurring a greener economy.

Having moved to Berkeley from New England in 2006 to accept his U.C. Berkeley post, Reich calls the Bay Area “paradise,” noting he has developed “new taste buds” to enjoy California cuisine.

But he observes that people falling out of the middle class do not live in paradise, and so he keeps up the quest for a more just world.

Says Reich: “People at minimum have to write their members of Congress, and not just form letters. Also it’s necessary to reach out to people with whom we disagree. Begin with your own family. Talk to them. We learn best by talking to people who disagree with us.”

“Inequality for All” will screen at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 1, at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F. Free. or (415) 751-2535


Posted by rocky
04/24/2014  at  07:08 PM
On growing inequality

When the JTA published its list of Jews on the Forbes 400 list back in 2009 (, it stirred up a hornest’s nest. Some people who made the list claimed they weren’t even Jewish, but they probably were if one uses the definition according to the Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany, which the immigration people in Israel use for determining who is a Jew. So whether correct the number was 139 (used in the report) or 125 or even 100, the reality was that Jews were over represented on the list relative to their percentage in the population.

At a time when governments across the country have been forced to cut back programs on a per capita basis from Pell grants to food stamps, why aren’t the Jews on the Forbes 400 list stepping up to the plate to fund foreign aid to Israel? Sheldon Adelson could probably afford to pick up the tab all by himself for as long as he lives, if he weren’t so busy trying to buy the presidency. Just because AIPAC has the ability to browbeat Congress into picking up the tab doesn’t mean it should. I have had a moral problem with this issue since Bill Clinton declared the era of Big Government to be over. That was over 20 years ago. I guess AIPAC never got the memo.

Unlike Mr. Reich, I know what it is like to feel the sting of poverty. My widowed mother used to be dunned for unpaid talmud torah bills for my night school classes over 50 years ago. The memory never goes away. I also had the distinction of being thrown out of two synagogues one Yom Kippur for not having a ticket.

At my public high school, some one in the administration decided that I had academic potential and encouraged my mother to apply for an annual cash grant on my behalf. They were right. My rich cousin, whose hand-me-downs I often wore in high school, dropped out of school at age 16, while I went on to obtain a master’s degree at one of the best universities in the US. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Sometimes it does take a village to help raise a child.

I grew up at a time when young Jews were encouraged to make something of themselves. These days, the only part of the Jewish community that is growing (the Haredi)
has turned its back on secular education and its hands out for government welfare. I don’t how Mr. Reich would propose to solve this self-inflicted poverty, or if he has even thought about it.

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Posted by rocky
04/25/2014  at  06:27 AM

The second last line should read: “and puts its hands out…”

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