Robert Reich: Morality & the Common Good Must Be at Center of Fighting Trump’s Economic Agenda


AMY GOODMAN: Here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace report, I’m Amy Goodman with Juan Gonzalez. JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As a presidential candidate,
Donald Trump made a promise to the American people: There would be no cuts to Medicare,
Medicaid and Social Security. DONALD TRUMP: Save Medicare, Medicaid and
Social Security, without cuts. Have to do it. Get rid of the fraud. Get rid of the waste and abuse. But save it. JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, that promise has not
been kept. Under his new budget, President Trump proposes
a massive increase in Pentagon spending while cutting funding for Medicare, Medicaid and
Social Security. Trump’s budget would also slash or completely
eliminate core anti-poverty programs that form the heart of the U.S. social safety net,
from childhood nutrition to care for the elderly and job training. This comes after President Trump and Republican
lawmakers pushed through a $1.5 trillion tax cut that overwhelmingly favors the richest
Americans, including President Trump and his own family. AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest has been one of
the vocal critics of President Trump’s economic policies. Robert Reich served as labor secretary under
President Bill Clinton. He’s now a professor at the University of
California, Berkeley, senior fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. Most recent book is out today, it’s called
The Common Good. Welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you back, Robert Reich. ROBERT REICH: Thank you, Amy. AMY GOODMAN: So, respond to what we see today. You have this fall in Wall Street, which doesn’t
necessarily reflect what happens on Main Street, and you have this budget that’s been introduced,
that we just heard, and the broken campaign promises of President Trump. Who’s winning and who’s losing at this
point? ROBERT REICH: Well, I think we’re all losing. That is actually the theme of my book. The rich in America cannot continue to do
well when most others are not. If the social contract, that is the basis
of this country, is coming apart, if we are basically saying to everyone, “You’re
on your own,” we’re all going to be worse off. There is a common good. At least there was a common good. I think the purpose of the book is to ignite
a discussion about whether we can re-establish a sense of common good in America. JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, when you say there has
been a common good, talk about that historically in terms of the how the concept developed. ROBERT REICH: Well, in the Constitution, Juan,
it says, “We the people.” We, the people, are establishing a government,
and one of the purposes is for our own domestic well-being. And the Declaration of Independence and our
founding documents and the Gettysburg Address—I mean, go through everything over the last
200 years that has talked about who “we,” what the pronoun “we” means, and it means
equal political rights. And that has been a goal. It hasn’t been effectuated. We’ve sought it. We certainly—I don’t want to romanticize
a past in which we certainly have not had equal political rights. But there was—for much of our history, we’ve
at least been seeking it. The same with equal opportunity. The same with the rule of law, that no person
is above the law. And you go—you go down the list. Again, I want to emphasize these are aspirations,
these are ideals, that kept us together, again and again. And I fear we’re losing them. I mean, Donald Trump is sort of the essence
of the problem, but he is not the cause of the problem. I mean, his election was, I believe, a result,
at least in part, of a great deal of disillusionment and anger and cynicism that many people have
toward a system, toward a ruling class, that did not deliver, that has not delivered. And Trump’s conflicts of interest, his narcissism,
his sort of inability to understand that there is something called America that is greater
and more important than flag salutes and standing for a national anthem or securing the borders,
is symptomatic of something that is much deeper that’s gone wrong in America. AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Reich,
who was the labor secretary under President Clinton. And you had a lot of problems with Clinton. I mean, you talked about walking the streets
the day he signed off on welfare reform, what some called “welfare deform,” walking
the streets of Washington, wondering where all the people were. Well, today, actually, there are a number
of people in the streets. They are young people. They are high school kids, who could turn
the entire system on its head, not only around gun control. These are the survivors of the massacre in
Florida. They’re on a bus to Tallahassee. They’re doing lie-ins and die-ins in Washington,
D.C. And they’re saying what even the media—though
the media has come out, except for Fox, pretty anti—pretty much for gun control. They always start off by saying, “Well,
you can’t get an automatic weapons ban. We will start there. But what is it you think you can do?” They are questioning everything right now. They’re talking about corruption. They’re talking about money in politics. These are kids in 10th, 11th and 12th grade,
and younger. ROBERT REICH: Well, they give me a great deal
of encouragement, Amy, you know, that young lady, Emma Gonzalez, for example, that very
powerful speech she gave Saturday about gun control. What I see around the country is that there’s
a silver lining to Trump and to everything that’s going on right now in our nation’s
capital and elsewhere. That silver lining is that you have young
people, you also have many activists, who are becoming more active than ever before. A lot of people who had given up on politics,
had become cynical, are saying to themselves, “I can’t afford to be cynical, because
this country is too important to me and my children and my grandchildren.” They are becoming engaged in politics in a
way I haven’t seen since the Vietnam War or the anti-Vietnam War movement. I teach young people. And I can say that every day I count my blessings,
because I’m surrounded by kids who care about this country, care about the future,
and are not going to allow us to continue to ignore the common good. JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yet, the supporters of
Trump have doubled down even more in their backing of him, as we’ve seen, repeatedly
been seeing, most recently the Oprah interview with a group of a cross-section of Americans,
half of whom had voted for Trump, and then Trump started blasting, on Twitter, attacking
Oprah for the interviews. There is a sense among his supporters that
he’s doing exactly what they expected him to do. ROBERT REICH: Well, I think, to a large extent,
Juan, those supporters have been watching, you know, the propaganda arm of the White
House, which is Fox News. And if you get into that propaganda arm, you
know, you begin to accept the lies that Trump has been propagating and Fox News has been
propagating. I mean, he—in his whole life, he has been
a con man. And I think there are a lot of Americans,
sadly, who have been conned by him. I mean, look at the tax bill. I mean, the idea that the working class is
going to do better under that tax bill is absurd. That tax bill, that went through Congress,
tax plan, is overwhelmingly favoring the very wealthy, and it’s being paid for—they’re
already talking about paying for it. I’m talking about Paul Ryan and Trump, are
already talking about paying for it by cutting programs like Medicare and Social Security
and Medicaid, that so many Americans depend on, many Trump voters depend on. I mean, the Trump voters are the ones who
are being shafted almost worse than anybody else. And yet, because of the lies, the big lies,
they don’t know it—or at least don’t know it yet. I think they will. They can’t help but understand it. In fact, I have spent a lot of time over the
last year and a half in so-called red states talking to people who voted for Trump, and
many of them are becoming deeply disillusioned. I mean, look at the—look at even the escapades
that are coming out about paying off Playboy bunnies and prostitutes. And, I mean, you’ve got evangelicals in
America who are saying, “Wait a minute, this can’t—we trusted that this man was
somebody who he said he was, but he’s somebody entirely different.” The truth is going to catch up with them. JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you wrote recently,
though, that in the 2016 election, that “he sucked all the oxygen out of the race by making
himself its biggest story. Now, he’s sucking all the oxygen out of
America by making himself our national obsession.” And you go on to say, “Schooled in reality
television and New York tabloids, Trump knows how to keep both sides stirred up: Vilify,
disparage, denounce, defame, and accuse the other side of conspiring against America. Do it continuously. Dominate every news cycle.” ROBERT REICH: And that’s his—if you want
to call it a gift. It’s certainly his technique. And that is what he knows how to do: divide
and conquer, make us all feel as if we are against one another, that the most important
kind of conflict in America is between them—the “they” being either Trump voters or the
people who are against Trump—and disguise the fact that most Americans are now battling
over a smaller and smaller share of an economic pie. I mean, you’ve got, for example, white working-class
people who are on a downward escalator—they still are on a downward escalator—and they
are now being taught to believe that African Americans and Latinos and foreigners and DACA
children are somehow responsible for their plight. I mean, it’s taking their eyes off the system,
what has happened as a system. This is why I wrote the book. Again, if we don’t start focusing on the
common good and what we mean by that, and taking our eyes, at least occasionally, off
of this egomaniac in the White House, who knows how to aggravate us and obsess us, then
we are going to, in a kind of ironic way, allow him to succeed. AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Robert Reich,
chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley,
former labor secretary under President Clinton. He has a new book out. It’s out today. It’s called The Common Good. We’ll be back with him in a minute. AMY GOODMAN: “Silver Dagger” by Joan Baez. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org,
The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as
we turn to President Trump talking about the infrastructure plan that he’s just presented. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This morning I submitted
legislative principles to Congress that will spur the biggest and boldest infrastructure
investment in American history. The framework will generate an unprecedented
$1.5 to $1.7 trillion investment in American infrastructure. We’re going to have a lot of public-private. That way it gets done on time, on budget. AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s President Trump
introducing his infrastructure plan. From infrastructure, if you can respond to
that, to the budget, to the tax plan, talk about what he’s proposed and what would
be a plan for the common good. ROBERT REICH: Trump is proposing what he says
is $200 billion of federal money, that somehow, magically, creates $1.5 trillion of infrastructure
spending. Well, first of all, there’s no money left
in the federal budget. All of the money that was there has been basically
taken with the big tax cut. So, he—on closer inspection, he and the
White House are saying, “Well, that $200 billion is going to have to come out of other
programs.” Now, when they say “other programs,” we
know what they mean. That means programs for the working class
and the poor. They’ve been the first on the chopping block
for the entire administration so far. But beyond that, where does the rest of the
money come from? It comes from private developers, private
investors. How can we attract private investors for that
much infrastructure? By giving them the receipts of tolls and fees
and user fees—basically, turning the future infrastructure of America, and much of the
present, over to the private sector. So we pay twice. We pay not only through our taxes, but we
also pay through all of the tolls. And money— JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But they also expect large
contributions from local, city and state governments— ROBERT REICH: Exactly. JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that would also be us paying,
as well. ROBERT REICH: Exactly. And the state governments are not going to
just be able to come up with the money. They are going to have to raise taxes, as
well. And so, you’ve got a system that is Trumpian
in all its dimensions, again, without any understanding of the common good. It is going to cost more people more money,
and it’s not even going to be infrastructure where we most need it. I mean, where we most need it is repairing
old bridges and old highways and water treatment facilities. But where do private investors want to see
infrastructure? Where can they get the biggest return? On brand-new highways and brand-new bridges,
that will basically skirt the poor areas of this country, not only the poor rural areas,
but many of our minority communities. JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about
the—in terms of the tax cut, because I remember, before the election, both Democrats and some
Republicans, like John Kasich, were talking about using an amnesty for corporate profits
that were being held offshore, when they would repatriate it, to use that for infrastructure,
because that was a one-time shot in the arm to the U.S. economy. And that didn’t happen, actually. Most of that money seems to have gone into
the overall plugging the gap of this plan. But you’ve also focused on stock buybacks
and how companies are using stock buybacks now with this tax plan, while all the attention
is going into the pittances that they’re giving in bonuses to their workers. ROBERT REICH: Exactly. And those bonuses have proven to be very,
very tiny relative to the amount of profits that companies are now sinking into buying
back their shares of stock, which is a technique used by companies to artificially raise stock
prices. Why are they doing this? Largely because CEO pay is so intimately related
to share prices, that CEOs, even in an era like this, when there’s almost no reason
for share prices to go up—in fact, they’re going down—but artificially keep them up,
or keep them from falling as much as they would, by buying back the shares of stock. Now, this has nothing whatever to do with
the promise that the Trump— JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And how has the buybacks increased
now, in the past year, compared to previously? ROBERT REICH: Buybacks were already at a record
level in 2017. And so far this year, they are even at a higher
level. So, all of that corporate tax in the new tax
plan that’s gone into effect, that was supposed to inspire and encourage a lot of new investment—you
know, the trickle-down economics theory—well, it’s already proved to be bankrupt. AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this month, Senator Sanders
questioned Budget Director Mick Mulvaney about President Trump’s budget plan. SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Explain to me the morality
of a process by which we give the third-wealthiest family in America—major contributor, I might
add, to the Republican Party—over a billion dollars a year in tax breaks, and yet we cut
a program which keeps children and the elderly warm in the winter. MICK MULVANEY: Here’s the morality of the
LIHEAP proposal, Senator: 11,000 dead people got that benefit the last time the GAO looked
at it. That’s not moral, to take your money, to
take my money, to take the money from the people that you were just mentioning— SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Eleven thousand people got
it who shouldn’t have. Correct that. But 7 million people get the program. To say that 11,000 out of 7 million—deal
with that. AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Bernie Sanders questioning
Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. Robert Reich? ROBERT REICH: Well, morality is very much
at the center of all of this. I mean, this is the discussion we ought to
be having. I mean, say what you want about Donald Trump. He has at least brought us back to first principles. Why are we together in this nation? What—who are we? Are we just a bunch of individuals who happen
to be born here and who should be making as much money and accumulating as much power
as possible? Is that the meaning of America? Or is it that we are a bunch of white Christians
who were all born here and speak English as a first language? Is that the meaning of America? Well, I’m sorry, that is not the meaning
of America as we’ve understood it for much of the 200 years—more than 200 years of
our existence. There are ideals that undergird our understanding
of why we are a nation. As a great political philosopher Carl Friedrich
once said, you know, “To be a Frenchman is a fact. To be an American is an ideal.” You know, we are not a creed. We are not a religion. We are a conviction, a conviction about the
importance of certain ideals. Donald Trump obviously doesn’t understand
the common good. He’s never uttered the words “the common
good,” I’m sure. But they were understood. You know, I’m old enough to remember people
like Robert F. Kennedy, who talked in terms of the common good. I even worked—my first job in government
was working for Robert F. Kennedy in his Senate office in 1967. And I, like many of my generation, went out
and campaigned for Eugene McCarthy 50 years ago, because we believed so deeply that there
was a common good that was being violated by the Vietnam War. Many of us sacrificed our time. And some of my—a friend of mine, very good
friend, sacrificed his life in the civil rights movement. Most of us, many of us, were weaned on the
notion that this country had moral principles. When Bernie Sanders asks Mick Mulvaney about
morality, he is asking a question about what this country once represented and should represent. JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in your book, when you’re
talking about what are some of the shifts that have begun to tear away at the concept
of the common good, you talk about the notion of whatever it takes to win. Can you talk about that? ROBERT REICH: Well, that has become—and
again, Donald Trump is sort of the emblematic of that idea, but it’s been growing for
the last three or four decades, whatever it takes to win. In politics, it doesn’t matter what you
do, doesn’t matter the effect on the institutions of our democracy, if you can still just win. The same thing with business. If you just show a profit and show a bigger
and bigger profit, it doesn’t matter what effect you’re having on communities or on
employees or the consequences for the nation. You just win. All of this win-at-any-cost mentality is actually
rather new. You know, we, as Americans, we went through
a Depression, we went through World War II. We understood, at some point, that we’re
all in the same boat together. It’s not—and again, I want to emphasize
this, I don’t want to romanticize the past. It’s not that we were an equal society that
adhered in every respect to an understanding of the common good, but we at least strove
for it—you know, the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, the
Environmental Protection Act. We at least were on the road to trying. And then there was a big U-turn, Juan, and
you know as well as I. It starts with Ronald Reagan. And we no longer talk about the common good. AMY GOODMAN: Talking about the common good,
let’s talk about immigrants for a moment. You are a professor at University of California,
Berkeley. There are many students who have DACA at University
of California, all over the country. We’re talking about nearly a million young
people, who are threatened now with not knowing what’s happening, because President Trump
says he was ending the program, a judge has now stopped it. But what’s happening at universities, for
example, in dealing with kids? How do you talk to young people who are dealing
with this uncertainty, with this crisis, the ripping apart of their families, and if not
them, the possibility that their parents will be deported, immigrant leaders around the
country being targeted, being detained, being threatened with deportation right now, as
President Trump talks about the national security of the country, explaining that’s why he’s
ripping families apart? And yet you have this seven—this 19-year-old
shooter, self-confessed shooter, who has easy access to guns, and President Trump hardly
talks about this. ROBERT REICH: Well, I think this is again
a good exemplar of the problem we’re in and the ironies we find ourselves. These DACA kids were promised—there was
a promise made to them—that if they registered, if they basically provided information about
themselves—they came here as children, it’s not their fault that they came here as children—that
they would, if they registered, have an opportunity to stay, an opportunity to apply for permanent
citizenship, an opportunity to work. And then, suddenly, arbitrarily, we have a
president come along, a new president, who says, “Well, all of that is off. You are actually going to be targeted. You should not be here. Yes, well, it’s too bad you came here as
a child.” This kind of insensitive, amoral—in fact,
it’s immoral—approach to these kids, at the same time you’ve got guns in schools
and guns all over the place, you know, a kind of an insensitivity to the reality of what
this nation is experiencing, it seems to me, is, again, the essence of the problem we now
face. Why is it so hard to understand that no nation,
except the United States, suffers the gun violence we do, and no nation, except the
United States, has as easy access to guns? You don’t have to be a rocket scientist
to connect up the dots. But you do have to at least have a concern
for the common good. JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask, briefly—we
have about a minute left. You talk in the book about bumping into the
CEO of Wells Fargo one day at a light on a street corner at Berkeley and the conversations
you had with him. Wells Fargo, probably a racketeering conspiracy
all of its own, in terms of how it’s dealt with its clients. ROBERT REICH: CEOs today—and the CEO of
Wells Fargo at the time was just another example—I think, don’t understand that they have public
obligations that go beyond public relations. You know, John Stumpf, who was the CEO, he
said to me, over coffee—and we did bump into each other—that he wanted to just distinguish
Wells Fargo from all the other banks that had been caught up in the 2008 banking crisis,
and he wanted to make sure that the public understood that Wells Fargo really was a responsible
bank. And he said this with a complete seriousness. I mean, he fooled me. AMY GOODMAN: We have three seconds. ROBERT REICH: Well, in three seconds, let
me just say, it’s not just Trump. It’s all of us. AMY GOODMAN: The Common Good is Robert Reich’s
new book. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.

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