Liberal luminary, UC-Berkeley professor, author, former Secretary of Labor, and on and on, Robert Reich, put out a new book named The Common Good. I am very interested based on the title and the promotional wording. In this blog, I share a bit about it, but more importantly I share some thoughts Reich has about why he is optimistic about America’s future. Optimism is not a feeling/stance I can get to every day in these times, but let’s see what case he can make.
First, the book. Here is the promotional copy. It sounds wonderful:
With the warmth and lucidity that have made him one of our most important public voices, Robert Reich makes the case for a generous, inclusive understanding of the American project, centering on the moral obligations of citizenship. Rooting his argument in everyday reality and common sense, Reich demonstrates the existence of a common good, and argues that it is this that defines a society or a nation.
Societies and nations undergo virtuous cycles that reinforce and build the common good, as well as vicious cycles that undermine it. Over the course of the past five decades, Robert Reich contends, America has been in a slowly accelerating vicious cycle–one that can and must be reversed. But first we need to weigh what really matters, and how we as a country should relate to honor, shame, patriotism, truth, and the meaning of leadership.
Powerful, urgent, and utterly vital, this is a heartfelt missive from one of our foremost political thinkers: a fundamental statement about the purpose of society and a cri de coeur to save America’s soul.
That’s definitely optimistic! It is true we have been in a downward cycle socially, ethically, politically, and even economically (since the gains post-Recession have mostly gone to the top 1%). I can appreciate the point of view that it’s not all doom and gloom. Either Robert Reich is characterologically more positive and hopeful than I am, or he has been alive a lot longer, seen a lot more, and is more intelligent than yours truly. Either way, what are his reasons for this optimism about America’s future?
First, Robert Reich thinks the kids today are quite remarkable. He points to the school safety/gun control movement taking place both in Florida and around the country following the latest, serious massacre by a lone gunman. It shows commitment, moxie, and a willingness to risk. He also notes that college students nowadays, based on his wide experience, are notably committed and determined to make their generation better than what the Baby Boomers and Gen X have been able to accomplish. I think he agrees with me that those groups pretty well screwed some significant things up. Perhaps the youth of today will get their act together.
“One visit to youthactivismproject.org is all it will take to renew your faith in today’s youth. In every social arena, there are young teens involved in projects that are raising the consciousness of the American public, calling for corporations to be environmentally accountable, drawing attention to issues that affect us all. They often create entertaining and informative videos that not only inform the community about a social problem, but inspire other youth to become engaged as well.” ~ Jan Phillips & Ruth Westreich
“Just look at the Harry Potter phenomenon. Not so long ago, conventional wisdom pronounced reading dead among the young. Books were too boring, too slow for a generation raised on Playstation. But J. K. Rowling has changed all that. These days, millions of kids all over the world devour her novels, the latest of which weighs in at a hefty 766 pages” is how author Carl Honore reflects on the current generation.
Liberal education proponent and influential historian Fareed Zakaria has this to say about today’s youth: “As a result, our youth are not very ideological. They combine a mix of impulses – capitalist, socially liberal, supportive of social welfare, but uncomfortable with bureaucracy and regulation. It doesn’t quite add up to a passionate political philosophy. And certainly, it doesn’t take them to the barricades. Our age is defined by capitalism, globalization, and technology. The trends changing life comes from those forces…. The icons of the age are entrepreneurs, technologists, and businesspeople. …The young reflect today’s realities. Their lives are more involved with these economic and technological forces than with identity and geopolitics.” I suppose that is a good thing.
“The old begin to complain of the conduct of the young when they themselves are no longer able to set a bad example.” ~ Francois, Duc de La Rochefoucauld
Second, Robert Reich is optimistic because of the grassroots response to all the b.s. in Washington, D.C. He calls it “amazing.” Reich cites indivisible.org as an example of wonderful grassroots, progressive organizing that is bound to be useful.
He suggests highly that the Democrats get it together and ally themselves with such a progressive undercurrent that is bubbling up in certain areas, in certain ways. Whether or not it will happen that the Dems get true blue again, and throw off some of the chains of $$ that they willingly placed around their necks, time will tell. The party has apparently always been anemic and weak-kneed. Robert Reich made a really funny (and disheartening) quip: “The reason Democrats have pulled their punches with the financial sector for years is because it’s hard to punch the hand that feeds you.”
Noted progressive American and V.P. to Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression, Henry A. Wallace provides support for this view. Speaking in about 1948, he said: “My job as editor of The New Republic is to help organize a progressive America. The American people have rejected, as they will always reject, a Democratic party that is not militantly progressive…. Of course, we need organization. The primary effort of progressive may be to rebuild the Democratic party as a liberal party. But we are the captives of no party. If the Democratic Party is incapable of change, we shall strike out along other lines.” The Bernie Sanders phenomenon in 2016 lends credibility to organizing apart from any major political party, and it is a cause for optimism in 2018.
“I am here to organize. I am here to be political. I am here to be a citizen in a pluralist democracy. I am here to be effective, to have agency, to a make a claim on power, to spread it around, to rearrange it, to democratize it, to legislate it into justice.” ~ Bill Bradley
Robert Reich notes that we are now in a second Gilded Age (the first one being present in the 1880s-1890s. It was a time of “robber barons,” bribery, a big wealth gap, income inequality, and a lot of poverty. Indeed, “A growing body of evidence has led the editors [of The Economist] to conclude that with income inequality reaching levels not seen since the Gilded Age and social mobility not increasing at anything like the same pace as inequality, “The United States risks calcifying into a European-style, class-based society.” ~ Bill Moyers
Reich points out that this outrage by the common man led to the Progressive Era, which he placed as 1901-1915. Teddy Roosevelt was catapulted from vice president to POTUS, and he made some inroads with “trust-busting” and the like. I think The Glass-Steagall Act was from this era. It led to a few of the things FDR tinkered with to bring about the end of the Great Depression – also caused by financial irresponsibility and a lax/inept federal government, in my opinion.
Robert Reich feels we are nearing another Progressive Era. We were founded on idealism, he believes, and though it isn’t “romantic” about the notion, he maintains that chasing those ideals is what gives America a chance at greatness. It’s a fundamental part of the American experiment. As Barbara Jordan said, “What the people want is very simple. They want an America as good as its promise.”
“We have a positive vision of the future founded on the belief that the gap between the promise and reality of America can one day be finally closed.” ~ Barbara Jordan
The FDR years helped create centers of “countervailing power” to the more institutionalized, hegemonic, oligarchic power that is centered in Washington, D.C. and New York. Fairly conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks even admits that “The central concern is equality. Power and wealth tend to concentrate at the top of society, so government must stand as a countervailing power. It must defend the people against the powerful to ensure fairness and opportunity for all.”
Progressive economic thinker Gar Alperovitz agrees: “Throughout the Western world, many studies show, greater unionization has been one of the best predictors of greater equality. Labor has been the most important countervailing force (partly) offsetting conservative political power throughout much of the twentieth century.”
Long-time critic of institutionalized and arbitrary power, Noam Chomsky, advises: “We have to develop stable popular organizations, and a culture of concern, and commitment, and activism, and solidarity, which can help to sustain us in these struggles, and which can help break down some of the barriers that have been set up to divide and distract us.”
From Wikipedia: “In the 20th century, “Countervailing Power” is a theory of political modification of markets, formulated by American economist John Kenneth Galbraith in his 1952 book American Capitalism. In the classic liberal economy, goods and services are provided and prices set by free bargaining. According to Galbraith, modern economies give massive powers to large business corporations to bias this process, and there arise ‘countervailing’ powers in the form of trade unions, citizens’ organizations and so on, to offset business’s excessive advantage.”
“The development of countervailing power requires a certain minimum opportunity and capacity for organization, corporate or otherwise. If the large retail buying organizations had not developed the countervailing power which they have used, by proxy, on behalf of the individual consumer, consumers would have been faced with the need to organize the equivalent of the retailer’s power. This would have been a formidable task but it has been accomplished in Scandinavia where the consumer’s co-operative, instead of the chain store, is the dominant instrument of countervailing power in consumers’ goods markets.” ~ John Kenneth Galbraith, p. 126
So, there used to be a greater balance. Now, Washington has a lot of power, yes, and so does the Pentagon. But perhaps the real power lies in the ability of corporations and wealthy individuals to influence our politics so unduly. It would have been considered repugnant to have the kind of system that corporations, Congress, and the SCOTUS have engineered with gutting Dodd-Frank and other regulatory measures (not to mention Supreme Court rulings such as the abominable Citizens United).Robert Reich waxes really optimistic, though, when he points out that though Citizens United is indeed an outrage, it is most remarkable for what it doesn’t allow. In other words, there are workarounds and ample opportunity to turn this ship around before it hits the iceberg toward which it is steaming at full-speed. Indeed, Obama did little to reorient spheres of power during his 8 years, and Trump is of course very establishment, oligarchical, and plutocratic.
Indeed, there used to be more balance, Robert Reich points out. Things are now bad again. However, he sees reason for optimism in the efforts toward unionizing low-wage workers, and is hopeful that we can form new institutions of a more progressive nature.
“The AFL-CIO estimates that ten thousand workers a year are fired for participating in union organizing drives, and since it is illegal to fire people for union activity, I suspect that these firings are usually justified in terms of unrelated minor infractions.” ~ Barbara Ehrenreich
Americans sometimes surprise people like Robert Reich and myself. He points out, fairly, that 70% of Americans now feel that not only is global warming a real thing, but that it is human-caused. That’s pretty significant. It is also true that today’s crop of youth have less prejudice/bigotry, fear of social-democratic politics and economics, and are more open to institutions such as the United Nations.
Let’s hope that Reich is not kidding himself about how impactful the young generation will guide our country as they gain more power and institutional placement. Certainly Trump and corporations are doing their darndest to pull America in a plutocratic, oligarchic, destructive, and unilateral direction. As well, it’s not as though young people today are above reproach – have you ever seen the kids in public just staring at their screens? Or do you realize how hell-bent on studying economics the students at elite colleges are? The lure of Goldman Sachs and older institutions of power are not dead by a long shot.
Let’s hope Reich has reason to be optimistic. There is plenty of reason to be worried. He himself has written that “in 1964 the four most valuable American companies, with an average market capitalization of $180 billion (in 2011 dollars), employed an average of 430,000 people. Forty-seven years later, the largest American companies were each valued at about twice their former counterparts but were accomplishing their work with less than one-quarter of the number of employees.”
“The moral crisis of our day has nothing to do with gay marriage or abortion. It is insider trading, obscene CEO pay, wage theft from ordinary workers, Wall Street’s gambling addiction, corporate payoffs to friendly politicians, and the billionaire takeover of our democracy.” ~ Robert Reich
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