Fingers in the Pie

Book cover
I'll Be Shortby By Robert B. ReichBeacon. 121p $20.

Shakespeare’s Brutus says, There is a tide in the affairs of men,/ Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. It is more than 30 years since Kevin Phillips published The Emerging Republican Majority, accurately forecasting a deep-seated shift of American sentiment toward the conservative end of the political spectrum. Now a growing chorus of voices on the Democratic left is heralding a similar tidal shift in their direction.

Robert B. Reich is a professor of government at Brandeis University, a Washington habitué and secretary of labor during the Clinton administration. His I’ll Be Shorta pun on his five-foot physical statureis a campaign book, published during his recent, and quite respectable, run for the Democratic nomination for the Massachusetts governorship. The essays, however, are clearly Reich’s own, a compact and accessible restatement of themes he has been arguing throughout the years the Left has been wandering in the political wilderness.

Democrats have not been out ofpower, of course, as Reich’s own long cabinet tenure testifies. But with the exception of the abortive health care initiative at the outset of the first Clinton administration, actual Democratic policy behavior, as opposed to its rhetoric, has arguably been to the right of Richard Nixon’s. Nixon, after all, expanded the national welfare program, while Clinton virtually ended it. Nixon did not hesitate to run budget deficits or risk inflation in the pursuit of growth, while Clintonto Wall Street’s delightfocused virtually the whole of the economic machinery on balancing the budget and lowering interest rates.

The incipient shift in sentiment is driven by a growing consciousness of the very unequal distribution of two full decades of sustained economic growth. Every economic quintile, except for the very top one, has seen its share of the national economic pie shrink over the last two decades. Astonishingly, 40 percent of all income growth since 1980 has been captured by just the top 1 percent of American families. The emergence of a new generation of malefactors of great wealth in the persons of the executives of Tyco, Enron, Worldcom, Qwest and many others is the stuff that stirs populist upheavals.

Reich wants a return to the three simple principles of what he calls the American social contract: that companies share their economic gains fairly between employees, their community and shareholders; that decent social insurance is available for those who can’t work; that everyone has the opportunity for a decent education.

Those sound like a fairly modest platformall of it would resonate comfortably at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, for instance. But it is strikingly at variance with how the country and its businesses have actually been operating for quite a long time now. Managers like Chainsaw Al Dunlapwho is now facing indictment for accounting fraudwere paid oceans of money for laying off tens of thousands of workers, stripping the assets of pension plans and destroying any vestiges of the corporate safety nets that had been set up through the 1950’s and the 1960’s.

The fabled flexibility of the American workforceits ability to shift rapidly into the highest-productivity economic sectorshas been a major factor in avoiding the prolonged stagnation that has afflicted countries like Germany and Japan. But the flexibility has mostly been purchased out of the hides of workers. Wages have been flat or falling in real terms for years, so most families need two earners just to stay even. Pensions have long since shifted to self-pay 401(k) plans. Health care is no longer a standard benefit at lower-tier companies.

In similar fashion, even as the economic returns of higher education have been rising dramatically, the best schools are inaccessible to any youngster whose parents can’t afford S.A.T coaching sessions, or perhaps a psychological certificate for special test-taking facilities. At the same time, public school education for the poorest children, by common consensus, gets steadily worse. With Republicans trying to privatize Social Security and even Democrats bragging about ending welfare as we know it, the social safety net is more than a little frayed.

Long ago Arthur M. Schlesinger pointed to the long swings between the competing objectives of efficiency and equality that have always marked American social policy. Very rapid growth in the post-Civil War period was followed by decades of massive investment in schools, public transportation and public health. Rip-roaring growth during the war years and through the 1920’s was followed by a shift to social provision in the 1930’s and again in the 1950’s. But by the 1970’s, the American economy was clearly losing its way, becoming a hapless laughingstock among the great powers. The 20-year correction that has followed now seems to have run its course, and considerably beyond. A shift of national focus back to the concerns so cogently expressed in Reich’s small book is long overdue.

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