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Life Arts    H1'ed 9/5/12

Robert Reich on Romney, the New Gilded Age and More

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  My guest today is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at UCal Berkeley, Robert Reich. Welcome to OpEdNews, Robert. You've been writing a lot lately about the many shortcomings of Mitt Romney. Your latest piece essentially calls him out for his constant lying. All candidates exaggerate and stretch the truth. Aren't you being a little harsh?

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  To the contrary, I may not have been harsh enough. While every presidential race is guilty of exaggeration, to some extent, and some have told half-truths, I'm aware of no previous presidential candidate or campaign that has told such brazen lies -- which the media have reported as false -- and yet continued to tell them even after having been outed. Romney's and Ryan's repeated claims that President Obama ended the work requirement in welfare, and that the Affordable Care Act reduces Medicare payments to beneficiaries -- to take but two examples -- are outright lies. They've been called "falsehoods" by the New York Times, "misstatements" by USA Today, and "wrong" by numerous non-partisan fact-checking organizations and sites. But Romney and Ryan continue to tell them, and use them copiously in their ads. 
  So, how do they get away with it? Once, such lying that could have precipitated the downfall of a candidate.

  They're getting away with it because the GOP has figured out how to bypass all neutral fact-checkers, the mainstream media, and any other trusted, non-partisan source. They've done this by, first, raising a huge amount of money through a network of super PACs and political nonprofits that's being spent on negative ads -- so many ads that the public can't differentiate between truth and falsehood; second, by discrediting the mainstream media in the eyes of many Americans; and third, by using a disinformation industry composed of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and his various wanna-be's, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, and the right-wing blogosphere to legitimize their lies or at least give them a patina of respectability.
  A multi-layered smokescreen. Ingenious. In July, you wrote Mitt Romney and the New Gilded Age, which appeared in The Nation . Is that just hyperbole? And what does it have to do with this election season? 

  I think it has everything to do with this election. Romney isn't a businessman; he's a financier. The world of private equity is part of Wall Street -- and it depends on the same combination of debt financing coupled with tax loopholes (in this case, the so-called "carried interest" loophole that allows private equity managers and hedge-fund managers to treat their earnings as capital gains, taxed at just 15 percent). The reigning economic philosophy during the Gilded Age was social Darwinism -- a bastardized form of Darwin's thinking about evolution. The thinking was that the wealthy should get special preferences because they strengthened society, while the poor shouldn't get any help at all, because they weakened society. This is, in essence, Romney's and Ryan's economic approach. Finally, the Gilded Age was an era of hugely concentrated wealth, and political corruption. The lackeys of the rich literally placed bags of money on the desks of legislators, in order to get legislation that would favor the wealthy. Here again, the parallels are stunning. The Republican platform comes out explicitly and forcefully against any limits on campaign spending, or any constraints on contributions. Romney not only represents the new Gilded Age, and casino capitalism. He IS our economic problem. 
  Robert, maybe now is the time to point out the growing reports of voter disenfranchisement,  through voter IDs and other means, that threatens to disenfranchise possibly millions of voters nationwide. How does the 99% counter the 1% under those circumstances?

  Over the next few weeks, all instances of voter suppression should be reported to the media and to the Justice Department. Over the long term, we have to reverse the dangerous trend toward demanding photographic IDs, which disenfranchise everyone who doesn't have one and can't afford one. This may take a court case or two. It necessitates a Justice Department with an Attorney General who understands the issue and is committed to voting rights for all Americans -- in other words, we have to have a second Obama administration.
  Shifting gears slightly, you currently serve as Chair of Common Cause. I think many of us have heard of it but aren't sure exactly what it does.  What can you tell us?

  It's a grass-roots membership organization dedicated to reducing the influence of money in politics. I took the chairmanship because I'm convinced that nothing else we need to do as a nation is possible unless we reverse Citizens United (even if it takes a constitutional amendment), get workable public financing of elections, and limit the power and influence of big money in our democracy. Common Cause is one of the few groups leading the way. 
  Those are definitely goals worth pursuing. Tell us more. Are you making any progress on them? And if so, will it be in time? It feels like the 99% is constantly losing ground these days, with things going from bad to worse.

  Progress is all relative. Yes, we're making progress if you mean are we helping to push back against the tide of money. But the tide is very strong -- stronger than ever. My sense of America's history is the progressive side always wins eventually. But before it does, the forces of regression -- intolerance, exclusion, plutocracy, and corruption -- pull us backward until the nation summons enough indignation to set us back on track. You're right -- the 99 percent is losing ground. But if history is any guide, this won't last. We'll have another burst of progressive reform.
  My friend Mick is a big fan of yours and was enthused to hear about our interview. He has a question for you: "How is it possible to explain to the average American the argument that a massive inequality of income in a society damages the economy?.  It's a difficult argument to get across to a short sound-bite nation." He's right. How would you respond?

  The reality is this: No business will hire without an expectation of customers. But as more and more of the nation's income and wealth has gone to the top, the vast American middle class no longer has the purchasing power to keep the economy going. The wealthy spend only a fraction of what they pull in, while the middle class and the poor spend almost all they earn. And they can no longer borrow, as they did before the housing bust. So unless prosperity is more widely shared, our economy will continue in the doldrums.

  Thanks. I'll pass this on.  You've served in three administrations during your public career. What are the most dramatic changes you've noticed in the political landscape over the years? 

  Washington is far richer than it was when I served in the Ford administration. There's far more money in politics. Washington is far more partisan. And every major institution in our society -- not just the presidency and Congress but also the courts, business, and the media are far less trusted. I saw these trends grow larger in the Carter administration, larger still in the Clinton administration, and now they're almost out of control.

  That's what I was afraid you were going to say. You never told me how to address you so I chose Robert. Do you prefer something else? If so, now's the time to let me know.

  Officially, former cabinet secretaries are supposed to be addressed as "Mr. Secretary," but I'm fine if you'd like to do it less formally.

   I'm happy to give you due respect.  Our readers will probably connect better with you and your message if you're Robert or something similarly reader-friendly. Out of curiosity, what do your students call you?

  Grad students call me Bob. Undergrads call me Professor Reich. You can call me whatever you wish. I've been called every name in the book.

  Hmm.  In that case, let's go with Bob.  I was a grad student once... Anything you'd like to add before we wrap this up, Bob? 

  Notwithstanding all of this, I'm still optimistic. Americans are pragmatic and resilient. When we understand a problem, we roll up our sleeves and get on with what has to be done -- regardless of ideology. When we get too far off track -- when we temporarily forget our commitment to equal opportunity and inclusiveness, or when capitalism runs to excess -- we get back on track. Time and again, the trigger for progressive reform has been reactionary, regressive actors or factions that remind us of what we believe and why we believe it, and then we get back to the long-term task. I've been around long enough to see this process again and again. 
  Well, we've jumped all over the place in this interview but I think we've also covered a lot of ground. Thanks so much for talking with me, Bob. I've enjoyed your writing for a long time so this has been a special treat for me. Perhaps we can do it again sometime soon!

  Reich adds: My latest book, out in paperback September 4, is Beyond Outrage . Before that, I authored the best-selling Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future , now available in paperback.  
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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