[URJBiennial] Plenary: Robert Heller and Rabbi Michael Melchior
[URJBiennial] How Can Reform Jews Encounter God?

[URJBiennial] Plenary: Robert Reich

[Excerpts -- almost a full transcript, but I missed a few sentences here and there -- from former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich's speech during the Thursday afternoon plenary session.]

"Politics comes from the Latin. 'Poli,' meaning many, and 'tics,' small blood-sucking insects." [laughter]

"The economy...depends on choices that we make. I want to talk about the economy in the context of choice, and in the context of morality. Public discourse these days is controlled by people who have a very constrained vision of morality. They're concerned with the morality of what people do in their bedrooms, but not in our boardrooms! or in the coatrooms of Congress. Public morality is where we need to center the public discourse."

"We're living in an economy in which the richest one percent owns as much as the bottom ninety percent put together. We have not seen this degree of inequality of income and wealth and opportunity since the 1920s. By some measures, it was the last decades of the 19th century, the era of the robber barons. I have nothing against people who own so much; but we also have a huge number of people who are poor, or near poverty, or holding on barely to the working class, and are in very grave danger...last year a million more Americans fell into poverty than the year before."

"We have in this country right now 45 million Americans who don't have health insurance. When Bill Clinton tried to get health care on the agenda there were 37 million. The percentage of our people in trouble, or near trouble, are skyrocketing. We face moral choices relating to our economy -- for example, who bears the burden of taxation... We can grow the economy by investing in people, in their education, in job creation. And yet, we are failing to do that."

"In the global economy we can be a leader in terms of creating economic opportunities around the world... Now we are regarded as the world's bully. I can't tell you how many people I meet around the world who say to me, 'What happened to the United States? It used to be such a moral beacon.' How can we talk about human rights given what we're doing to those people in Guantanamo, what we're doing around the world? We have no standing to talk about human rights when this is going on!"

"And yet we can be a beacon of opportunity and hope and light and human rights around the world. We can. These are social choices, choices we make as a society. Every society operates according to an implicit social compact. It's not written down in the Constitution, often it's not written down in laws, but here in the United States our social compact has stood at the very least for three principles. Polls and focus groups show that most Americans believe in these. Number one: if you work hard, your family and you are going to be out of poverty. That was a principle on which we based many of our policies in the 20th century. And yet today we face the problem of what ought to be an oxymoron: the working poor. They work forty or fifty hours a week and yet they and their families are still poor. That ought not be."

"The second principle out of three that most people in our culture and our society agree with is: if you are working hard and you are working for a company and the company is profitable and the profits increase, then your wages and benefits ought to increase as well... Now we have company after company showing great profits, good returns on investments, and yet those companies are reducing pay and benefits, they are cutting payrolls, they are making their employees less secure, while the CEOs are earning five hundred times the average wage of American workers. That is not just. That is not responsible. That is not the society we want to live in."

"And third and finally, our view has been that if you don't work and cannot find work, because of no fault of your own, either because of ill health or bad luck -- if you cannot work, you have a safety net so that you do not fall through the cracks and into poverty. We had a safety net in this country, but now that safety net is in tatters."

"Much of the evolution we've seen over the past 35 years is not solely because of globalization and technological change... Though tech changes have changed our workforce: remember telephone operators? gas station attendants? When in order to make a bank deposit, you had to deal with an actual person? -- Those people are now working in the service sector, and those are jobs that don't have benefits attached to them. ...We should not be economic fatalists or determinists. We have in the past changed the face of our economy and society. And that's where politics comes in."

"It is important for each of us to be charitable and to be good. That is a moral tenet that I, and you, deeply believe in. But we also believe in a quality called social justice. That has to do with social choices about how we will be organized in our society and vis-a-vis the rest of the world."

"Politics is the applied form of democracy. If we give up on politics, we give up on democracy...and on our capacity to be a socially-just nation in a socially-just world."

"We Jews have a special responsibility with regard to not only being personally charitable, but also working diligently and passionately for social justice.... We have got to be evangelical in our society about the purpose and the critical importance of social justice in our society! These are questions of profound public morality. The world is changing. There is change in America right now! People are catching on; they're understanding how socially unjust things are, in places you would never have imagined. You and I, today, we're talking about these things in the George Bush ballroom!" [laughter]

"I salute you for everything you have done, and everything you will do. For everything you will pass on to your children and grandchildren. Thank you, and God bless."

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