Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Capital punishment: Robert Reich v Corporadoes

Review: Reich, Robert B. (2010). Aftershock: The next economy & America’s future. New York: Vintage.

At 4 feet, 10 inches, Robert Reich really needed to be named David, since his tendency is to go after at least some Goliaths. His 12th book, Aftershock: The next economy & America’s future, is a quick read and helps a Peace and Conflict Studies guy understand a bit more of the historical threads that have joined in our collective fiscal noose tightening around our national neck as we stand at the cusp of an unknown future. He has some interesting notions about cutting us down from that dangerous place and getting us moving more positively--and some missing information that should be in his analysis.

His framing of American capitalism history is instructive. He writes that the 1870-1929 and 1980-2010 periods were mostly about concentrating wealth into ever smaller, ever richer, numbers of owners. The brief 1947-1973 period of greater equality and more robust social safety net, when wealth disparities weren't as dramatic, is what he calls the Great Prosperity.

We are just about where we were in 1928 in terms of concentration of wealth and Reich says that's no coincidence. He is a certified smart guy (summa cum laude from Dartmouth, J.D. from Yale and editor of the Yale Law Review, Rhodes scholar at Oxford) (where he was buds with Bill Clinton), and he'd make a great Secretary of Labor (as he was in Clinton's administration), though he gives too many passes to bad US foreign policy and fails to connect some big splotchy dots. Is that because he longs to be back inside an administration and can't get there by fingering the military budget as the real Goliath? 

I think my reservations about Reich--as much as I would seriously wish for him or someone as pro-labor as him to be Secretary of Labor--are mostly around my bewilderment at his willingness to almost default to a Kennedyesque "he may be a sonofabith but he's our sonofabitch" attitude about many of the horrific foreign dictators we installed and supported during his period of Great Prosperity, which was the period I'd call the Height of American Empire. Reich doesn't use Kennedy's phrase, but he paints that period so golden and rosy when, in the reality of that time in so many places, there was real violence and structural violence with the US at the helm. His frame on the time was that it was a period of containment of the communist menace, which, if that is the entire story of the Cold War military, would be closer to the Just War doctrine, but instead it was a period of huge extractions of human and natural resources at by a process called robbery.

Reich would be a great policy czar for our American labor force--he is quite pro-union, he urges and economically justifies universal Medicare, he calls for and logically supports a massive extension of the Earned Income Credit in what he calls a reverse income tax to subsidize lower incomes, and he argues cogently for free public universities. But he should not be allowed to meddle with foreign policy, because that brutal extractive style of US imperialism did create the Great Prosperity for just one working class--the US American working class--and that is a Bad Deal for everyone else, as virtually all the Global South will attest.

His heroes are almost all rich men of a pragmatic self-enlightened sort. Marriner Eccles, for instance, was the capitalist to whom Franklin Roosevelt eventually turned to help think about getting out of the Great Depression. What Reich calls "Eccles insight" was basically that the government needed to go into more debt to pull out of the economic doldrums. Reich accurately notes that the FDR administration did great things with the social safety net as a result--Social Security, etc.--but that his spending on job creation wasn't nearly enough until everyone was employed in World War II. 

So read Reich's book. He is tough on the greedheads like Henry Paulson and the other Robert--Rubin--who served alongside him (Secretary of Treasury) with the Clintstones. He has many great and defensible ideas, though I cannot call him a peace and justice person based on this book. His understanding of growing American resentments is helpful, for example when he notes, “Societies whose living standards drop experience higher levels of stress than do societies that never had as much to begin with—and the deeper the drop, the higher the stress” (Reich, 2010, p. 90). He looks at a great deal of research, but in an accessible way, making him a public intellectual with great ability to translate jargon into readable ideas.

But also be aware of the history he glosses over. To be fair, he has exposed the military in other writings, including calling the current DoD a "jobs program" that we cannot afford, since it creates few jobs per $ billion spent. This is not a holistic approach, but his ideas are worth keeping alive in our national conversation. He says we need to make fundamental changes and he's more right than he even displays in this book.

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