Robert Reich, former Romney campaign policy director debate federal budget on campus

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The Berkeley Forum/Courtesy

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The Berkeley Forum hosted a panel on the federal fiscal crisis Wednesday evening, bringing together prominent speakers from both ends of the political spectrum to discuss pressing political and economic issues facing the nation.

The panel, the first of its kind hosted by the forum, featured former secretary of labor Robert Reich, former policy director of the Romney campaign Lanhee Chen and Dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy Henry Brady.

The panelists agreed that the deficit was a problem but differed on how big of an issue it is and when it should be addressed.

A major point of debate was the federal sequester, which Reich characterized as “very, very dangerous” while Chen played down its effects.

“We finally have a mechanism in place to reduce spending,” Chen said. “It’s hard to cut spending because, let’s face it, everyone likes stuff.”

In one of the more dramatic moments of the evening, Brady turned to Chen and pointedly asked if “Romneycare” was really the same as “Obamacare,” a major criticism Mitt Romney faced during the course of his campaign.

The question received large laughs from the audience, which filled the lecture hall to capacity as nearly 150 students, faculty and community members crowded into the room to watch the debate.

The panel, moderated by Jason Willick, the assistant opinion page editor at The Daily Californian, had lighter moments as well, as the speakers joked about their political differences and agreed that today’s fiscal issues are serious no matter which side of the spectrum one is on.

“The issues that divide us … are hard for most Americans to understand,” Reich said. “One of the things driving animosity is that Americans are working harder but (earning less). Most people are frustrated and angry.”

He noted that wealth inequality has not been this severe since the 1980s, if not the Great Depression.

Fred Wilkinson, a retired physician who lives in Berkeley, said he attended the talk because, as a political junkie, he enjoys the sort of debate the Berkeley Forum provides, especially when it comes to health care.

“I’m frustrated, and I don’t know if there’s a solution,” he said. “I was impressed (with the panel). I thought the questions elicited significant responses (from the speakers).”

UC Berkeley freshman Arturo Gutierrez said he heard about the event on Facebook and, as a political science major, was personally interested in the topics discussed.

“It seemed really interesting that both sides could agree on a lot of the issues,” he said.

Wilkinson echoed these sentiments, saying that he was especially interested in what Chen, a conservative Republican, had to say.

“I thought he melded in very well,” he said. “He didn’t seem as right or as conservative as one might expect.”

In one somewhat surprising moment of accord, Chen agreed with Reich when an audience member asked why a flat tax wouldn’t be a good solution to ongoing fiscal problems. Both said that it was not a prudent solution for the nation. Chen noted that the Romney campaign seriously considered such a proposal but concluded that a flat tax wouldn’t make sense for the nation’s fiscal needs.

“I was appreciative of how moderate and reasonable (Chen) is,” Reich said after the talk, noting that he had never met Chen before.

The Berkeley Forum plans to host similar events later this semester on other topics like gun control, said Pierre Bourbonnais, the president of the forum and a former member of The Daily Cal.

“The idea started my freshman year over a conversation I was having with a friend of mine about free will and determinism,” he said. “The idea was to organize a panel on campus, bringing together a philosopher, neuroscientist, physicist and a psychologist to discuss free will  — basically three or four people from different fields.”

He added that the forum was created in the spirit of the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum at Harvard or the Yale Political Union.

“Many colleges, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Yale, have prominent undergraduate organizations that put on debates and panels with famous and distinguished speakers,” he said. “In the long term, we see ourselves having top experts from academia and journalism as well as leading cultural and political icons.”

Chen said afterward that the appeal of the campus community was a major reason he decided to participate in the panel.

“There’s lots of great thinking (at UC Berkeley) … and to be part of that community was very attractive to me,” he said.

Sara Grossman is a news editor. Contact her at [email protected].