The Class Warrior, by Heidi Benson, Chronicle: From the pulpit of a lecture
hall ... at UC Berkeley, Robert Reich is preaching about the perils of the
wealth gap. "We haven't experienced inequality on this scale since the 1920s,"
Reich says, eyes flaring. "How much inequality are we willing to accept?"
It's the last lecture of the former secretary of labor's spring Wealth &
Poverty class. ... "Today, I want to talk about leadership," Reich says. A hand
"Flossie, is there something you'd like to say?" he asks. "I'd like to add a
quip from H.L. Mencken," says a woman in her 70s who is auditing the course.
Adjusting her glasses, she reads a passage from the Jazz Age populist: "On some
great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's
desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."
Titters erupt. The attendant majority, all graduate students in their 20s,
exchange knowing looks. That Flossie!
"Thank you for that," Reich says. "When I'm feeing too optimistic, I pick up
my little volume of Mencken, and it always brings me right down."
Everyone knows where Reich stands. He's the guy on the Left. The wry
optimist. As secretary of labor in the Clinton administration from 1992 to 1997,
he implemented the Family and Medical Leave Act and helped raise the minimum
wage. His proudest achievement during that time was "running a tight labor
market," he says. "Income inequality actually started to reduce."
To Reich, it's not enough to identify a problem; solutions can and must be
found. He aims for both...
"It is easier to summon political will when there is some semblance of social
solidarity," he says. Though the nation is divided on many fronts, Reich
believes the challenge can be met. "How do we close the gap between the social
contract and social reality?" he booms. ...
Reich ... argues that while free-market capitalism has ascended worldwide
since the Cold War, democracy has declined. "Since the 1970s, and
notwithstanding three recessions, the United States economy has soared," he
writes. New products are available at increasingly lower prices, and though
health care costs more today, Americans are living longer, thanks to new drugs
and medical technologies. The stock market has soared without spurring
But Reich believes these benefits have come at a cost. "Capitalism has become
more responsive to what we want as individual purchasers of goods," he writes,
"but democracy has grown less responsive to what we want together as citizens."
The seeds for today's income gap were sown, Reich believes, during Ronald
Reagan's two terms as president. That was the birth of what he calls the "rad
con" or radical conservative movement, to which he attributes the loss of
middle-class jobs and government-championed tax cuts that gutted education and
In his view, the frayed social safety net has compromised the cornerstone of
the American dream - economic mobility - which allows the success of each
generation to exceed the last.
"If you are born poor, chances are much greater than they were 30 years ago
that you'll stay poor," Reich says.
But it's not capitalism's fault.
"Capitalism's role is to enlarge the economic pie," he says. "How the slices
are divided - and whether they are applied to private goods like personal
computers or public goods like clean air - is up to society to decide."
The means America has used in the past to temper inequality - including
progressive income taxes, good public schools, trade unions that bargain for
higher wages - have eroded, Reich says. And don't blame corporate executives, as
they're just doing what comes naturally.
Reich calls corporate deal making that depletes jobs or harms the environment
a natural response to competition. "This doesn't make them right," he writes,
"but the only way to make them wrong . . . is to make them illegal. If we want
them to play differently, we have to change the rules."
Citizens, he declares, must demand change at the polls... Reich ...[has a]
theory of "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" - the mechanisms people use to
avoid change: Denial. Escapism. Scapegoating. Cynicism.
"We all use these avoidance mechanisms. They're comforting," he says, "But
cynicism is the most insidious, the one I despair over, because it says, 'If the
system is rigged, I don't have to take responsibility.' "
Here's where leaders make a difference, he insists.
"The job of leadership is to help people overcome denial and cynicism so they
can close the gap between the ideal and reality," he says, citing Martin Luther
King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Rachel Carson - and Al Gore. "Gore is more of a
leader now that he's not an official," he adds. "You don't need formal authority
to be a leader."
Reich's preoccupation with the decline of family income has raised the ire of
conservatives for years. He was accused of "discrediting the Reagan record" by
the National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru in 1995. ...
Reich isn't above hyperbole himself. But in his work ... he aims to do "the
opposite of what Ann Coulter does," he says.
"I hope to offer a reasoned assessment of why I believe what I believe and
invite others to engage in civil discourse," he says. ...
"People ask how I can be so optimistic, and it's a good question since I've
spent half my adult life in government," he says. "But I've seen remarkable
things happen. Who would have said a year ago that the Democrats would be
controlling both houses of Congress?" ...
[I]n the new global marketplace, it is still the well educated and well
connected who will benefit most, he contends. Society must do more to bridge
that gap. "We could modulate it, just as some countries have," he suggests, by
investing in early childhood education, access to college, health care and fair
"I'm called a class warrior for my views," Reich says. "But failure to act on
these trends invites real class warfare." ...