WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Labor Secretary Robert Reich barely touched his breakfast of rolls, orange juice, decaffeinated coffee and fresh fruit. He was too busy talking.
His professorial tone quickened and his eyes flashed their full blue brilliance, as he drew a line of philosophical distinction between his vision for the future and that of the Clinton administration's Capitol Hill archnemesis, House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Mr. Gingrich, a self-described ''conservative futurist,'' demonizes virtually all government domestic programs as ''welfare.'' If government would just get out of the way, his thinking goes, the unfettered market would build robust ''information-age'' industries, helping the jobless and the nervous alike make the leap into full employment and blissful security.
''I think that's rubbish,'' said Secretary Reich. ''I think the major problem is equipping people to survive in that new economy, . . . helping them to get the skills and knowledge, without which they are left stuck at the bottom of the old economy.''
Mr. Reich's talk of ''old economies'' and ''new economies'' sounds remarkably similar to that of Mr. Gingrich. Small wonder. They read many of the same books. One of Mr. Gingrich's oft-quoted gurus, the late W. Edwards Deming, whose quality-oriented management theories guided Japan's post-war recovery, was Mr. Reich's friend.
The speaker and the secretary agree that America is moving from its agricultural and industrial centuries into something like what Gingrich-guru Alvin Toffler calls the ''Third Wave,'' an XTC information age, in which individual success will be determined by one's knowledge and skills about computers and other high-tech advances in the arenas of global investment and trade.
But they disagree sharply on how we ought to get there. One likes government, the other doesn't.
''The real question ought to be, what do we owe each other as members of the same society?'' Mr. Reich said.
Ever since Mr. Reich came into office, he has been preaching about today's three kinds of Americans: The rich, the poor and the anxious. The ''anxious class'' is making it, but barely. These people fear failing to make ends meet. They fear being able to send their children to college. Their adult children fear being able to afford a house comparable to the one in which they grew up. They fear the American Dream is dying on the vine.
Families began feeling the strain in late 1970s. ''Their first coping mechanism'' came, Mr. Reich said, when women entered the work force in greater numbers -- from about 30 percent or less in the '60s to well over half by the '80s -- not simply to enjoy the wonderful world of work, as some anti-feminist cynics contend, but simply to help their families make ends meet.
Mr. Reich maintains we need to close the widening gap between rich and poor that is sending America hurtling deeper into the two-tier society. Workers have coped by working more hours, having smaller families and depending more on savings and debt. When housing prices collapsed in the early '90s, coupled with a steady decline in male employment, many took out their frustration on the Bush administration.
And, now, is it President Clinton's turn? Will the administration that came into office on a mantra of ''change'' be able to get enough of a grip on it to save itself in '96?
Mr. Clinton was elected on two issues above all others, the
economy (Stupid!) and health care, two principal concerns of Mr. Reich's anxious class. Now the economy has been humming along for months, but many Americans remain worried. Their anxieties undermined Mr. Clinton's health-care proposal, sent his approval ratings plummeting and led to the first Republican takeover of Congress in 40 years.
Stimulating as it is to hear Messrs. Reich and Gingrich preach the gospel of the Third Wave, I detect a disconnect. Most Americans remain brain-locked in the Second Wave, hoping nostalgically that those beloved high-paying, low-skilled jobs will come back. Sorry, folks. Those days are gone, along with America's post-World War II monopoly on cheap labor and high-quality merchandise.
Today, the best a worker can do is what my father used to advise: Get some schooling. Those who do not have some kind of training beyond high school have suffered uninterrupted income declines in real, inflation-adjusted dollars since the 1970s and probably will continue to do so.
Helping Americans get those skills should not be a partisan question. Instead of asking what government or business can do without getting in each other's way, we need to find out what both can do together.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.