A game plan for liberal activists

Monday Book Reviews

June 17, 1991|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun

THE RESURGENT LIBERAL (AND OTHER UNFASHIONABLE PROPHECIES). By Robert B. Reich. Vintage Books. 303 pages. $12.95. IN HIS determination to recover liberalism from its status as political epithet, Robert B. Reich naturally works in a few kidney punches at conservatism. But he is also a sometimes abashed liberal who admits past failings of liberalism and who foresees a future downfall, presumably after a long run at the revival house.

Such self-assessment is what makes Reich's book, "The Resurgent Liberal (And Other Unfashionable Prophecies)," a pragmatic plan for liberals who want to regain control of the ideological conversation.

Reich, a political economist at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, offers a plan to make the economy work well enough to afford greater investments in education, health care, infrastructure and other benefits that are now under some degree of budget constraint. In language that is jaunty and accessible to the reader who wouldn't ordinarily bring an economics book to the beach, Reich explains how the government can shift tax incentives and subsidies to lure investment away from corporate takeovers to high-technology research and production and upgrading of the work force.

But he ducks the debate over social problems -- the cycle of poverty and dependency, the failure of education -- that his revamped economy is supposed to fix. The omission implies that despite the innovation, Reich's new liberalism won't alter the stereotype of liberals throwing money at every problem.

If more money is still the answer, Reich should argue the point. By only assuming it, he leaves doubt about how far liberalism can be recast as pragmatism in the service of "the venerable ideal of equal sacrifice as a core principle of public philosophy."

Sacrifice to what?

Projects of religious and charitable groups, civic clubs and other private institutions more easily lay claim to people's "sacrifice" than do government bureaucracies that always seem to demand more money. Fortunately for liberals who want to win, Reich is vague enough about individual income taxes to avoid causing alarm among the many Americans who believe they pay plenty already.

Rather than enlarge government further, Reich wants to recognize that government is already chest deep in influencing the economy in everything from Pentagon contracts that drive new technology research to tax policies that steer private investment. His task is to improve that role by rearranging incentives.

"Rarely have so few earned so much for doing so little," Reich says of the investment bankers, the "paper entrepreneurs" of corporate buyouts. His disaster tour of a buyout battle -- piled-up debt, enervated research and corporate employees too frightened for their future to be loyal -- argues convincingly that the game must change.

So too must the "techno-nationalism" that inspires America's ritual bashing of Japanese economic success. Despite periodic brandishing of import quotas to shield American industries, Reich says that in the global economy, there is no such national identity to protect.

Rather, the asset that is truly national in his analysis, and which is essential to cultivate, is the human worker. In global markets served by multinational corporations, national distinctions arise not between companies, but between work forces that take part in decisions and innovation, and those that work as drones.

In the manufacture of cars, which Reich says "increasingly are multinational creations," workers in one country making the seat covers and --boards will do more routine work for less money than those in another country who make engines and electronic fuel injectors for the same car. The Japanese, who specialize in these latter tasks, invest in development up front and spin it out ++ in ever-evolving new products and processes. But in American corporate thinking, Reich says, short-term profits dictate buying technology instead.

Reich's ideas are sensible, not quite liberal or conservative. Perhaps that's the point of his strategy for liberals. In the post-Reagan era, as President Bush's gulf war triumphalism papers over the lack of a domestic agenda, conservative and liberal identities each await strategic redefinition.

Good ideas are up for grabs. And Reich knows his team needs them. In the last liberal heyday, Reich says, "America's permissive policies of the 1960s and early 1970s, and the larger failure to define goals and limits . . . did contribute to the growing problems of welfare dependency, inflation and economic drift and Soviet aggression."

And for all his ebullience about the coming liberal resurgence, Reich predicts: "Liberals eventually will display the same grandiosity that got them in trouble the last time. And the cycle will repeat."

Meanwhile, he seems perplexed about how to kick that cycle to its upward swing. He looks for someone who can apply his ideas politically. For this he looks grudgingly at Ronald Reagan, whom he derides at one point as merely "the nation's toastmaster," and envies others who possess a vision that moves people.

A faithful realist, Reich leaves the liberal faithful waiting for Lefty.

Jay Merwin is an Evening Sun reporter.

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