A Top Neo-liberal Turns To Pro-labor Populism

The Argument

A Trend? Robert Reich, Once Clinton's Champion Of Uplift Policies, Embraces Big Government, Big Labor.

April 27, 1997|By David Kusnet | David Kusnet,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In "Primary Colors," journalist Joe Klein's Anonymous novel of the 1992 presidential campaign, the character based on Bill Clinton addresses New Hampshire shipyard workers in their union hall. Wounded by alleged sex scandals, he is emboldened to utter what Klein clearly believes are difficult truths:

"No politician can bring these shipyard jobs back. Or make your union strong again ... Because we're living in a new world, a world without borders - economically, that is. Guy can push a button in New York and move a billion dollars to Tokyo before you can blink ...

"Muscle jobs are gonna go where muscle labor is cheap - and that's not here. So if you all want to compete and do better, you're gonna have to exercise a different set of muscles, the ones behind your ears. ... This whole country is gonna have to go back to school."

This analysis isn't Klein's or even Clinton's. It's a simplified version of the views of political economist Robert Reich, who served as labor secretary during Clinton's first term.

Reich's viewpoint - or at least this crude summary - is conventional wisdom from mainstream pundits to moderates from both parties. And it still captivates Clinton, whose sole surviving domestic initiative is appealing to the states to raise educational standards.

But now Reich himself has repudiated the elite's easy assumption that there's nothing wrong with the condition of working Americans that more training can't cure. Instead, Reich, who was one of the first neo-liberals, embraces ideas more often associated with pro-labor populists. He writes that, in addition to opportunities for education and training, working Americans need strong institutions in their corner, from activist government to a revived union movement.

Reich unlocks his new views on page 280 of "Locked in the Cabinet," his lively memoir of his years with Clinton (Knopf, 388 pages, $25). After addressing a labor rally against sweatshops in New York's garment district, he concludes: "I came to Washington thinking the answer was simply to provide people in the bottom half with access to the education and skills they need to qualify for better jobs. But it's more than that. Without power, they can't get ... safe workplaces, maintain a livable minimum wage, or prevent sweatshops from re-emerging."

This memoir is valuable for reasons beyond those for which it is being - deservedly - praised. Yes, it is an engaging account of how Reich's proposed public investments, especially education and training, were mostly scuttled by Clinton, under pressure from the bond market, banking interests and budget hawks. And, yes, it has hilarious anecdotes, such as the drug test he had to take in a basement bathroom at the Labor Department and a "Tonight Show" appearance where comedian Dana Carvey first razzed Reich, then groveled before him.

But it is most valuable for revealing how one of the liveliest minds of our times responds to the decade of downsizing. Insiders saw Reich's views evolving in his Labor Day speeches, from 1993, when he criticized NAFTA foes for practicing "the politics of preservation," to 1994, when he sympathized with "the anxious class" whose wages were frozen even during an economic recovery. Now, the reading public can see how a close Clinton confidant and confirmed free-trader eloquently argues that attention must be paid to those who have been cast adrift by the new economy.

In seven books since the early '80s, Reich's views have kept evolving, but his purpose is commendably consistent: re-establishing the link between economic prosperity and social justice.

In 1982, in "Minding America's Business," co-written with Ira Magaziner, the architect of Clinton's ill-fated health plan, Reich advocated "industrial policy." He favored what he later called "a partnership between American business and government which would hasten the movement of capital and labor into the industries of the future, and ease the adjustment out of older industries." He offered similar views in "The Next American Frontier," "Tales of a New America" and "The Resurgent Liberal."

Defining irrelevancy

Then, in 1991, in "The Work of Nations," Reich presented the views with which he is most closely identified. Industrial policy had "become irrelevant" because American companies had gone global, abandoning their commitments to workforces, communities and consumer markets in this country. Footloose multinational investment seeks the areas with the most skilled workers. The winners are the talented 20 percent of the workforce Reich called "symbolic analysts" - computer specialists, media experts, architects, executives, engineers and other well-educated professionals and managers. And the best way for government to promote prosperity is to invest in education and training for young people and mature workers.

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