Robert Reich draws crowd to International House with free lecture

Tracy Lam/Staff

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Public policy professor Robert Reich filled the 400 person International House’s Chevron auditorium to fire-code capacity Tuesday night for a lecture on inequality and the current economic system, the subject of his latest book, “Saving Capitalism.”

Reich served as secretary of labor in the Clinton administration and teaches the popular public policy course, “Wealth and Poverty.” He will also deliver the commencement address for the 2015 winter graduating class Dec. 20 at Haas Pavilion.

“Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few,” published in September, argues that the concentration of power and influence among few interests have created an American oligarchy. The book also presents solutions intended to rebuild the economic system and restore democracy.

“I loved what he had to say. He infused it with humor,” said East Bay resident Erika Trageser. “It was simple to follow for someone that doesn’t have a bachelors in economics.”

Rachel Chapman, who graduated from UC Berkeley last year, said that Reich’s views appeal to her because they are “directed toward the working class.”

Reich recalled receiving criticism on his recent national book tour for his work’s title from both sides of the political spectrum. In more conservative “red cities” and “red states” of the South and Midwest, people disliked the implication that capitalism needs saving. He said in more liberal areas on the west coast, however, people questioned why capitalism should be saved at all — to which the audience responded with laughter.

He additionally emphasized a need for people to discuss economic problems outside of the “red and blue bubbles” of conservative and liberal views.

“I set out to write a book that might hopefully begin that kind of a dialogue,” Reich said in the lecture. “If you talk facts and be clear about your values … we could make some progress.”

Reich described what he sees as myths that he found to be “discussion stoppers” in conversations with conservatives on his book tour, including the concept that a choice must be made between market and government.

Despite the problems Reich sees in the country’s economic and political system, he remains “cautiously optimistic” about the future.

“In all my 35 years of teaching, I have never encountered a generation of young people between the ages of 18 and 25 who are more idealistic or publicly spirited or dedicated to public service,” Reich said. “We have a long way to go. This is not going to be easy, but … I believe reform is inevitable.”

Campus public policy and economics professor Jesse Rothstein said he wished he could be similarly optimistic about addressing inequality in light of political forces that create a “logjam” against legislation.

“The challenge is to figure out how to channel that (generation’s) enthusiasm and energy in a system that seems to create a lot of roadblocks,” Rothstein said.

Contact Amelia Mineiro at [email protected].