Robert Reich Lecture Confronts Income Inequality

Andy Monserud

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich gave a lecture Wednesday evening in a packed Cordiner Hall. Students, faculty, staff and Walla Walla community members attended the event, where Reich predominantly discussed income inequality and the influence of money in politics.

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Photo by Alyssa Gooard

Reich came to campus with the help of the Genevieve Patterson Perry Endowment for the Study of Economics, which brings economists to speak at Whitman on a regular basis. The endowment, which was established in 1999, began bringing speakers to campus in 2001. The Office of the President and the economics department, particularly Assistant Professor of Economics Lee Sanning, also played major roles in selecting Reich and bringing him to campus.

The talk drew a crowd of Whitman and Walla Walla community members that dwarfed most Whitman lecture crowds.  Many of those attendees came from economics classes that mandated attendance, but a large number of Walla Walla community members also attended. The crowd clearly liked Reich from the beginning, applauding enthusiastically and often unexpectedly at several points during the lecture.

Senior Robert Dalton, who attended the lecture as a part of two economics courses, counted himself among those supporters.

“I particularly enjoyed being reminded that economics is a child of moral philosophy,” he said.  “I think that that’s something that we may have lost sight of, and it’s good to be reminded of it.”

Reich has reestablished himself as a sort of economic celebrity in the past several months, partially because of his 2013 film “Inequality for All.” Reich’s talk touched on many of the points raised in the film, which Whitman screened for the public on Sunday. MARIE (1 of 2)

Assistant Professor of Economics Jennifer Cohen, who introduced Reich, discussed his popularity in an interview before the talk.

“He posted … [on Facebook] on the minimum wage,” she said, “and almost 1,500 people shared that status that he posted, and 8,000 people liked it. So his reach is really enormous.”

In both his film and lecture, Reich focused on the negative impact of income inequality on economic and political stability. “Inequality for All” emphasized the fact that inequality stunts economic growth, but Reich focused more on political issues in his lecture, particularly the Supreme Court’s decisions on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission.

“When income is hugely concentrated, political power tends to follow wealth and income,” Reich said. “And what that means, almost invariably, is corruption. You may call it political campaign contributions, but the net result is what we commonly perceive and understand as corruption.”

Reich advocated for a joint effort by the people, both grassroots organizers and political and economic elites, to take money out of politics and address the issues of inequality.

“It’s we who have got to be organized, and we have got to be mobilized, and we have got to be energized enough to get politicians to pay attention,” he said.  “The onus of responsibility is on us.”