Influencers with Andy Serwer: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

In this episode of Influencers, Andy heads to the Bronx for an exclusive sit-down with New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, as she shares her thoughts on capitalism, the broader U.S. economy, and the story of how she became known as ‘AOC’.

Video Transcript

- In this episode of Influencers, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Capitalism at its core, what we're talking about when we talk about that is the absolute pursuit of profit at all human, environmental, and social cost. A lot of these price increases are potentially due to just straight price gouging by corporations. If we just allow a full just continuation of student loan payments, we are talking about a catastrophic development for millions.


ANDY SERWER: Hello, everyone and welcome to Influencers. I'm Andy Serwer. And welcome to our guest, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Representative, nice to see you.

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Thank you. Thank you so much.

ANDY SERWER: I know you want to talk about student debt and some other issues as well. But before we get to that, I want to ask you about inflation and interest rates and Fed Chair Powell, who recently said that the strong labor market made it appropriate for him to soon raise interest rates. I wonder what your take on that is.

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, you know, I think particularly when we have this conversation in the context of inflation as well, it's really not just labor, it's not just rising wages, but there's a lot of different dynamics that I think are contributing to the increase in prices, whether it's supply chain complications-- yes, labor issues, but sometimes lack of labor, a lack of the ability to be able to work consistently in their jobs, which is also tied to pandemic controls. And also, there's a real distinction to be made between inflation and price gouging. And there's a lot of evidence that particularly industries with high corporate concentrations, whether it's almost oligopoly-level industries, a lot of these price increases are potentially due to just straight price gouging by corporations.

ANDY SERWER: Are you concerned about inflation and higher interest rates and the impact on working people?

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: I mean, wherever prices are increasing and it's making it difficult for someone to be able to feed their family, that is always going to be a major point of concern and primary point of concern. But the real key is making sure that we're diagnosing the causes correctly because the danger here is that if we say we're helping working people too much and say that the cause of this is, oh, it's because we provided too much assistance during the American Rescue Plan, stimulus checks were too generous, that is why we are dealing with the problems that we're dealing with now, what that's going to result in is a pullback in the assistance that some families need the most right now.

And when we already talk about the cessation of the child tax credit with the failure to pass the Build Back Better Act before the end of last year, we really need to be very careful about diagnosing these issues correctly because on the flip side of that coin, if we say, there are real antitrust issues here, there's a lot of corporate abuse of power leading to price gouging, then that allows us to pursue lanes such as antitrust and also pursue labor protections, COVID protections that can help people get back into the workplace and stay safe in the workplace.

ANDY SERWER: Right. And so you are seeing those who are suggesting that it's because of the assistance that people had during COVID that that's inflationary and therefore we need to swing the pendulum back.

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Yeah. And I couldn't disagree more. I couldn't disagree more with that assessment.

ANDY SERWER: Student loan debt. And I know you've called repeatedly for President Biden to forgive student loan debt. Why hasn't that happened? And what do you think will happen if the pause that exists presently is allowed to lapse?

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, I cannot understate the danger and the risk economically, politically, and just where we are right now as a country of allowing the moratorium on student loan payments to lapse in May. If we just allow a full just continuation of student loan payments, we are talking about a catastrophic development for millions, the over almost 50 million student loan borrowers in this country. There were millions of student loan borrowers that were already defaulting going into the pandemic.

But more than that, we are at such a delicate point in the financial and just general economic recovery post-COVID that to then restart payments that are essentially the size of a mortgage payment, sometimes even larger, on a generation that was already so devastated, not just by this, but the recession, et cetera, I believe it could throw out of balance already what is a very fragile recovery. And not only that, but this forgiveness is-- I mean, forgiveness is the just thing to do. It's the right thing to do. Why the President hasn't done it yet, I'm not sure. But I do think that this is an issue of increasing urgency. He has already indicated an openness to it. And he has actually already used his authority to forgive student loan debt in certain small, very narrow cases.

ANDY SERWER: Because there are people who suggest he doesn't have the authority. Is that a legitimate argument? Or just maybe a smokescreen?

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: I don't think it's a legitimate argument. In fact, we've seen him use the same legal authority that the President has used to suspend student loan payments is the same authority that he would use to cancel them. And not only that, but he has used that authority. He has indicated a willingness to use the authority. And I think that it would be extraordinarily important and urgent for him to do so.

ANDY SERWER: And what about the argument that it's a moral hazard? In other words, you're letting people off the hook by forgiving the debt.

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, what I think is the true moral hazard here is the surging costs of education in the United States. What has actually created the moral hazard is this guarantee of saying we will issue minors hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt at almost any level with almost no limit. And we will allow colleges and universities to dramatically increase the costs of their tuition with the guarantee of that loan value on 17-year-olds.

So what is the actual true moral hazard here in the situation is the controls on the cost of education in the United States. And one very important control in this to that note is tuition-free public colleges and universities because then what that does is that it introduces competition into the market to which private universities have to actually meet a lower baseline. But people act as though it's just fancy public schools that are extremely expensive now. But public college tuition has also increased dramatically far beyond the pace of inflation.

ANDY SERWER: Shifting gears a little bit. You have a huge social media following, obviously, and a big platform. Have you been either surprised by how much or how little influence that affords you in Congress? In other words, how does that translate, representative?

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: That's an interesting question. The way that I've thought about it, first going into office, and then continuing, is that, in Washington, there are a lot of different sources of power. There are some members who have extraordinary connections to different power players, different power centers that are very well connected and networked. There are other individuals who are very, frankly, financially connected. Industry, lobbyists, corporations throw their weight and donate and give their influence, their lobbyists, et cetera throw an enormous amount of their support behind other members of Congress.

So every single member kind of has their assets that they lean on. And for me, I decided early on, because I don't accept money from corporations, I do not take meetings with lobbyists, I am not well connected, I don't come from a well-connected family or community or anything like that, that my ability to navigate and advocate is going to have to be squarely rooted in relying on everyday people and their support and my ability to communicate with them what is going on in Washington.

ANDY SERWER: It's an interesting perspective. You self-identify as a Democratic socialist and have called capitalism irredeemable, I believe. But what does that really mean? And does that mean capitalism should be eliminated? And are your views compatible with capitalism?

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, I believe that in a broad sense-- because when we toss out these big words, capitalism, socialism, they get sensationalized. And people translate them into meaning things that perhaps they don't mean. So to me, capitalism at its core, what we're talking about when we talk about that is the absolute pursuit of profit at all human, environmental, and social cost. That is what we're really discussing.

And what we're also discussing is the ability for a very small group of actual capitalists, and that is people who have so much money that their money makes money and they don't have to work, and they can control industry, they can control our energy sources, they can control our labor, they can control massive markets, that they dictate and can capture governments, and they it can essentially have power over the many. And to me, that is not a redeemable system for us to be able to participate in for the prosperity and peace for the vast majority of people.

ANDY SERWER: So people talk about stakeholder capitalism, like Larry Fink at BlackRock, where the weighting for different constituents besides shareholders is more equal. Is that something you'd be amenable to?

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, I think at the end of the day, it is about who has control over the very core assets of production and society. If it ultimately comes down to a billionaire, or the Koch brothers, or the Koch family having control over the vast majority or large plurality of our oil assets in the United States, if it's a handful of very wealthy families having control over-- private families having control over means of production, that is essentially the capitalist system that we live in. It is a small group that is of privatized control over what we eat and how we fuel our society.

Now, where we can transition to-- and there are certain ideas where we're talking about-- for example, Elizabeth Warren has discussed workers being elected to the governing boards of companies. And also, we're here in the Bronx. I represent a community that has the largest concentration of worker cooperatives in-- one of the largest concentrations in the world.

Now, these are all alternative ways of doing business. Free markets are not the same thing as capitalism. And you can have markets where businesses and ways of producing, trading, selling goods are really controlled, and not just controlled, but given more power to workers. People get a fair shake. Union jobs. Unionized workplaces. All of these are different steps and levels that we're talking about in a more just economy.

ANDY SERWER: Congresspeople trading stocks. You have come out calling for a ban here. And I wonder-- and there seems to be some momentum. But I wonder why this seems to be such a difficult thing to pass? And is Speaker Pelosi a roadblock here?

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, it's not it's not really a mystery to me why it's difficult to pass. An enormous amount-- I wouldn't be surprised if it was a majority of members of Congress hold and trade individual stock. I don't know the actual numbers. But it is a very large degree. And the key here is that it's not to say that you can't have a retirement fund or a college savings account--

ANDY SERWER: Or a blind trust.

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: A blind trust, a mutual fund, an index fund. These are vehicles of investments that are broad that individual members of Congress don't have direct control over. But even last year, there was at least 75 members of Congress that held individual stock in Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer. And we're talking about in the last one to two years. And so that is where we should be drawing the line.

I am a member of Congress. Members of Congress have access to very sensitive security clearances. We have access to very detailed tailored briefs. Our job is to try to anticipate and legislate for what we see as coming. And we should not have the ability to both have access to that information and be able to hold and trade individual stock. And that's really what this is about. It's about our ability to direct and hold trades in individual stock with access to the sensitive information that the public has given us.

ANDY SERWER: Voting rights reform. Is that a dead issue? It's tied to the filibuster. Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema have come out against it. What is your take on where that stands?

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: This is I think one of the top-level questions and issues that we have before us in Congress. I very much believe that we are at the precipice of a return to Jim Crow style laws across the country. We are already seeing these wheels in motion. Attempts in Texas and Georgia and across many different states. Attempts at voter suppression. And, frankly, what Senators Manchin and Sinema fail to recognize and what is disappointing and sad to see is how ahistoric their stances have been throughout this debate. Ahistoric on the roots of the filibuster, ahistoric about the idea that voting rights requires bipartisan consensus when the right to vote for Black Americans was passed on a partisan basis.

And I truly wonder what their answer to the question would if they would say-- if you were back in 1965, does this mean you would have voted against the Voting Rights Act because we're in the same situation today. And if they are holding their standards today that they are expressing today back to 1965, it means they would have voted against the Voting Rights Act. And is that their stance today? And I believe the public deserves to know that.

ANDY SERWER: Another potential battle front, the Supreme Court, with Justice Breyer announcing his retirement. The President has said he wants to appoint a woman of color, a Black woman, I believe, specifically. What else would you look for in this justice?

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Now, I appreciate that question because identity is just the starting step when we are discussing a Supreme Court justice. There is no shortage of incredible, qualified, leading Black female candidates to serve on the Supreme Court. But the question is, what is going to be that nominee's worldview and what I hope is that what we see is a nominee that is truly rooted in not just public service, but with a protection towards the very rights that, frankly, have been eroded over the last, not just 2, 3, 5 years, but the last 10 years. What their stance on something like Citizens United would be. What their stance would be on expanding the right to vote. I mean, these are central questions about our democracy, both in the financial capture of our democracy, but also the racial injustice capture of an erosion of our democracy as well.

ANDY SERWER: You've had a chance to grill billionaires and CEOs in Congress like Jamie Dimon, Mark Zuckerberg. How do you prepare for those sessions? And are you satisfied with the outcome because there are some people who suggest it's all theater-- or not all theater. But there's a big element of theater here.

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, I think it depends on how any individual member uses their line of question. You can certainly go up and like express your view to your witness. And there is inherent value in that. I believe there's inherent value in many different ways of using your time. I tend to think that a hearing can have a lot of different purposes. One is that they can be investigatory. And so some folks may say, OK, the hearing's over, but nothing, quote, unquote happened, legislation or et cetera.

But sometimes we hold these hearings for investigatory purposes. And what we're really doing is building a case over months and sometimes even years to pursue action down the line. And so hearings can be part of a long game. It can also expose potentially explosive information. And so what we're seeing, for example, with my questioning of Mark Zuckerberg, when I asked him specifically about some of his conversations with Peter Thiel is that in the months since that hearing there have been investigations, subpoenas in courts, both in the United States and abroad, that are starting to highlight that perhaps he wasn't as forthright with information in that hearing now-- that we see that now than there were at that time.

And so sometimes when we play this long game, it's important because these investigations really contribute to very large-scale stories that we're able to uncover and then act on down the line as well. But these hearings are intended for the public. And sometimes they are meant to enact legislation, which does happen. But sometimes they are also meant to uncover information for other areas of the public to use, whether it's journalists, whether it's the public, whether it's the courts, et cetera.

ANDY SERWER: Speaking of the long game and Mark Zuckerberg, what is your ultimate objective when it comes to those big tech companies, representative?

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, when you look at a company like Facebook-- you can't kind of put them all in the same boat. They do different things. But when you look at a company like Facebook and the completely corrosive ways that they have exercised an abuse, I believe, in civil society writ large, not just our democracies, but you look at, for example, what we're hearing from other countries when we talk about production of vaccines or perhaps like what we can do to export help them.

There are some things that the United States provide that are welcome. There's also things that we want the United States to stop exporting. And one of those things is disinformation. And disinformation through US-founded companies like Facebook that have absolutely slowed and frankly sabotaged the global effort to fight against the coronavirus.

And we see this disinformation used both in the public health sphere. We've also seen social scientists have truly shown the impact that Facebook has had in contributing to social violence and perhaps even accelerating large scale very dangerous, and some would call genocidal, activities in places like South Asia, et cetera, human rights abuses, and also hate here at home.

ANDY SERWER: But I'm curious what do you think we should do about them, or what we should do to them, I guess.

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Facebook should be broken up. We should pursue antitrust activity on Facebook. And there are so many different reasons why. They are acting as an advertiser. They are acting as both platform and vendor. They are a communications platform, which has historically been a well-established domain of antitrust. And so because they are so many businesses and industries in one, the case is, I believe, right there in and of itself as to why they should be subject to antitrust activity.

ANDY SERWER: I want to ask a couple of personal questions about you. I'm teaching at Columbia this semester. And one of my students, Penny Ramirez Fernandez, wanted me to ask you, how did being a waitress help you understand the American economy as successes and failures?

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Well, I mean, I believe that my time as a waitress is the most politically formative experience that I had. It's that along with just growing up in a working class family, experiencing just the ravages of the Great Recession, almost losing our home, all of that, but particularly the years that I spent working in restaurants. The thing about restaurants is that it really is such a crucible of so many different public policies. I worked alongside undocumented workers. I didn't have health insurance. I tried to buy Obamacare, the ACA, Affordable Care Act.

I actually used and relied on the policies that were coming out of Washington. And I worked. I was a Senate intern back in college. I got an economics degree. I worked in public policy spaces. I also had worked for non-profits. There is a ocean of a difference between the white papers and the policy you see on paper and how it's experienced by everyday people. And unless you actually go on to the exchange and try to buy health care for yourself and use that health care and understand how it's serving you and how it's not serving you, it's very difficult to understand why so many people are frustrated by otherwise well-meaning sometimes Democratic policy.

ANDY SERWER: As a former dishwasher, I can relate. So I want to ask you maybe a kind of funny question about the moniker AOC.


ANDY SERWER: So is that what your friends and family call you? Or when did that sort of evolve? When did you become AOC?

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: I actually think-- it's funny enough. AOC really emerged after I won my primary. And I think there were a lot of pundits on television that were kind of like stumbling because my name is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And it was the news story after I won my primary, it was so sudden. And there were just all these folks on TV that I think were kind of like struggling to say my name that it actually started coming from TV. And so in the past, there were some folks that would sometimes say it like jokingly. But it was never a nickname that stuck. But I think it actually kind of came from media pretty overnight. But my friends don't call me that. The folks that I organize with--

ANDY SERWER: Do they call you Alexandria?

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: They'll call me Alexandria. Or they'll call me Alex. My friends will call me Alex. But, yeah. It's shorthand. But I now embrace it, welcome it, accept it.

ANDY SERWER: And final question-- maybe it's too early in your career to ask this, but I'm going to ask anyway. How do you see your legacy going forward?

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: I always feel like-- I actually think that it is important for young people to ask themselves questions of legacy very early. And I think the reason that that's important is because we shouldn't root our legacy in a position, or a job, or a role, but we should really root it in a mission of what we want to do qualitatively and how we want to be remembered. And I don't think it's ever too early to consider that because it helps us make decisions. It helps us root us in our values and our morals.

And I just hope that for me, what I do, and what my community understands, and receives, and feels from me as their representative is someone that always puts the people of this country first, that doesn't allow herself to be dissuaded or distracted by power, influence, et cetera, and that we are dissuaded, and relentless, and honest, and authentic in our pursuit for a better world, and that in that pursuit we just tell it as it is and try to do everything we can in every moment that we can. And I think that's pretty much it.

ANDY SERWER: That's it. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, thank you so much for your time.

ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Of course. Thank you so much.

ANDY SERWER: You've been watching Influencers. I'm Andy Serwer. We'll see you next time.