This weekend, Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton, visited Occupy LA and spoke to a small crowd gathered on Spring Street shadowed by City Hall's American flags. It was exhilarating to hear someone who had been in Washington's inner circle speak honestly about bringing fairness, compassion and equality back to the American economy and thereby restore the principles of our democracy and of capitalism itself. "Capitalism cannot function when so much wealth goes to the top," he said. It's one thing to walk through the Occupy LA camp and see statements like that scrawled on a cardboard sign, but quite another to hear someone of Reich's background—as Clinton's Secretary of Labor and a respected teacher and writer—state it.
Reich started his talk by thanking everyone from the Occupy LA movement, and urging them to give themselves a pat on the back. "Because of you, people in this country are beginning to discuss issues that have been avoided for years...Nothing good happens in Washington unless good people outside of Washington are mobilized, energized and organized to make sure that good things happen," he said.
Reich is currently Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been a professor of economics at Harvard and Brandeis and has published 13 books on the economy. He knows this stuff. And like a patient and wise educator, he told the crowd: "Let me tell you the facts. And we've all got to make sure we have the facts together because they are the truth and we've got to speak the truth over and over and over again."
"This economy is richer than it has ever been but we are cutting education, child welfare services, getting rid of teachers. They are saying we can't afford it. We CAN afford it. Our economy is twice as large as it was in 1980 but wages have stagnated for 3 decades. Where did the money go? To the top 1%. This is not class warfare. Our system has gone out of balance. We have to save the system from itself...It is not just our economy that suffers with these inequties. It is also our democracy that suffers."
He named individuals like the Koch brothers as some who have benefited from this inequity. "Our democracy is too precious to allow it to fall into the hands of a few people who are usuing their fortune to pollute and corrupt American democracy."
It was shocking and refreshing to hear someone who knows the economy and the way our government works--or doesn't--speak so plainly. He went on to name some other culprits who have helped get America where it is today: the Supreme Court, whose recent decision about campaign finance, namely that corporations can be treated like people when contributing to political candidates, has done its part to send our democracy down the wrong path. "I'll believe corporations are people when Texas and Georgia start executing corporations," he said.
After his rousing, validating speech—in which he told the occupiers that, while the Occupy movement may not be a movement yet in terms of defining its' demands and refining its methods, it is "motivated by a moral vision of what America could be. There is a powerful and indestructible moral vision underlying this movement"—he lingered to chat and debate with individuals in the crowd, signing autographs but mainly talking economics and solutions and commiserating with beleaguered veterans of our country's current economic woes.
He said one of his great regrets in life is that he failed to get the endorsement of the Democratic party in 2002 when he attempted a run for Governor of Massachusetts against Mitt Romney. "I would have beaten the pants off him," he said.
And perhaps changed the course of our upcoming Presidential election.
Sadly, only a smattering of the occupiers gathered on Spring Street to hear these words. Many others probably did not even know he was speaking, or chose instead to hear the speakers from the south steps advocating the benefits of hemp, or engage in small debates on communism vs. democracy, or just hang out and enjoy a beautiful California Saturday.