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Interview With 'The System' Author

TOM GJELTEN, HOST:

Bernie Sanders ended his presidential campaign this week, but he says he'll keep promoting his agenda, including "Medicare for All" and tuition-free college. The future of this country is with our ideas, he said. Somebody who shares those ideas is Robert Reich, the secretary of labor under President Clinton and the author of a new book, "The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It." In it, he argues that America has become an oligarchy with a handful of wealthy corporate executives holding power over the U.S. economy - as Bernie Sanders says, the billionaire class. And for Reich, the man who personifies that billionaire class is Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase. Reich says Dimon is one of those who have built a system that's friendly to the wealthy but unfriendly to workers. When we spoke, I asked why he picked on Dimon in particular.

ROBERT REICH: Jamie Dimon becomes an easy foil because he's - he calls himself a Democrat. He is a major contributor and has been a major contributor to the Democratic Party. He was the one who said, look, I don't like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren because they're espousing socialism, and socialism would be terribly bad for this country. And Jamie Dimon was the one who led the charge to get the giant December 2017 tax cuts for big corporations and big banks and billionaires and very wealthy people. So he's a fascinating character who I think in very important ways embodies the power structure of the United States.

GJELTEN: So in your book, you advocate a lot of new spending on health care, public education, other social programs. To go back to your foil, Jamie Dimon, he says, don't mess up the machine that creates the value so you can have these things. The economy is what gave us everything. Isn't that a valid point?

REICH: Well, it's valid to the point where, yes, if the economy is organized in a way that generates a lot of gains for everyone, then we don't want to mess it up. But if the economy is organized as it is now, in a way that generates a lot of gains for people at the top but where the typical person's wage is stuck - in fact, when the typical American had a job right now during the pandemic; many people don't.

But when even they had jobs, the typical American was working - adjusted for inflation - for wages that were barely lower than they were in the late 1970s. In other words, there's been no wage growth at all for most people. So the economy's not working for all. What we need to do is examine the organization, the structure of the economy and make sure that it is, once again, working for all.

If you look at the changes in power, big corporations have been merging and growing, exercising much more monopoly power than, really, we've seen in the last 40 or 50 years. At the same time, workers - because labor unions have shrunk, dramatically, from 35% of the private sector workforce to about 6.4% today, workers have no real bargaining power compared to big corporations. And you go through the economy, and you look at where power is located. And you see, again, average people, working people - less and less ability to gain some of that economy for themselves.

GJELTEN: Well, let's get back to the current moment. Obviously, you wrote this book before the coronavirus hit. It has changed everything. We now have a massive government intervention in the U.S. economy. Would you say anything, differently, given what has happened in the last month?

REICH: We don't know yet what the coronavirus is going to generate in terms of not only public health and who really gets skewered by all of this but also what the political consequences ultimately are going to be. I think, though, what we can see is that the patterns of power and bargaining leverage that were there before the coronavirus still evidence themselves during the virus. That is, big corporations doing quite well in terms of getting bailed out, getting exemptions from everything, such as having to provide paid sick leave to their employees while small businesses really don't do well. Small businesses are hemorrhaging. They're closing. And individuals, if they don't have a lot of savings to fall back on, are also in dire straits right now, and they're not being helped.

GJELTEN: So in the last four weeks, 17 million Americans have applied for unemployment claims. What does that mean? I mean, we're getting back to Great Depression levels of unemployment. Do you see that lingering for a long time? Or do you see it sort of snapping back pretty quickly like President Trump promises?

REICH: At the rate that we are losing jobs, the rate that small businesses are hemorrhaging, I wouldn't be surprised if we're up to something in the order of 25% to 30% unemployment in about a month's time. Now, we haven't seen anything like that since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It does require right now a response - a governmental response, pouring huge amounts of money into not just the economy.

We're not talking about stimulating the economy; we're talking about survival, helping people get through this when they are sheltering at home as they should be or if they're on the front lines, like health care workers, giving them hazard pay and adequate protection and equipment. Well, that means big, big money. Right now, people can't get the money they need. This is equivalent to, let's say, World War II in terms of national mobilization and the amount that the government needs to be able to do right now. Time is of the essence.

GJELTEN: Well, for now, those jobs are still there. They're vacant. They're not filled because of the current situation. But at some point, they're going to disappear if the economy is not back on its feet, right?

REICH: When this is over - we don't know when - a lot of the jobs are going to return because people do and will want to go back to restaurants and retail establishments and so forth. But, undoubtedly, the economy will look somewhat different. More people will be working from home. There may be more comfort in ordering from Amazon or from any big online retailer than going into a retail store.

In other words, the habits of our consumer culture may alter somewhat. And that, in turn, is going to have some consequences for the job market. I do think that most jobs will come back, but they're not going to come back, quickly. They're going to come back maybe - what? - by September, October. It could be we're talking about next year.

GJELTEN: That's Robert Reich. He's a former secretary of labor and a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. His latest book, "The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It," is out now. Secretary Reich, thank you so much for your time.

REICH: Well, thank you, Tom. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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