Robert Reich is Optimistic

(A third & final report on the Lisbon End-of-Life conference will be coming around next week; I’m interrupting that sort-of series to write about hearing one of my heroes, Robert Reich.)

Robert Reich 4.24.18Robert Reich, a giant intellect who is slightly shorter than this 5’2” writer, took the stage at a recent sold-out Commonwealth Club event. “You can tell,” he quipped, “that Trump has really worn me down.” When the cheers and laughter subsided a little he added, “Last time I was here, wasn’t I about five foot ten?”

Reich, Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration and, among other accomplishments, has written fifteen books. His latest, The Common Good, was published earlier this year. In classic Reichian fashion it argues for a return to “moral imagination” and the common good, and leaves you hopeful. “We have never been a perfect union,” he writes at the end. “Our finest moments have been when we sought to become more perfect than we had been.”

Respect – remember that once-common element of the public discourse? – was Reich’s first talking point at the Commonwealth Club. He spoke of the days when legislators commonly had friends from the other side of the aisle, lamenting the current atmosphere that makes it virtually impossible for, say, a Democratic senator to socialize regularly with a Republican colleague. Reich dates this change to the time when Newt Gingrich, the hyper-partisan, combative Republican became Speaker of the House of Representatives in 1995. He told of entering his office while serving as Secretary of Labor to find a group of people going through his files, saying they had permission to do so. “What are they looking for,” he asked an aide. “They’re looking for anything,” the reply came, “that they can use to get you.”

As a child, Reich was diagnosed with a bone disorder commonly known as Fairbanks disease, which results in short stature. Because this often left him the target of bullies, he sought the protection of older boys – one of whom was Mickey Schwerner. When Schwerner and two others were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964 for registering African-American voters,  Reich says he was motivated to “fight the bullies and to protect the powerless.”

Asked to name the one thing he feels is most critical today, Reich says it is “to get the money out of politics. Money distorts the process,” he says – in what might be considered a mild understatement. Reich also told his audience that “the best way of learning is to talk with people who disagree with you. It forces you to sharpen your argument. You listen to other points of view – and just possibly some of them are correct.”

Robert Reich 4.24.18

Author, fan & new book

The anger he saw in places like Toledo and Kansas City when he was Secretary of Labor Reich says is still very much there. “People are working harder and harder, and getting nowhere.” Even as we bailed out Wall Street, he adds, people are saying “the game is rigged, and it’s rigged against us.” When he visited those same cities – and others like them – prior to the 2016 elections, Reich was surprised to hear many people say they planned to vote for either Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump. “How can you even say those two names in the same sentence?” he asked. “And they would reply, ‘Either one will shake things up.’”

But despite being worn down by the present administration, Reich proclaims that he is optimistic.  “It’s when we are losing something,” he says, “that we recognize its value. People are recognizing their responsibility is not just to vote but to be involved. And secondly, I look at my students, and students from Parkland and Stoneman Douglass high schools (which drew audience applause.) They are committed, engaged, idealistic and determined. There are so many people determined to save our democracy.”

“Your engagement and involvement,” he said to a receptive and enthusiastically pro-Robert Reich audience, “is critically important.”

 

 

A little food for upbeat thought

“There is nothing wrong with America,” Rep. Adam Schiff said in a recent Commonwealth Club address, “that cannot be cured with what is right in America.” He was quoting former president Bill Clinton, surely a line worth quoting. Schiff’s overall message was so upbeat, at this particularly downbeat time in U.S. history, that this writer/listener came away hopeful.

Adam Schiff at CClub 2.20.18

Adam Schiff with Ellen Tauscher

Schiff doesn’t want us to be dismayed and overwhelmed. Worried about pollution? Climate change? Immigration? Reproductive justice? Gun control? Environmental destruction? Dreamers? Pick one, he advises. You can make a difference; pick one.

 
This seems such a welcome diversion from the ongoing national malaise that this space today is dedicated to additional pearls of wisdom and crumbs of food for thought from the same evening. All of these were gleaned from Commonwealth Club events and flashed on the screen while the sold-out audience waited for Schiff and his conversation partner, former Rep. Ellen Tauscher. Enjoy.

“Hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word” – Sen. Cory Booker

“Sometimes I wonder if our grace is taken for granted” – Van JonesGrace

“Good and evil exist in all races and all types of people no matter where they come from” – Kareem Abdul Jabbar

“The Republican party is my vehicle, not my master – I have the right to define the Republican party too” – Governor John Kasich

“Fame is a completely separate category from being an actor” – Frances McDormand

“The question is not big government or small government; the question is who government is for” – Robert Reich

“Humans crack under pressure; machines do not. But humans can dream; machines cannot.” – Garry Kasparov

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We try to avoid being overly political in this space. But we hope you enjoy pondering these gems – which happen to begin with a comment from an American politician and end with an astute observation from a Russian chess player.

Sign a Contract, Lose Your Rights

scales of injusticeDeep within the contract I signed for a recent $699 purchase were these words:

Arbitration Agreement: Should any dispute arise in regards to this product, I/we agree to settlement by arbitration.

Well, great, I thought, after glancing through the multiple-page document and noticing the clause. I am not a litigious sort of person, and arbitration seems far preferable to courts and lawyers and outrageous legal expenditures. A reasonable solution.

Wrong. That agreement means I signed away all rights in any future dispute involving the product, committing to a decision that will be made by the person or firm hired by the company who wrote the contract. If I complain, and the company is paying the arbitrator, guess who’s going to win? A recent study showed that 94% of the time, in cases like these, the judgment goes in the company’s favor. Appeal? There is none. The decision is binding, and I have signed away my right to appeal – that’s also in the fine print.

Lost in the Fine Print”, an eye-opening film just released by the Alliance for Justice, explains how these forced arbitration clauses affect millions of people every day, people like you and me who assume we enjoy such constitutional rights as equal protection, the right to appeal – a voice. I could be out $699. But what if the forced arbitration clause in the small print meant you were done in by a for-profit college that took your money, gave you a worthless “diploma” and prevented you from ever getting a job because they’d already flooded the market with others far less qualified? Or suppose it meant you had no power over the credit card company that was ruining your small business with ever-increasing “swipe” fees. Or it meant that though you had been unjustly fired from your job, you were denied even a hearing? These are three of the stories told in “Lost in the Small Print.”

“It’s a rigged system that helps companies evade responsibility for violating anti-discrimination, consumer protection, and public health laws,” says film narrator Robert Reich.

Reich, a noted political economist, author and speaker who served as U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, explains how forced arbitration clauses usually go unnoticed in the pages of boiler-plate accompanying today’s contracts. But even if they do catch the eye of the signer – as happened with my recent purchase – their potential impact cannot be foreseen.

And that impact can be huge: a job lost, a business struggling, a life wrecked.

“Lost in the Fine Print” runs for just under 20 minutes. You can watch it online, or order the DVD. It’s free. Those could be the most important 20 minutes you’ll spend in a very long time.