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Former U.S. labour secretary Robert Reich speaks in San Francisco on Oct. 19, 2011. (JEFF CHIU/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Former U.S. labour secretary Robert Reich speaks in San Francisco on Oct. 19, 2011. (JEFF CHIU/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Crusader Robert Reich turns a lens on U.S. income inequality Add to ...

This is part of The Globe's Wealth Paradox series, a two-week examination into how the income divide is shaping Canada.

Robert Reich is the Energizer Bunny of income inequality: For more than three decades, he has beaten the drum to bring attention to the widening gulf between America’s rich and poor, including during a four-year term as Bill Clinton’s first Secretary of Labor. Now, he is the star and spirit of a new documentary, Inequality For All.

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You’ve got an unlikely new ally – just the other week, Russell Brand echoed your sentiments about widening inequality, and called for a revolution.

I don’t recommend revolution, because revolutions can sometimes have terrible unforeseen consequences. I think that our societies have shown themselves capable of reform, of serious reform. I view my role as educating the public as to what has gone wrong and why, and what those reforms need to be.

The folks on Fox News say you’re a socialist; to some, that’s as dangerous as a revolutionary.

Um, I don’t care. I mean, Bill O’Reilly calls me a communist. This is not about name calling. It’s about trying to have a serious discussion about one of the most serious problems affecting our society. I don’t know why Bill O’Reilly feels it necessary, if he disagrees with me, to resort to ad hominem attacks. He won’t debate me.

The film presents the issue as being very complex, but is there one force – globalization, the decline of unions, rising CEO pay, plutocrats capturing Washington – that you consider of primary importance?

I think that all of them are interrelated, and a failure to see them as interrelated misses the most important story. It’s the connections that are the most important, the thing to understand.

You note in the film that there’s no magic bullet. Still, you recommend long-term investment in higher education, and higher taxation.

Well, one to pay for the other. It’s no coincidence that Bill de Blasio [has been elected mayor of New York City], that’s exactly his platform: raising taxes on the wealthy and using it to improve public education.

It’s also important to raise the minimum wage, expand what we call the earned income tax credit, cap the size of the biggest Wall Street banks, resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act so we don’t have a replay of 2008. I think we need to unionize low-wage workers, particularly in big-box retailers like Wal-Mart. We’re not talking revolution here. This is within the mainstream of the American reform tradition. And also – going back to tax rates we had before Ronald Reagan. People say that’s politically impossible. Why is it politically impossible if it was politically possible between 1946 and 1981?

Speaking of unions, do you understand why many have grown resentful of unions?

Yes, because as the number of unionized workers continues to shrink, more and more people find themselves with wages and benefits that are low by comparison. Instead of demanding that we normalize upward, and that everybody gets back to the standard of wages and benefits that unionized workers now have, there’s a tendency to blame unionized workers for earning too much.

The very powerful in our societies have shown a remarkable genius for dividing and conquering the middle class and the poor. While the rest of us end up fighting over a diminished share of the pie, their share keeps on growing. And our fight is union vs. non union, immigrant vs non-immigrant, or middle class vs. poor, when all of that is a distraction from the main event.

You say “the rest of us.” You’re putting yourself on the side of those without power?

I have no power at all.

What’s your net worth?

My net worth puts me in the top 1 per cent.

Does that make you uncomfortable when speaking about the issue?

Not at all. In our country, some of the greatest champions of the working class and the poor have been very wealthy: Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy – far wealthier than I am, in comparison. I’m really at the bottom of the top 1 per cent.

In the film, you say that you were “embarrassed” by your behaviour toward the end of your term in Clinton’s cabinet. Why?

At the time, I was probably in denial about how much of a pain I was. In retrospect I’m embarrassed because I was just constantly talking about widening inequality, asking my compatriots in the cabinet if they had looked at the consequences, for the policies they were pushing, on distribution of income. I was lobbying Clinton ceaselessly to do more. And I think the danger in becoming a one-trick pony is that people stop listening.

Given the stakes, and especially today’s political reality, how does one not become a one-trick pony?

Good question. I think the minute you become a predictable advocate, whether you’re inside the administration or even if you’re outside, you lose some of your power to persuade. I think it’s incumbent on those of us who are worried about widening inequality to talk about it in a variety of different ways. I tried in the movie to emphasize two problems that even the rich are suffering because of widening equality: One is slow economic growth, the other is a democracy that is unwinding. Actually, the third is sharply polarized politics that is making it impossible to do anything. And this is bad for everyone.

At one point in the film, to illustrate a point about the economic windfall accrued by nations with highly educated work forces such as Germany and Japan, you ask your students to lend you an iPhone. Is it a political choice for you, to not own one?

No, it’s a personal choice. It’s because I know how addicted I can become to gadgets and if I had an iPhone, I would be checking it all the time.

So – no smartphone, then?

I have a dumb phone. I have a 20th-century phone, a little flip phone.

A Motorola StarTac?

That’s exactly right. My students make fun of me. They stand around and they laugh.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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