We live in a world where veteran establishment figures—a man, for example, who served as Secretary of Labor under President Clinton—have now become essential activist voices rising up and preaching the truth amid all of the misinformation and short-sighted gains that infect our offices of power. The economist, professor, and commentator Robert Reich proves that clear-eyed community-minded thinking is still with us. His latest book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It came out this spring.
INTERVIEW: Where are you and how long have you been isolating?
ROBERT REICH: Berkeley, California, for eight long weeks.
INTERVIEW: What has this pandemic confirmed or reinforced about your view of society?
REICH: Wealth and power are the dominant forces in American society. There is no countervailing force. As a result, the rich are getting richer and, by and large, remain healthy; the middle is barely getting by; and the poor are getting shafted.
INTERVIEW: What has this pandemic altered about your view of society?
REICH: I had half hoped that an emergency of this scope and severity might pull us together, as did the Great Depression and World War II. But it has not, at least thus far. That’s partly due to the monstrous divisiveness of Trump, his gonzo administration, and his enablers on Fox News and in the Republican Party. History will not treat them kindly.
INTERVIEW: What is the worst-case scenario for the future?
REICH: The coronavirus continues to spread wave after wave of disease and death. Trump is reelected because he and his pals in the Kremlin have rigged the election, and he then continues to loot and divide the nation. Democracy dies. Environmental disasters subsequently overwhelm what’s left of American society and much of the rest of the world.
INTERVIEW: What good can come out of this lockdown? Are there any reasons to hope?
REICH: If I had no hope I couldn’t keep fighting. And we must—all of us. It is possible that because of this horror a sufficiently large majority of Americans come to realize we need a competent government—including public health, universal health insurance, universal basic income, and substantial investment in wind and solar power and disinvestment in fossil fuel. To pay for all this, we need a tax on great wealth. And to get any of this done, we must fundamentally reform our democracy—starting with getting big money out of our politics. This may sound fantastical, but we are closer to achieving all of this than we’ve been in decades.
INTERVIEW: Do you predict an outcome of a more inclusive globalism or more nationalism and isolationism?
REICH: We must move toward the former. No nation, no society, can accomplish what’s needed alone. The world is not a zero-sum game in which one nation is better off only to the extent that others are worse off. That’s Trumpism. In truth, we either help each other preserve life on this planet or we all perish.
INTERVIEW: How will world government be remembered for their responses to the pandemic?
REICH: Bitterly and sadly, with the United States remembered as the most tragic case of all.
INTERVIEW: What has been your daily routine during this time?
REICH: I write and paint, exercise, and try to make a ruckus, in approximately that order.
INTERVIEW: Describe the current state of your hair?
REICH: Every day is a bad hair day.
INTERVIEW: On a scale of 1 to 10, what level is your level of panic about the current state of the world?
INTERVIEW: What is your ultimate novel, film, and album for self-isolation?
REICH: Any book by Adam Hochschild, any film with Katharine Hepburn, any movie directed by Frank Capra, any music sung by Stevie Wonder or Willie Nelson.
INTERVIEW: If 2020 were a song, which song would it be?
REICH: “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke.
INTERVIEW: Where did we go wrong? Like, what was the exact moment?
REICH: 11 PM Eastern Standard Time, November 8, 2016.
INTERVIEW: Which (admittedly totally unqualified) celebrity would you trust with the planet’s future?
REICH: None, especially if they’re unqualified and a celebrity. We’ve had enough, already.
INTERVIEW: If you could stop time at one particular moment in your life, which moment would it be?
REICH: When my son told me he was going to be a father.
INTERVIEW: What is one skill we should all learn while in quarantine?
REICH: Eloquent listening. (I’m still working on it.)
INTERVIEW: State vs federal? Who should have the power to control the movements of reopening of economics for people?
REICH: Federal health officials should establish the criteria. County health officials should implement them. Politicians should shut the hell up.
INTERVIEW: Is this circumstance a win for technology and the virtual world or for the value of real human contact?
REICH: The virtual world cannot win because it is incapable of touching and feeling, which are the bases for giving any meaning to winning. If we are fortunate, human contact will prevail, although I doubt we’ll ever shake hands again.
INTERVIEW: What prevents you from giving up hope in the human race?
REICH: What’s the alternative?
INTERVIEW: Who should be the next president of the United States?
REICH: AOC, when she turns 35.