Have We Lost Our Way in America? | Conversations in the Digital Age

Have We Lost Our Way in America? | Conversations in the Digital Age


♪ [Theme Music] ♪ JIM ZIRIN: Hi there, I’m
Jim Zirin. Welcome back to Conversations In The
Digital Age. With me is our CUNY T.V. colleague
Bob Herbert. Bob Herbert was, for eighteen years,
an Op-Ed columnist with The New York Times, a
great distinction. He left the Times about four years
ago and he’s written an intriguing thought
provoking new book entitled Losing Our Way:
An Intimate Portrait of a Troubled America. The book
has been an instant bestseller. It’s been
hailed by the Huffington Post as the most important
book of the year. Bob, we’re delighted to have
you with us. BOB HERBERT: Jim is
great to be here thank you. JIM ZIRIN: And
congratulations on your book. I’m always intrigued with
titles of a book and you know your last column for The
Times was called Losing Our Way. Why did you choose
it? And have we lost our way? BOB HERBERT: Well actually
the secret is I didn’t chose it. I wanted to call this book
wounded colossi and the entire time I was working
on you know and people were talking to me about
it and I was saying you know and look forward it’s
going to be coming on Doubleday wounded Colossus
it and then double date when it came time to the
publication date was actually approaching they
were called Wounded Colossus something you
know why not. I didn’t understand why not but
they were adamant and then finally they said you let
that headline on your last column was losing, losing
our way, which I had chosen the headline. So
then I said fine let’s go with it and now I think
you know as I’ve made the rounds on the book tour
and that sort of thing I think they were correct
they apparently knew what they were talkin- JIM ZIRIN: Great title and
wounded Colossus is in the dustbin of history. BOB HERBERT: In the dustbin of
history. JIM ZIRIN: You have said that
the United States we here in America need to be
re-imagined somehow really reimagine because Lyndon Johnson
in 1964, which is kind of your benchmark we were
then and he imagined a great society and
egalitarian society and somehow we’ve lost that.
Tell us about that. BOB HERBERT: Yeah you know, I
tell people as I go around to college campuses
speaking to young people that you know I have a
sister is four years younger and we grew up in
what I think was the best time to grow up in America
and that was those early post World War II decades.
I mean I’m a child of the fifty’s and the sixty’s
essentially and you know so you come out of school
and jobs are easy to find, higher education was
affordable, you got benefits with jobs, you
know people believed in those days and pensions
and that sort of thing and I tell people it’s not you
know just nostalgia for a long time ago, I
understand that there are all kinds of problems that
blacks and women were often treated hideously,
unfairly, you know and you know I got drafted, In the
big build up to Vietnam I didn’t have to go to
Vietnam they sent me to Korea but you know you had
the Vietnam War, so that was a great tragedy. So
it’s not that everything was wonderful but you felt
like you were making progress that, that, that
the country was getting better and better and that
you could rectify the things that you felt were
wrong in this country. Now I feel that where we’re
going backwards we’re backsliding a perfect,
perfect example of that is the way the Supreme Court
has essentially eviscerated the Voting
Rights Act of 1965. Very difficult to get decent
jobs now, kids come out of college with all kinds of
college debt hanging over their shoulders and that
sort of thing and the reason I say the country
needs to be reimagined is, I don’t think you can go
back to the 1950’s or 60’s who would want to do that
it. So you want to take what was the best of that
era and reimagine it for the twenty first century
so that we get back to being much more of an
egalitarian society where you open wider the doors
of opportunity and that sort of thing, where it’s easier for
a kid to get a decent education. So that’s, that’s
what I’m looking for. JIM ZIRIN: Well just to
push you a little bit. The key to your argument is
joblessness. If families find themselves in hard times, this
creates problems for their children, it creates
problems for them, and, and so forth, but we did
have a major financial crisis in 2008. It was
fallout from that. We seem to be recovering we’re
better off than Europe in many respects. We have
seen the effects of globalization with job
loss and jobs that have been replaced by
technology, but still but the latest economic
indicators are the jobless claims are down and we’re
slowly getting back on our feet. So do you think that
undercuts your argument that we have to reimagine
ourselves? BOB HERBERT: No, not at all.
I think that the monthly job numbers that we pay much
too much attention to are very deceptive, that they
don’t give a good idea of the extent of the joblessness
and underemployment that is out there for one thing.
People who have been out of the long term unemployed
people have been out of work for say six months or more who
have finally become just discouraged they’re not
looking for a job any more. They don’t have a job but
they’re not counted in the official statistics as being
unemployed. And then the when you get these numbers about
each month about the jobs that have been created and the
unemployment numbers coming down it doesn’t
tell you what kinds of jobs are being created and
so many of those jobs are low wage or minimum wage
jobs. They’re part time. So you know if you get a
part time job that’s counted in the jobless
numbers. A lot of them are temporary or otherwise
contingent they’re not the kind of jobs that you can
support a family on for example. And even before
this whole employment problem started long before
the Great Recession, which it actually started officially
in December of 2007 I was writing columns way back in
the 1990’s about the waves of layoffs that came from these big
companies they wouldn’t, they wouldn’t call it they
wouldn’t say the employees were being fired they would say
that they were being downsized or laid off or they had all
kinds of euphemisms and stuff. So we’ve never recovered from
that. We have just found out that the United States of
America in November 2014 has reached a new record in child
homelessness in this country. JIM ZIRIN: Child
homeless. BOB HERBERT: Child homelessness
I mean that’s horrible. Every night in New York City in
our town fifty thousand people jammed the homeless
shelters every day every night. Tons more are
turned away. Many of those are children you know I
see them. I live on the Upper West Side. I see the
homeless every morning when I come out I’m an
early riser they’re sleeping on the street,
they’re sleeping on church steps, they’re sleeping in
alleyways. We have a tragic situation here in
terms of joblessness poverty under employment
now with the ills that we’re not paying nearly
enough attention to. JIM ZIRIN: Now your book
really makes a case for the middle class and says
that is the middle class that is threatened. Now
are these homeless people whom you see are they,
where they formally members of the middle class? BOB HERBERT: Well the homeless
people that I see sleeping on the streets in many cases
these are folks who have other kinds of problems,
who have problems with drug addiction, or alcohol
abuse you have to go into the shelters in other
areas of the country if you, if you want to talk
about the people who have been suffering from
unemployment or home foreclosure and that sort
of thing. Many of those were in fact formally
middle class, but one of the things that happens
with the middle class when they get hammered by home
foreclosure, and joblessness is not that they show up
in homeless shelters they double up with relatives and friends.
So you have all kinds of people in the United States
who are living with two or three families to an apartment,
or to a home and that, and that sort of thing. And
another thing that you have are the young people
who are coming out of high school and who are coming
out of college. Many of them have had to go back home and
live with their families it’s been a lot of coverage about
that, but also many of them rather than getting their own,
own apartment and beginning to get a foothold on
an adult standard of living. They’re living with you
know four or five or six roommates and that sort of
thing. JIM ZIRIN: Now that is
economic dislocation and exists unquestionably in varying
degrees, but you also write about political dislocation and
you referred to the Supreme Court with the voting right
Rights Act, but then there’s also the opinion on
campaign contributions. BOB HERBERT: Oh yeah. JIM ZIRIN: You want to talk
about that a little bit sure. BOB HERBERT: What happens is
one of the things where. JIM ZIRIN: Citizens United. BOB HERBERT: The Citizens
United decision yes, which basically open the
floodgates unlimited corporate, corporate campaign
contributions. You know one of the things that happens is that
people’s eyes glaze over when you start to talk about
things like wealth or income inequality. You know it’s
not, that it’s not that they don’t want to hear
just basically not interested, interested it’s abstracted
It doesn’t get to you know it’s not fun, But these are
important issues because when we have the kinds of
extremes of inequality that we have in the United
States now it’s not just financial inequality it’s
political inequality. So the folks who have so much
money have most of the say in terms of electing our
public officials and then beyond that most
importantly in terms of policy. So for example you
have a large majority of Americans who are in favor
of an increase in the federal minimum wage, but
it’s so hard to get that increase because the
people who have power are the people who are at, or
near the top who have the money, who are worried
about reduced taxes they don’t want more services
for people they know they don’t want to pay more in
taxes, so they fight against an increase in the
minimum wage and that’s just one example of the
kind of thing that harms people on the in the lower
echelons of income because they don’t have the same
kind of political clout that the rich have. JIM ZIRIN: So I suppose what
the American dream is and what Johnson was imagining was that
the working class people would end in the middle class and
middle class people would do better. BOB HERBERT: Yes. JIM ZIRIN: And the key there
were a lot of that is education and equipping these people, I’ve
spoken of with appropriate skills either intellectual or
technical skills so that they can join the workforce
at a much higher level. We doing our job in
the area of education that’s something you write
about extensively in the book. BOB HERBERT: Well I fight back
against that concept somewhat. I am in favor of improved
education for everyone just simply because I think people
should be more knowledgeable and then there are riches to
be gained when you reach higher education levels,
but I don’t think that the point of education is just
to get you a job, but more important than that is
educating more of these folks will not get them
the jobs that we claim. You don’t get an
employment payoff for that because there aren’t
enough jobs. So let’s say we graduated to two
million more young men and women from college next
year. They would not get two million more college
level jobs they’ll go, they’ll either be unemployed
or they’ll go to work you know flipping burgers or working
in a Starbucks or something like that. What we have seen
happening in the data bear, bear this out is more and
more kids are coming out of college but they’re taking jobs
that high school graduates and drop outs used to get so
that now you’ve got a more high school graduates and
dropouts being pushed down the employment ladder so
they’re taking ever more menial, menial jobs or
they’re being pushed out of the workforce
altogether. So education is not the answer to our
employment problems we should be in favor of
increased education because it makes you a
more well rounded and generally more status
satisfied human being, but it’s not the answer to our
employment troubles. JIM ZIRIN: Well isn’t a lot of
the problem technological dislocation I mean those
the nice lady at the airport who checked you in
and now you go to a kiosk. Now her job is gone. BOB HERBERT: Yeah. JIM ZIRIN: And it’s not going
to be recreated It’s not like the old days where you
were laid off at the steel mill and then six months
later they took you back. BOB HERBERT: That’s
exactly right, and how- JIM ZIRIN: How do we fix this? BOB HERBERT: That’s actually
a much larger problem then, we use the big term
globalization is so many jobs did go to India or China or
whatever but the technological advances are the ones that
have really clobbered the workforce and you know
there is no easy answer about how to fix that and
I think that we should be paying a lot more
attention to that because we have to decide whether
our advanced technological society is capable of
providing enough work for all the people who want
and need to work. We don’t know yet whether it can or not. JIM ZIRIN: But suppose it’s not- BOB HERBERT: If it’s not, then
we have some decisions to make because we have to
figure out what to do with the folks who get left out. So are
we talking about for example a guaranteed annual income?
Are we talking about government as the employer
of last resort? You know we need to be seriously- JIM ZIRIN: Or first and last
resort. BOB HERBERT: -Or first and
last. We need to seriously think about what we’re going to do.
This is a profound issue as we get deeper and deeper into
the twenty first century. JIM ZIRIN: Well also our society
and our economy and our politics have been
undermined because we’ve been perpetually at war
since 2001. It’s cost us three trillion dollars in
Iraq and Afghanistan and you write of the
tremendous human toll. You write of an army officer
who was the victim of an I.E.D. explosion in Iraq and
what he had to do just to be able to walk again let along
complete his education. BOB HERBERT: Sure that story
of a young fellow named Dan Berschinski. He
was twenty-four years old, came out of West Point, very
bright guy. He’s a lieutenant in the army, he goes to lead
a platoon in Afghanistan and just one month into his tour as
you point out he steps on an I.E.D. loses both legs,
one is so high up they call it a hip disarticulation.
The doctors told them he was unlikely to ever walk again
even with artificial limbs. His whole goal in life then
shifts to be able to walk and I tell his story as one of the
threads in the book. But we lost thousands of young
people in Iraq and Afghanistan- JIM ZIRIN: Killed and maimed. BOB HERBERT: No thousands
killed, tens of thousands maimed in those wars and
no one even knows, has a real number, how many
Iraqis and Afghans were killed in those wars. And
then you point out there’s the economic toll. I mean
Joe Stiglitz and a colleague at Harvard,
Joe’s at Columbia, a colleague at Harvard named
Linda Bilmes wrote a book called, a few years ago,
called The Three Trillion Dollar War. They
underestimated the cost of the war, they’re now thinking
that it’s at least four or five trillion dollars ultimately
that these wars will cost. Wow, we don’t even pay much
attention to that. We’re not covering, in any
real sense, the young men and women who are being sent
into combat for tour after tour. We don’t discuss in any kind
of significant public way how we’re going to pay the
costs of these wars, which essentially have been put
on a credit card. And the costs of these wars and
the attention that they divert from other important public
issues makes it much more difficult to make the
investments that would make this a stronger and
economically stronger society. JIM ZIRIN: So these wars have
really gone a great distance to undermining the promise of
the American dream. BOB HERBERT: Exactly right. JIM ZIRIN: Now also you tackle
the problem of our decaying infrastructure. I think
Brzezinski said he flew from Beijing to Dulles and it was
like going back forty years in time. What’s to be done
about this? You write of this wonderfully heroic
woman, Mercedes Gordon, who was in a car, went
over the bridge that collapsed in Minneapolis,
I-35W and how she tried to put her life together and
what a tragedy. BOB HERBERT: Yeah this woman,
it’s crazy about Mercedes. She’s got such courage and
such a great sense of humor. She was thirty-two
years old, she was on that I-35 bridge that collapsed
into the Mississippi River, she was horribly
injured. Her car landed on an embankment and slammed
into a retaining wall. So she broke her back, her
legs were crushed and that sort of thing. And so I
chronicle her recovery from this terrible accident
and the reason, the way I got to be introduced to
Mercedes is that I wanted to write about infrastructure
because our infrastructure is in sad shape and if we
were to rebuild it, it would be a great source of good new
jobs but if you think wealth and inequality make people’s
eyes glaze over try writing about infrastructures
and going oh my goodness how am I going to write about
this. So that’s when I decided well I’ll write about the
bridge collapse because it’s a dramatic story. So I got to
Mercedes. But what we don’t know very well because they
don’t really get covered are the number of disasters that
are infrastructure related. JIM ZIRIN: Train wrecks- BOB HERBERT: So train wrecks
and you know our electrical grid is not in good shape so we have
these big storms and then the lights go out. We saw
what happened on the East Coast with Hurricane
Sandy- JIM ZIRIN: Superstorm Sandy. BOB HERBERT: So and our airports
compared to other places are in terrible shape. The
subway system, it’s a remarkable system here in New
York City I can’t imagine what the city would be like without
it but that subway system was made at the turn, was
developed at the turn of the twentieth century. It
hasn’t really been modernized you know. So if
we were to have- JIM ZIRIN: Or adequately looked
after it. You go to Tokyo, as I recently did
and ride the subways I mean you can literally eat
off the floor. BOB HERBERT: Isn’t that
something? JIM ZIRIN: It’s just
unbelievable how well kept it is and why can’t we do that? BOB HERBERT: We could do
that you know. We have to make investments and it’s important
because the politicians talk about spending and they make it
sound like you’re just flushing the money away.
Investments mean that there’s going to be a
payoff down the line. If we made these investments
in infrastructure, the proper investments in
education for example, you would end up with a more
prosperous country. Millions and millions of
individuals and families would benefit. But you
have to think long term in order to do that. JIM ZIRIN: A lot of people have
taken a stab at our educational system. Most notably
Bill Gates has said well we could have smaller schools
and they had a program for that and that didn’t work. BOB HERBERT: We went
down the wrong road on education with these corporate reforms.
You mentioned the Bill Gates smaller schools initiative,
which lasted for several years in the early part of the twenty
first century he thought that the problem with our
high schools were that they were too big so we
turned them into these smaller academies, invested
billions of dollars in that and then it turned out
that that didn’t work. He acknowledged that
it was a failure. And then- JIM ZIRIN: What about
charter schools? BOB HERBERT: We’ve all
seen, charter schools were a good idea to begin with
because they were going to be experimental but
they were supposed to work cooperatively with the
traditional public schools so that when you had experiments
in the charter schools that work you were supposed
to expand it to the system as a whole. Instead what
the corporations have done, and these giant foundations,
is set up charter schools in competition with public schools
so they take resources away from public schools, that’s not
a good, from the traditional public schools because
charter schools are still public schools, that’s not a
good idea. Why do you want to take resources away from
schools that are educating our children? JIM ZIRIN: Well there is
a cap in the city of New York on charter schools and Merryl
Tisch, who is the state chancellor, wants to raise the
cap. So do you agree with her that we should have more
charter schools? BOB HERBERT: No. I think that
we need to stop and take a look at what’s working
with charter schools and what’s not working with
charter schools just so I’m not opposed to charter
schools per se but I don’t want the charter schools-
charter schools in the United States educate only
a very small percentage of the public school
population, something like ninety percent of American
kids go to traditional public schools, not charter
schools. So the idea of heaping all these resources on schools
that only educate a small percentage of the kids doesn’t
seem to make sense to me. So let’s look at the charter
schools, find out the things that are working well that we
could expand and do that and the charter schools that are
not working or that were a bad idea to begin with or
that are going down the wrong roads, close them.
Shut them down. JIM ZIRIN: You are kind of
pessimistic that we can do this through our political
system because you say that’s controlled by the
money class and by large contributions and you
invoke the history of the 1960’s where larger and
larger numbers of people sat in to protest segregation
and they eventually had their day and they won. So what can
we do now to implement some of these reforms
that you advocate? BOB HERBERT: I am discouraged
in terms of looking toward our political leadership to get
us out of the fix that we’re in. I just don’t think that they’re
going to do it, either party, Democrats or Republicans.
I mean everybody who has read my work over the years
know that I’m very liberal in terms of my politics. But I
don’t think the Democrats- JIM ZIRIN: I’m surprised. BOB HERBERT: I don’t think
that the Democrats or the Republicans are going to
get us out of this fix. What I think we need is a
movement bubbling up from below. And I’d like to see
it focused on employment. I think employment is the
most important issue facing our country. If you
have the kind of economy that we have, it’s a capitalist
consumer economy, then people need to have
good jobs in order to have a decent standard of living.
And that’s what we don’t have. If you had a movement that
was focused on the creation, the development of decent
employment for everyone who wants and needs to work, then
the politicians if the movement was large enough and
powerful enough, then the politicians would have no
choice but to pay attention. And my argument in the book
is that in the early days of the civil rights movement people
thought this was pie the sky. They didn’t think that the
country could be changed in the profound ways that we have seen
it change. Same thing in the early days of the labor
movement. Same thing with the women’s movement. I
remember back in the late sixty’s and early
seventy’s the feminists were ridiculed, that’s the
only kind of coverage that they got. People thought
that their behavior was preposterous. Well they
didn’t give up. It was not preposterous. And look how
quality of life for women has changed in this
country over those several decades. So I think that
we need something similar in the area of employment
in this country. JIM ZIRIN: So if you could do
one thing today so that we could find our way in the
twenty first century what would you do? BOB HERBERT: That’s actually
an easy question for me and that is that you need more and
more ordinary people engaged in the important issues of
our time. So we just had a wave election in which
Republicans were very successful but only about thirty
six percent of eligible voters actually bothered to go cast
a ballot. You can’t change a country for the better, I
mean, that’s not even a real democracy. You can’t change
a country for the better if only a little more than a third of
the people are going to vote. JIM ZIRIN: More and
more people engage. BOB HERBERT: People
have to vote and have to become more engaged. JIM ZIRIN: More engaged, that’s
the answer. Bob Herbert, thank you so much. BOB HERBERT: Thanks so much. I
appreciate it. JIM ZIRIN: Just fabulous.
And thank you for coming by. Tune in next week for more
Conversations In The Digital Age. I’m Jim Zirin.
Please visit our website at www.digitalage.org
All the best. ♪ [Theme Music] ♪

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