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Opportunity for All? Van Jones Discusses His New Book 'Rebuild the Dream'

Van Jones has bold ideas about how to renew hope on Main Street, from sustainable jobs to mortgage relief.
 
 
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We caught up with Van Jones, former special adviser to the Obama White House and long-time activist, to talk about his much-anticipated new book, Rebuild the Dream. Part memoir and part blueprint for an economy that works for the 99 percent, the book analyzes mistakes made by Democrats and presents a vision for how to energize a mass movement to restore the American Dream.

AlterNet: There’s a belief in America that if you're rich, you must be smart and industrious. And on the flip side, if you’re poor, you’re lazy and stupid. Why is this way of thinking so delusional today?

Van Jones: Because the people who are working the hardest are the ones who are falling the furthest behind. And the laziest, most unworthy people are the ones who are getting ahead. The worst folks on Wall Street, who are letting their computers do lightning trades for them half the time, who make profits without making any tangible products, are the ones who are making out like bandits. They get the tax breaks, bailouts and bonuses. They are the real socialists, because they privatize their gains and then socialize the pain.

Meanwhile, honest middle class and working people are putting in more hours and bringing in the same or less money as they did 20 years ago.

A: We want to believe that America is a land of opportunity with a level economic playing field where anyone can make it. Your dad bootstrapped himself up out of a poor neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee to join the Air Force and later build a successful career as an educator. What changed? What’s the single biggest obstacle to the Land of Opportunity dream that today’s young people face?

VJ: It used to be the case that the pathway out of poverty and into the middle class was going to college and buying a home. Today, it turns out that trying to go to college and get a home are the trap doors through which people are falling out of the middle class and into poverty. Massive student debt and underwater mortgages are making a mockery of what is left of the American Dream. The financial sector is sucking every spare penny, nickel and dime out of the pockets and purses of working America. Wall Street is preying on Main Street -- as well as the side streets, back alleys and country roads -- and we have to do something about it.

A: What specific things is your Rebuild the Dream strategy center doing to restore our meritocracy and address the problem of economic inequality? How can people get involved?

VJ: Our long-term goal is to push America's government to play a bigger role in job creation -- through investment in infrastructure, green jobs and education. But it will be awhile before our campaigns create enough jobs to put money INTO people's pockets. So our main fights right now are to keep the financial sector from sucking money OUT of people's pockets.

Specifically, our organization, Rebuild the Dream is working with the New Bottom Line organization to get Fannie and Freddie to reduce the principal on underwater mortgages. Bush administration holdover Ed DeMarco, acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, should reassess the value of America's homes. Doing so would probably save Americans $90 billion. So far, he won't allow Fannie and Freddie to do it. With 25 percent of American houses underwater DeMarco should change his mind -- or change his job.

Our other big fight is to stop Congress from letting the interest rate on subsidized Stafford student loans double from 3.4 to 6.8 percent on July 1. At a time when banks are getting their money for practically free, it makes no sense to make the next generation of struggling students pay through the nose for an education. Such a policy is not just bad for our kids. The next generation of Americans must be educated to compete in a global marketplace; erecting price barriers to education is bad for the country. A victory here could save 8 million students collectively about $20 billion -- and begin to restore American competitiveness for decades to come.