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‘We’re on the cusp of a populist upsurge:’ Economist Robert Reich on saving capitalism from itself

Aine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

If you don’t know Robert Reich from his term as the 22nd U.S. Secretary of Labor under the Clinton administration, perhaps you’ve heard his commentaries on “Marketplace.” The economist and scholar has written fifteen books on the state of the American economy and recently released his sixteenth, “Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few.”

Reich’s most recent book chronicles how moneyed political power and influence in the United States contributed to a dwindling middle class, income inequality and rule by a small group of people over the past 80 years.

“[Capitalism] is threatened because most people in this country are on a downward escalator,” said Reich on Wednesday’s “St. Louis on the Air.” “Adjusted for inflation, their wages and compensation have been lessening, their job security is threatened, two-thirds of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck. Meanwhile, almost all the gains from economic growth are going to people at the top.”

There’s hope, though, Reich said, pointing out that when the United States’ political-economics system has gotten off track historically, the country doesn’t do what many other countries have done.

“They succumb to communism, fascism or totalitarianism,” Reich said. “We have a tradition of reforming ourselves. I think a wave of fundamental reform is coming.”

Listen below as Reich talks presidential candidates from Bernie Sanders to Donald Trump, Citizens United, unions, minimum wage Ferguson and his solutions save the current state of capitalism:

“Powerlessness is the way most Americans look upon not only the economy,  people say ‘I can’t do anything, I work for a company, I’m powerless as an employee,’ or ‘I own and am subjected to a lot of market forces I can’t control,’” Reich said. “Or vis-à-vis politics, most people feel like they have no control and don’t even want to get involved, it’s all corrupt. That feeling of powerlessness and cynicism can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, because if people turn their backs on politics and say ‘there’s nothing to be done,’ then the moneyed interests get it all.”

Reich said that America is “on the cusp of a populist upsurge,” pointing to the popularity of “outsider” presidential candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders alike as evidence of that.

“This thing that I’m advancing is something that is a very right-wing or conservative idea, it just doesn’t sound like that coming out of my mouth,” said Reich. 

This thing that I'm advancing is something that is a very right-wing or conservative idea, it just doesn't sound like that coming out of my mouth. - Robert Reich

Reich also put forth several solutions to the failure of capitalism in 2015: raising the minimum wage to half the median wage, reversing Citizen’s United, instituting a five-year ban on public officials joining lobbying firms and giving 18-year-olds a monthly stipend to boost the economy and be creative, among others.

“We’re getting to a point where technology and new gadgets are going to take over more and more jobs so we have to think creatively about a minimum basic income,” Reich said. “It’s not enough to put everybody in a position of comfort, people are still going to have to work, but just to avoid abject poverty. As machines do more and more, we’re going to be forced to be creative. That’s not bad, that’s not socialism, that’s not any –ism, that’s just practical reality.”

You can hear more from Reich on Wednesday night at Maryville University, where he is giving a talk at 7:00 p.m.

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.