Born on June 24, 1946 in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Robert Reich is a former Secretary of Labor during the first term of President Bill Clinton. He is currently the University Professor and Maurice B. Hexter Professor of Social and Economic Policy at Brandeis University. In 2001, Brandeis named Reich to co-direct an undergraduate program for “Social Justice and Policy” at the university’s Heller Graduate School. In announcing the new program, the university touted its devotion to the “problems of social equity” and its commitment to exploring the connection between “social values and practical policies.”
To this founding vision Reich has stayed true. With its focus on “the gap between richer and poorer citizens,” and its declared intention to determine what can be “done to reverse this trend,” the undergraduate course Reich teaches seems modeled more on a policy think tank that is bent on fashioning a political agenda, than on a university curriculum concerned with the pursuit of knowledge. Even the course’s title, “Wealth and Poverty,” hints at its political tilt, echoing as it does the zero-sum certitudes of leftist strategists like Reich, who perceive economic issues as a pitched Darwinian battle between rich and poor.
Similarly, Reich’s graduate-level course imports his staunchly Democratic politics into the Brandeis classroom. The course, called “Social Issues and Problems: Inequality and Work,” is structured around Reich’s belief that the admittedly considerable inequality of incomes in American society amounts to a damning indictment of American free-market capitalism. Thus, Reich’s course promises to provide “students with a deeper understanding … of why the distribution of earnings, wealth, and opportunity have been diverging in the United States and other advanced nations.” Reich advocates greater redistribution of capital—warning students of the allegedly deleterious “consequences of this divergence” of income, while offering them an activist instruction in the “possible means of reversing it.”
In 2004 Reich accepted a position at the University of California at Berkeley, serving as the Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy for the spring semester. The focal premise of the course Reich taught at Berkeley—inequality—found stark expression in a public lecture that Reich delivered at the school in May of 2004, presented under the title “Social Justice and Social Empathy: Where Did They Go? How Can We Regain Them?” Enlarging on some of these themes in a pre-lecture interview, Reich reprised his oft-voiced belief that American society was plagued by “rising inequality,” and that this indicated nothing less than “a breakdown in the social contract.” Retailing the dichotomy of “haves” and “have-nots,” Reich proceeded to argue “that we’re drifting into separate societies: one very rich, one very poor, and one a middle class that’s increasingly anxious and frustrated.”
The wealthy, Reich claimed, “no longer feel the empathy that comes from contact with people who are poor,” while “globalization” has hurt the poor by condemning them to “a fairly menial existence.” Fortunately, Reich noted, there were “many public policies at the federal, state, and local levels that can reduce inequality.” Even better, these ameliorative policies happened to coincide with such standard items on the “progressive” Democratic menu as increasing the minimum wage and boosting spending on education. “I teach an entire course about these policy areas,” said Reich.
Reich does not confine his advocacy to the classroom. For years, he has been a vocal campus presence at Brandeis, stumping on behalf of leftwing and Democratic causes. He also provides weekly commentaries for National Public Radio and writes a column for the magazine he co-founded (with with Robert Kuttner and Paul Starr), The American Prospect. In 1997, his first year as a member of the Brandeis faculty, Reich gave a talk applauding Michael Moore’s propagandistic documentary, Roger and Me, which portrayed General Motors as the bane of the working class; the theme clearly resonated with Reich, who has long railed against corporations as the enemies of “economic justice.” In March of 2002, he derided what he characterized as the follies of the Bush administration and large corporations, which he dually blamed for inflicting feelings of “powerlessness and alienation” on the American people.
More recently, Reich has traded on his prominent campus profile to promote his books. In October 2004, Brandeis hosted a reading by Reich to mark the release of his new book, Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America. The main contention of this polemic was that the United States had fallen under the sway of radical conservatives—”radcons” in Reich’s taxonomy—who, by the malicious application of intolerant moral precepts, intended to secure the “reign of the rich” at the expense of most Americans.
Apart from his academic career, Reich also has an extensive background in politics. He served as assistant to the Solicitor General of the United States during the Ford administration and was a member of the policy planning staff of the Federal Trade Commission during the Carter administration. In 1993 he headed up the transition team for newly elected President Bill Clinton (who he had met when they were both Rhodes scholars at Oxford Ubiversity), and, as noted earlier, he served as the Secretary of Labor in Clinton’s first term (1993-97). He was later a candidate for the governorship of Massachusetts.
As a young man, Reich was as a moderate liberal at Dartmouth College. He opposed the war in Vietnam but was careful to separate himself from more radical opponents of the war. Over time, however, he developed into a hard leftist, and he eventually became annoyed at what he perceived as a move to the political center by Clinton; he later revealed the depth of his discontent in his book, Locked in the Cabinet.
In the wake of John Kerry’s 2004 presidential election defeat, Reich made clear his commitment to the welfare state in an article in Slate. He claimed that Democrats needed to clearly state the moral argument for their massive social spending programs, and to dismiss the moral arguments of the Republican Party for welfare reform (an issue on which he split with Clinton), economic stimulus packages, and anti-abortion and pro-marriage legislation.
Moreover, Reich advocates socialized medicine for the United States. On September 26, 2007, he delivered a speech on health care to a student audience at UC Berkeley. Among this comments, which reflected his anticipation that he would be given a policy-making role in a Democratic presidential administration, were the following:
“… [W]hat I’m going to do is I am going to try to reorganize [the American health care system] to be more amenable to treating sick people. But that means you — particularly you young people, particularly you young healthy people — you’re going to have to pay more. And by the way, we are going to have to, if you’re very old, we’re not going to give you all that technology and all those drugs for the last couple of years of your life to keep you maybe going for another couple of months. Its too expensive. So we’re going to let you die. Also, I’m going to use the bargaining leverage of the federal government in terms of Medicare, Medicaid … to force drug companies and insurance companies and medical suppliers to reduce their costs. But that means less innovation, and that means less new products and less new drugs on the maket, which means you are probably not going to live that much longer than your parents.”
On April 18, 2008 Reich endorsed Barack Obama for President of the United States.
In an April 2011 Huffington Post piece, Reich wrote that “[t]he only way America can reduce the long-term budget deficit, maintain vital services, protect Social Security and Medicare, invest more in education and infrastructure, and not raise taxes on the working middle class is by raising taxes on the super rich.” Such a policy could be justified, he said, by the fact that the top income tax rate of 35 percent was far lower than the 70 to 91 percent rates that had been in effect during the 1940-1980 period. Reich further called for a hike in estate taxes on the “super-rich.” The added revenues from such tax increases, he said — coupled with cuts to “corporate welfare and bloated defense” — could pay for “a single payer health-care system — Medicare for all” — instead of leaving the healthcare system dominated by “a gaggle of for-profit providers.” According to Reich, “paying taxes is a central obligation of citizenship, and those who take their money abroad in an effort to avoid paying American taxes should lose their American citizenship.”
In August 2014, Reich wrote that hedge fund managers, private-equity managers, investment bankers, corporate lawyers, management consultants, and high-frequency traders who earn large fortunes contribute virtually nothing of value to society. “I’ve never heard of a hedge-fund manager whose job entails attending to basic human needs (unless you consider having more money as basic human need) or enriching our culture,” he explained.
By contrast, Reich maintained, such people as social workers, personal-care aides, hospital orderlies, childcare workers, or kindergarten and pre-school teachers are grossly underpaid. [C]onsider kindergarten teachers, who make an average of $53,590 a year,” he wrote. “Before you conclude that’s generous, consider that a good kindergarten teacher is worth his or her weight in gold, almost. One study found that children with outstanding kindergarten teachers are more likely to go to college and less likely to become single parents than a random set of children similar to them in every way other than being assigned a superb teacher.”
“And what of writers, actors, painters, and poets?” asked Reich. “Only a tiny fraction ever become rich and famous. Most barely make enough to live on (many don’t, and are forced to take paying jobs to pursue their art). But society is surely all the richer for their efforts.”
Reich concluded by proposing a way “for taxpayers to subsidize occupations with more social merit”: “Forgive the student debts of graduates who choose social work, child care, elder care, nursing, and teaching” as their careers.
Expressing his contempt for Donald Trump and his presidency, Reich tweeted on October 17, 2020: “When this nightmare is over, we need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It would erase Trump’s lies, comfort those who have been harmed by his hatefulness, and name every official, politician, executive, and media mogul whose greed and cowardice enabled this catastrophe.”