Miami Book Fair

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich: ‘As income and wealth go to the top, so does power’

Robert Reich speaks at the Miami Book Fair International on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015.
Robert Reich speaks at the Miami Book Fair International on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. cogle@miamiherald.com

Novelist Jane Smiley and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich didn’t appear together Monday night at Miami Book Fair, but in some ways they were simpatico, both talking about economics and politics and American lives past and present. The main difference was Smiley didn’t elicit the loud whooping that Reich did, though that may be because she name-dropped William Shakespeare instead of Bernie Sanders.

Smiley read passages from all three novels in her epic Last Hundred Years trilogy — Some Luck, Early Warning and Golden Age — which track the generations of a large Iowa farm family, starting in the 1920s and winding up a few years in the future.

“All novels are political,” she said. “And if I’m going to write about the last 100 years, I have to acknowledge the political.”

Smiley’s characters grapple with major events in history — World War II, Vietnam,  9/11 — and because part of the family stays on the farm, climate change and environmental concerns play a big part of the story. As for how she makes her characters come alive: “I’m a terrific eavesdropper,” she admits.

She also said she wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, based loosely on King Lear, because “I spent years reading King Lear and not liking it because it didn’t tell Goneril and Regan’s story.”

The dry, amusing Reich, author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and 13 other books, made his way on stage to loud applause (it would grow louder once the friend of Hillary Clinton admitted he liked some of the policies of presidential candidate Sanders). He assured the audience that “I am not a class warrior; I am a class worrier.”

He talked about economics, of course but also asked the clearly partisan audience to consider power —and who has it.

“As income and wealth go to the top, so does power,” he said.

Reich, who worked in the Clinton administration and is now Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California Berkeley, talked about mythologies that separate ideologies, such as what he believes is a false pitting of the free market against government: “You can’t have a market without a government.” In his mind, a better question is: “Who is the government for?”

As he’s been out on his book tour, Reich said he has made a point of visiting red states and talking to conservatives about their issues with the economy, and he urged the audience to do the same. Those conversations have left him optimistic about the future.

“There was an extraordinary overlap on economic issues,” he said.

Tuesday at the fair

7 p.m.: World’s Smallest Poetry Reading: An O, Miami Party, The Swamp, Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave.

8 p.m: Jeanette Winterson, Chapman Conference Center, Miami Dade College; $15; miamibookfair.com

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