You spoke at Occupy events here in L.A. and in the Bay Area. What has the Occupy movement accomplished?
"Class" used to be a dirty word in "classless" America, right?
Polls show most Americans today don't believe their children are going to live as well as they do. A large percentage feel the game is rigged against them. Upward mobility is now far more difficult to achieve. So the issue of class has emerged as very real and very tangible. For most of us, the America we knew was one in which anyone could make it with enough gumption and guts and drive. We truly believed that America was a place where there were no class distinctions, although we saw the plight of the poor, particularly poor minorities. What's new is this sense that a relatively small number of people have rigged the game or loaded the dice in such a way that their positions of power and privilege are entrenched.
We think of ourselves as a nation that practices democratic capitalism, but sometimes capitalism and democracy pull in opposite directions.
Essentially, every time the excesses of capitalism threaten to destroy it, we save capitalism from itself. We did it in the Progressive era, we did it in the New Deal, and hopefully we are at least beginning to do it now. Ironically, it's progressives and Democrats who take the lead in saving capitalism from itself.
The question is how bad things have to get before average people begin mobilizing. Sometimes we revert to third parties. Sometimes we take over dominant parties, as the tea partyers have done. Sometimes we make such a ruckus, as we did with civil rights and Vietnam, that we force change. These movements must always start at the grass-roots, and they always start with moral outrage. The tea partyers focus on government, and the Occupiers focus on Wall Street and big corporations. The source of the moral outrage is very similar.
One reason I love teaching so much is that I'm in contact with young people who, most of them, want to change the world.
Is Washington today an impossible nut to crack?
Every time I go to Washington, I'm struck by how many people are there for the right reasons. Most could have an easier life and could make more money doing something else. Most [are] there because they're deeply committed to changing the country.
You and former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson are good friends; what happened to cross-party relationships like that?
Newt Gingrich. When Gingrich came to town as speaker, he brought in a group of people who were far more ideological and frankly unpleasant. The tone of Washington changed abruptly in January of 1995.
When I testified [before Congress as Labor secretary], members of [both parties ] would have good questions. Disagreements would be respectful and friendly. But beginning in January of 1995, I'd be treated very differently. One question I got was "Mr. Secretary, are you a socialist?"'
I had never seen anything like it, and remember, I [came] to Washington in 1967. It was as if a dark cloud had descended over Washington and it's still there. I blame Gingrich -- not entirely, but he led the charge.
You were born in Scranton, Pa., the setting for the mock-workplace TV show "The Office." How does that show look to an economist?
I think "The Office" is very funny. What I take away beyond the humor is the realization that there's as much stupidity and bureaucracy in the private sector is as there is in the public!
The economy we had in the 1950s -- it doesn't look like that will be back in our future.
We can't go backward, but the economy of the 1950s, '60s and early '70s was far more equal, and America grew faster in those years on average than it's grown since. If you look at Germany over the last 10 years, until the past year, you see rapid growth combined with a far more equal distribution of [the] gains and very high wages going to average working people. What's the secret? Two things: Germany has focused intensively on public education, particularly skills that are relevant for the new high-tech world economy; and secondly, Germany has a much stronger labor movement than the United States.
Why hasn't U.S. organized labor been more supportive of Occupy -- evidence the recent protests at West Coast ports that weren't endorsed by unions?
From what I've seen, organized labor has been quite supportive. They're on slightly different wavelengths; Occupiers are in the very early stages of trying to decide their agenda, while organized labor has been with us for a long time.
What will our future economy look like? A shortened workweek, more part-time and temporary jobs, chronic 12% unemployment?
If we don't change the structure of our economy in some important ways, we may end up [there.] But I don't think that's sustainable; I don't think the American public would stand for it. That does not generate political stability.
Americans like the idea of "fairness," a word we're hearing a lot lately. Still, to some people, that sounds like "here they come to pick my pocket."
There's huge skepticism, if not downright cynicism, about any large institution today. Yet the questions being asked are moral questions about what we Americans owe each other as members of the same society, what we should expect from the major institutions of our society, how to reverse trends that seem to reward the wrong people, often for malfeasance or nonfeasance. These are all moral judgments about how lopsided our economy and our society has become.
It's not a "Kumbaya" moment?
The anti-Vietnam War movement, the civil rights movement -- those were not "Kumbaya" moments [either]. Those were hard challenges. A friend of mine was murdered in Mississippi for trying to register voters. This was the opposite of "Kumbaya."
Are you talking about one of the three civil rights workers murdered in 1964?
Mickey Schwerner. I was always very short for my age and older guys help[ed] protect me from the bullies, and Mickey was one of my protectors. When he was killed by the real bullies, it was a transformative experience for me. It opened my eyes to how important it is to give people the power to stop the bullies. I date my commitment to these issues to that summer of '64.
'Tis the season, so, of Charles Dickens' three ghosts, do you have a favorite?
I love them all because I love the idea of Ebenezer Scrooge being haunted and ultimately seeing the light. "A Christmas Carol" is a wonderful metaphor, [but] we have an American metaphor for what's happening now. "It's a Wonderful Life" is the American story. Jimmy Stewart is Everyman; Mr. Potter is the venal and selfish voice, often, of the rich and powerful who do sometimes abuse their power.
We don't want a society that's lopsided in terms of economic gains. We don't want to be cynical. We want to help each other; we are linked together, not just by laws but by social norms. Ayn Rand's view that we're just individuals selfishly seeking our own ends is profoundly wrong. I would take Frank Capra over Ayn Rand any day!
This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Interview archive: latimes.com/pattasks.