Bill de Blasio talks inequality with Robert Reich

UC Berkeley Professor Robert Reich spoke with New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio on stage at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on May 14, 2015. Photo: Tracey Taylor
“We embody inequality” joked UC Berkeley Professor Robert Reich, making a comment about the height disparity between him and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio on stage at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on May 14, 2015. Photo: Tracey Taylor

“Use your stature” to show leadership on inequality Robert Reich urged New York Mayor Bill de Blasio at the conclusion of a conversation the two of them held in Berkeley today at an event partly sponsored by the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy and the Economic Inequality Media Project.

It wasn’t the only joke the UC Berkeley professor and former U.S. Secretary of Labor — who, unlike de Blasio is not tall — made about the mayor’s height. When the two first appeared on stage at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse at around 12:30 p.m. they linked arms and Reich proclaimed: “We embody inequality!”

Robert Reich and Bill de Blasio. Phot: courtesy Goldman School of Public Policy
Robert Reich and Bill de Blasio. Photo: courtesy Goldman School of Public Policy

The pair sat down to address solutions to income inequality, as well as the future of progressivism. They did that and more, also touching on bipartisan politics, political campaign financing, and Reich’s film, Inequality for All, directed by Jacob Kornbluth, for which de Blasio was full of praise.

In welcoming de Blasio to Berkeley, Reich also made note of the lack of good delis here in comparison with the Big Apple. He then remembered Saul’s in the Gourmet Ghetto, however, and suggested that it did in fact stand up to the best a good deli had to offer.

The mayor, who met with San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee while in the Bay Area, as well as with Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates, spoke of inequality in America being a “profound crisis” that is “not being addressed.” “There is no coherent federal response,” he said. He said this was something he witnessed every day in the city he oversees, as “46% of New Yorkers are at or near the poverty level in New York City.”

He spoke about the importance of a $15 minimum wage as a baseline for an equitable society, the need for progressive taxation, and the adoption of the Buffett Rule to ensure the richest Americans pay a fair share of tax. Asked by Reich about the role of money in politics, he said there needed to be a constitutional amendment to reverse the Citizens United decision.

“We need to reward work not wealth,” de Blasio said during a discussion about the impact of money on policy.

During questions with the audience about housing policies to ensure equality for all — particularly in areas like New York and the Bay Area with their inflated property prices — de Blasio said in his discussions with developers he is willing to say yes to height and density if, in return, he can get satisfactory commitments on affordable housing. Although plans for higher buildings and increased density in Berkeley’s downtown have spurred some vocal opposition, at least a segment of the audience at the Freight applauded de Blasio’s comments.

When Reich asked why de Blasio had chosen to go into politics, the mayor said, like Roosevelt, he found it “energizing to be in the fray,” and described his childhood with a father who became an alcoholic after being seriously wounded at war. He also divulged that his nickname at high school was “Senator Provolone,” a nod to his interest in politics and “obsession” with his Italian heritage.

The event was free and open to the public and, though it was well attended, it was not a full house.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside. Email: