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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.

Anyone can join by signing up at www.RebuildTheDream.com.

A: You emphasize in the book that a mass movement is required to address the needs of working- and middle-class people. How do we keep the energy of Occupy Wall Street and other protest initiatives going and expand their impact? How is the Rebuild the Dream movement connected to other recent protest movements, like OWS and the Tea Party movement?

VJ: Rebuild the Dream is focused on candidates, community-building and campaigns (like cutting student debt and the principal on underwater mortgages). The new book lays out our whole game plan for energizing the movement to empower ordinary people -- "the 99 percent," as folks now say. We have 600,000 online members, and we are in every congressional district. And we are only nine months old!

Let me be clear about something: I am a huge fan of Occupy. But I am not an occupier, and I don't speak for Occupy. I do try to speak UP for Occupy, when they are defamed in the press. But Occupy is an autonomous movement, and many of its members are very sensitive about anyone speaking for it. So I am careful to let that organization speak for itself.

That said, I believe that the broader movement of the "99 percent" is, by definition, much larger than the individuals who make up Occupy Wall Street. In my new book, I make the case that the occupiers- - those brave souls who were actually sleeping outside, attending General Assemblies, actively playing a hands-on role -- probably numbered about 250,000 people nationwide, at the height.

But polls showed that about one third of Americans strongly identified with the concerns raised by the protests. That is about 100 million people. No one group, be it Occupy or Rebuild or anyone else, can claim the exclusive right to speak for all of those people. Only occupiers can speak for Occupy. But all of us fighting against the corporate takeover of America can speak for the 99 percent.

That is why Rebuild is proud to be one of the organizations that is promoting 99% Spring, a mammoth effort to train 100,000 people in non-violent civil disobedience from April 9-15. Other groups like Domestic Workers' Alliance, the New Bottom Line, the NAACP, Moveon, the New Organizing Institute, Green For All, and many more are taking part.

In many ways, I see Occupy as representing the most determined and idealistic fighters, kind of like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee did in the early 1960s. In fact, the SNCC youth "occupied" lunch counters, "occupied" segregated busses and helped people "occupy" voting booths in Mississippi. So the comparison is apt.

Yet the civil rights movement was much bigger than SNCC. And I see the movement of the 99 percent as being much bigger than Occupy. Millions of people oppose the division of America into the rising rich and the falling middle- and working-class. 

A: With a dysfunctional political system and massive corporate powers mobilized against us, can ordinary citizens really make a difference? Does signing a petition or going to rallies solve anything?

VJ: You never know what is going to break through. For example, Molly Katchpole put up a petition on Change.org to tell Bank of America not to slap a $5 a month fee on our debit cards. Nobody thought that small act would amount to much. But the petition went viral, and BofA cried uncle -- forgoing billions of dollars in extra profits. Then Molly put up another petition, telling Verizon not to raise its fees by $5 a month. Verizon folded in 48 hours. She has single-handedly saved Americans billions of dollars, and she did it as an individual. I was so excited when she joined Rebuild the Dream and agreed to help lead our campaign to cut student debt. But you really never know what is going to break through and make a difference.

A: What does the future look like if we don’t address current levels of economic inequality?

VJ: Bleak. After all, there are only two ways to build a middle class. Either you have well-paid manufacturing jobs, or you educate a generation for jobs in the highly skilled knowledge sector. We are doing neither very well.

Free-market fundamentalists won't let us have an industrial policy, to ensure that we have high-quality manufacturing jobs. The corporate elite won't let the rich be taxed sufficiently to pay for massive investments in education and physical infrastructure. So we are essentially throwing a generation of young Americans overboard into the global economy, with no protection and no viable rope to climb up into the middle class. Every fight for the next 10-15 years will be a fight about whether we are going to make the rich pay America back by reinvesting in the country that helped them get rich, or whether we are going to let them build their own little castles and moats, while the rest of the country sinks.

A: Why do you believe so strongly in the American Dream?

VJ: Because it was the dream that sustained my great grandparents, my grandparents and my parents. It is the dream I have for my sons, even now. My community has put too many martyrs in the ground in this country to walk away from the American Dream of opportunity for all. We certainly should not throw an idea like that in the garbage can, just so that the richest people ever born don't have to pay a penny more in taxes. We built this country by pooling our resources and working together, sacrificing for the next generation. At our best, we are a nation of neighbors. I reject Social Darwinism as barbarism. We are either going to turn to each other -- or on each other. Rebuild the Dream is working to create a way for us to work together -- the 99 percent fighting for the 100 percent.
 

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet contributing editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of 'Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.' Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.