This week, in an effort to bridge political divides, UC Berkeley played host to a spirited but friendly conversation between two economists well known for their opposing views: UC Berkeley public policy professor and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and Stephen Moore, a visiting fellow from the Institute of Economic Freedom and Opportunity at the Heritage Foundation.
The conversation — co-sponsored by the Office of the Chancellor and the Center on Civility & Democratic Engagement at the Goldman School of Public Policy — is part of a year-long series of conversations centered around free speech taking place on campus.
UC Berkeley Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Paul Alivisatos opened the discussion by stressing the importance of civil and rigorous academic disagreement, as well as the benefits of being exposed to a variety of perspectives.
“This kind of dialogue is important because it allows you to free yourself up from your own certainties,” said Alivisatos. “It’s a way to effectively doubt things without being overwhelmed or incurious.”
Moderating was Goldman School of Public Policy Dean Henry Brady, who lobbed a softball for the opening topic: Is Larry Kudlow — President Trump’s new director of the National Economic Council and former moderator of Reich and Moore’s televised debates on CNBC — handsome?
More serious issues followed, including the role of money in politics, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Trump’s new steel tariffs (and the potential for tariffs on China soon), the 2017 tax bill and the viability of ideas like a universal basic income and government guaranteed jobs.
Frequently, Moore and Reich would agree conceptually but diverge about specifics. For example, both said they believe that money in politics is a problem, but they differed on solutions. Reich favored campaign finance reform, while Moore advocated for smaller government budgets. For both Reich and Moore, however, the proportion of retiring members of Congress becoming lobbyists — 49 percent, according to Moore — was unpalatable.
Moments of levity leavened nuanced discussion of policy. Reich and Moore have faced off on television arguing policy de jour for many years, and familiarity has bred respect.
“I like you,” Reich said to Moore. “I don’t respect you, but I like you.” The line drew laughter from Moore as well as the audience.
There were times when Moore, who advised Trump during the 2016 campaign and meets with the president regularly, occasionally drew murmurs from a crowd of Berkeley citizens and UC Berkeley students when he praised the president or his policies. Reich and Brady, however, were quick steer the conversation back to a place of respect.
For David Brown, a graduate student in chemical engineering, the discussion was refreshing. “It was productive conversation, and that’s something very valuable in this day and age,” said Brown. “Two people being civil about their disagreements in politics is something that we don’t see as much as we should.”
“I certainly have my views, and they were not swayed today,” he continued, “but it’s always productive, I think, to understand someone who you disagree with and get a better understanding of their reasoning or rationale. That’s not something we always get in our cocoons.”
“We’ve come to two of these talks in this [free speech] series,” added Sarah Yang, also a graduate student in chemical engineering. “People often talk about having your views challenged, but to see that represented on stage by people who you really respect and have accomplished amazing things is valuable. Seeing [these kinds of discussions] actively modeled is a special and productive thing.”
More information about upcoming free speech events can be found at freespeech.berkeley.edu.