Robert Reich at Occupy San Francisco

Robert Reich spoke at Occupy SF on Wednesday, October 19th, 2011. He presents a left-liberal point of view, setting out the premise that progressives can save capitalism. I disagree with much of that, but am impressed to see a liberal icon out on the streets with a megaphone, expounding on economics and the moral nature of the Occupy movement to ordinary people.

There’s quite a bit at this article at the Daily Kos, but I’ve transcribed a section of question and answer below.


Military spending

This extraordinary – the doubling of defense spending after 9/11, and what is that being done to the economy? Well, I’ll tell you, what it means is, we don’t have the money for schools, we don’t have the money to fix our roads and bridges and public transportation, we don’t have the money for healthcare, we can’t do what we need to do in this country. And if I were asked, you know, what would one of my planks be in terms of change, I’d say, at least, at least, cut in half the defense budget.

Yes, sir.

One other idea here is take your money out of the big banks and put it in your local credit union. [applause] I like that one.

Taxes, antitrust, fairness

[audience question] Would it be a significant help if capital gains were taxed the same as income?

Another question or idea is, let’s make sure capital gains are taxed the same as income, as ordinary income is taxed. Now some of you that may not mean very much, but what that really means is that you’ve got some extraordinarily rich people, they are taxed at a rate of fifteen percent capital gains rate, because they have managed to make most of their income look as though it’s capital gains, and that’s just not fair, and that’s when Warren Buffett talks about his secretary being taxed at a lower rate than he’s taxed, that’s what he’s talking about.

You know, many of these themes come back to the same fundamental issue of fairness. They come back to the same fundamental issue of we are all in this together, and that is the choice. In other words, do you agree we’re just a bunch of individuals, we’re on our own, it’s kind of survival of the fittest, that’s one political philosophy. Social Darwinism. The other political philosophy is, and I think you all agree, we’re all in it together. [applause]

In other words, one way of actually repealing the [camera pans to two people sweeping up the area] antitrust laws, or repealing the securities laws, is just to underfund the agencies, and that’s what they’re doing.

[audience question] Reagan started not enforcing the Sherman Antitrust act, isn’t that correct?

Ronald Reagan was the progenitor; he was one of the originators of not enforcing the antitrust laws, absolutely, because under their view, you don’t really have to worry about size, as long as there’s economic efficiency. Well, I’ll tell you something, if we’ve learned anything over the last four years, when you’re talking about the big banks on Wall Street, or you’re talking about BP and the oil spill, or you’re talking about Massey Energy and that mine cave-in that killed miners, or you’re talking about the big insurance companies in America, if there’s anything we’ve learned, it’s that with size comes political power, and with political power comes unaccountability. And we need regulation, of course we need regulation.

In a system that is so oriented to the bottom line with regard to some big, big companies that the human element – this economy is for us, we are not for it, this economy is for us! – gets completely lost. We’ve gotta make sure that the economy is no longer simply turning on the bottom line, on corporate profits. The test of an economy is not how many corporate profits have been generated, but the quality of life it generates for its people. [applause]

A third party?

[audience question] Is it time for a third party?

Is it time for a third party? Here’s the problem with a third party. We have a winner-take-all system. That is, if you get the state of Oklahoma, or the state of California, 51%, that means, you’ve got it all. And in a kind of winner-take-all system, a third party tends to split the vote of the people who are on one side of the ideological spectrum. So, I dunno how you feel about Ralph Nader, I think he’s a great American in many respects, but when Ralph Nader came in there and took some votes, he helped, he helped George W. Bush, even though Al Gore won the election in 2000.

Cynicism, the enemy

[audience question] What about that Supreme Court case … that said that George Bush was guilty of, you know, rigging the election in 2004 in Ohio with the votes jumping over the machine, and the votes going out to the Republican party, and then to the inaudible.

Lemme just say this, because many of these questions are, again, connected to each other, and this is important. One of our great enemies, and one of the enemies that you and I and others must fight, is cynicism. Do you hear me? [Yes.]So many people, so many young people, so many old people, so many people in this country say that nothing can be done. Nothing can be done. And the minute people say nothing can be done, you know something, the other side wins, because nothing will be done.


[audience question] inaudible anti-Wall Street movements, where they call them money-crabs, and devilfish, and all those

Look, the question is, the other movements throughout history, there have been populist movements, there have been populist movements and progressive movements throughout history, and by the way, every one of these movements has laid the foundation for what has come next. Anybody who looks at American history must know that there are two great forces at work in America, one is the progressive force – moving to the future, inclusion, social equity, equal opportunity, the sense that we’re all in it together – and the other force is the regressive force, which stands for the proposition that we’re all just individuals and we wanna go back to a system fundamentally in which it’s just survival of the fittest.

Now one thing that should give you all courage, and it gives me courage, is that every time those two great forces have clashed, the progressive forces have always won. We shall overcome.

Taxpayer largess

[audience question] Big multinational CEOs like to think of themselves as John Galt-type heroic characters [Yah, Ayn Rand.] pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, so can you tell some ways in which big multinational corporations benefit from the largess of taxpayers?

The question is, how do big corporations benefit from the largess of taxpayers? Let me count the ways! [laughter]

There are subsidies, oil and gas, and there are subsidies for the pharmaceutical industry, why do you think the pharmaceutical industry got the special break, so that Medicare would not use its bargaining leverage to get low drug prices. Every major industry in America, [It’s welfare.] because of its political power, and because we don’t have adequate campaign finance laws, and we don’t have adequate controls on independent expenditures and lobbyists, every major industry in America, gets directly or indirectly subsidized by you and by me and by everybody else here. And look at Wall Street! Look at the bailout of Wall Street if you wanna see it absolutely close-up. It’s about time average, working people got bailed out. [applause] It’s about time. If we all help each other rather than simply help the rich get richer. [Bank out the banks! Pull your money out!]

Now, lookit. Here’s another important principle. It’s tempting to say all rich people are bad. That’s not the case. Some very wealthy people in this country have behaved enormously responsibly. What we’re talking about is those people in the top 1% who have abused their wealth, who are using it to entrench their privilege, like the Koch brothers [boo!]. We want a society in which – lookit, even – I’ll tell you something that is absolutely important and truthful and that is even if you are very rich, you would do better having a smaller share of a rapidly growing economy than a big share of an economy that is dead in the water because average working people don’t have enough purchasing power to keep it going. [applause]

Voting for Obama?

How can we hold our nose and vote for Obama when he has criminals in charge of the economy? – that’s your question. [laughter]
[It’s all corrupt.]

Let me just say something. You can have the best people in Washington, and they are not going to be able to do much that is good, unless good people are organized and mobilized and energized outside Washington to push them. I mean you can criticize, you know a lot of people come up to me and criticize people in Washington, and I say to them back, “What are you doing about it?” And that’s the answer. What are you doing about it?

[That didn’t answer…]

I’m just going to repeat what was said. And I’m paraphrasing but I think I got what you said. And that is, even though you’re not enthusiastic about Obama, the alternative, the Republicans are going to be so much worse they’re going to take us back to the Stone Age, and so what we need to do, is vote for Obama, and vote for the Democrats, and then understand that that is only the beginning, that’s only the beginning of our responsibility. Then we’ve got to push, and continue to push, and push hard.

[audience question] Can you talk about the [inaudible] information system in this country?

Some people in the media, they’re going to say, “Oh, this is over.” It’s not going to be over. It’s never going to be over. You can’t stop this once it’s started. [cheering]

The moral center of the movement

[inaudible audience question]

[inaudible] -based economy, when corporations that run the economy are amoral and just based on profits, that’s what they’re supposed to do. Corporations are just for only one reason, and that is to make money. That’s the only reason they exist. So how do you create a moral-based economy? You create it right starting here. The people are the only hope we have for changing the rules, changing the laws. How did we get a forty-hour workweek? Unions! How did we get Social Security? How did we get unemployment insurance? How did we get worker safety and worker health? How did we get anything that we believe in that we need? We did it because people mobilized and they organized. We didn’t wait for the corporations.

[audience member] So we need all of you to come back.

These are moral questions. What kind of society and economy do we want to have? Every major movement in America has started with a moral question. The Civil Rights Movement. The get out of Vietnam, the anti-Vietnam movement. Every movement before that, the first Progressive movement. These are fundamental moral questions, what kind of a society and what kind of economy do we want, and they are fundamentally questions that only we can answer. We – we the people. [cheering]

[audience question] Business is about making profit, and education must be about collecting tuition, and not-for-profits must be about raising funds, and government must be about collecting taxes.

That sounds cynical to me, sir, but let me [laughter] but let me say that. The corporations, he says, are about making money, then not-for-profits must be about collecting tuition and whatever else not-for-profits collect, and government must be about collecting taxes. In other words, what you are saying is it’s all about money, that’s all it is. [No, I’m not.] Good, I’m glad you’re not. [laughter] [Just the opposite.] Oh, okay. Because I was hoping you were saying just the opposite… The point that I made before, and I wanna emphasize, is if we think that there are such things as morally compelled corporations, or that there’s corporate social responsibility, you know we’re fooling ourselves, cause that’s not what a corporation exists for. A corporation exists to make money for its shareholders. That’s what a corporation is chartered to do. If a corporation doesn’t do that, it’s going to be taken over by people who will make sure that that corporation does. That’s what happens again and again – but wait a minute! I’m not cynical! [laughter]

That is why we need laws and rules and a public voice. That’s why we need limitations on the power and the wealth of corporations to corrupt our political process. That’s why we are in the fix we are in. We cannot rely on corporations to respond to the needs of average working people, and most of the people of this country. We have to stick up for ourselves! [cheering] [Deregulation is bullshit!]

Citizens United

[audience question] Do you think what you’re talking about can be addressed without dealing with Citizens United first?

I count four horrible Supreme Court decisions that I know about historically. Among them are Dred Scott, and Plessy v. Ferguson, and Bush v. Gore. But in that four let’s not forget Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. What we’ve got to do, is we’ve got to work to make sure that when the next Supreme Court vacancy occurs, that Supreme Court vacancy is filled with someone who is pledged to repealing Citizens United. [applause]

We do not have a debt crisis

[audience question] Can you talk about crushing debt? Because it seems to me that debt piled on debt piled on debt – we’re watching the Eurozone, and seeing these austerity packages in Greece and Italy, and to me they’re just cutting and cutting and cutting – Also, they can’t pay the interest on the debt – debt on more debt….

The question is about debt. Do not be fooled about this. We have a jobs crisis and we have a wage crisis, we do not have a debt crisis. We could have a debt crisis ten or fifteen years from now, especially if we don’t get the economy going and we don’t get jobs back. The number one responsibility, the number one goal, is jobs and wages in the economy. The debt scare, the debt panic, is not real. Over the long term, you know why the debt’s going up? Over the long-term, it’s going up because healthcare costs are going up, and that’s pushing Medicare and Medicare costs up. And unfunded wars as well. And what we’ve gotta do is not only cut the defense budget, but we have also got to move to a single-payer system in this country. [cheering] And you see again, you see how it’s all connected up! It’s all connected, everything that we’re talking about, all the dots are connected up with each other! Instead of fighting for single-payer over here, and fighting for better environment and against global climate change over here and fighting for something over here – it’s all connected to enormous wealth and power at the top that is not allowing the people to do what the people need to do. [cheering]

The role of the Fed

The role of the current crisis. We talked about that a little bit before. The Federal Reserve, what the Federal Reserve failed to do, and Alan Greenspan was head of the Federal Reserve and this is one of his worst legacies, he failed to oversee the banks. He reduced interest rates to almost near zero and then he said we don’t need to worry and we don’t need to regulate. And when you reduce interest rates to zero, and make money essentially free to the banks, and then you say, oh by the way, we’re not going to regulate them, we’re going to let you do what you wanna do, banks, with all that money, you are begging for trouble and that is exactly what happened. And who got in trouble? Not the banks – well, they did initially, but they got bailed out. Who got in trouble? We did.


[audience comment] UAW CIO!

Yeah, lookit – lemme say something about that. The union movement in this country is one of the most important movements towards social betterment we have had in America. [applause] In 1955, over a third of all private-sector workers were unionized. And you know what that meant? That meant that people had bargaining power. That meant that average workers could go to companies and say you have got to split the profits with us. Right now in the private sector, fewer than 8% of workers are unionized. And the loss of union power is directly correlated, is directly related to the decline of bargaining power of average working people in this country. And so part of what we do, and I don’t mean a plank, I don’t mean a plan, I don’t mean a set of demands, I’m talking about the moral center of what we do, is to strengthen trade unions. [applause]

Campaign finance reform

[audience question inaudible]

The question is what about campaign finance reform? If I had to name one thing, one thing that was going to be number one on my list, because everything else we want – whether it’s universal healthcare, single-payer, genuine reforms with regard to climate change, getting back to an economy that’s working for all of us, everything else we talked about – nothing is possible unless we get money out of politics. [applause]

Outside the bubble of New York and the bubble of San Francisco – well, here’s the good news. All over America, all over America, people are joining together in this movement. In cities and places that people thought there was no energy, no progressive energy at all, and the alliances are going to be made, and already are being made. From Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland and Occupy LA and Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Atlanta and Occupy all over America – those are the alliances, those are the grassroots alliances that are going to change this country. [applause]


[audience comment] I just wanted to speak of behalf of [inaudible]

If we here begin to think of ourselves as a special group, needing special particular things, even though those things are terribly important, then we lose the strength that comes in unity. We are all together, every one of us is together in this. This is a people movement. We are the ninety-nine percent. [applause]

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