With rare exceptions, senators are always tall and big-shouldered. Heightism is rampant in American politics. - Robert Reich, Locked in the Cabinet, 1998
Important to Reich because he is a very short man. Reich was Bill Clinton's Secretary of Labor in his first term. Also Clinton's resident liberal, Reich got frustrated and didn't stick around for the second term.
Every time a new president is elected, America assembles a new government of 3000 or so amateurs who only sometimes know the policies they're about to administer, rarely have experience managing large government bureaucracies, and almost never know the particular piece of it they're going to run.
Before he ran Clinton's "vast" Dept. of Labor, Reich says he had managed only one employee, a secretary. To do what he has no idea how to do, manage the department, Reich must interview and hire a bunch of assistants. If he moves quickly they might be in place in five months, and it would be another six months before they know what they're doing. He wants them to share Clinton's values, be knowledgeable about policy and be good managers. He realizes he has no reliable way of telling if candidates meet any of these criteria. "I'm flying blind."
On campaign finance, Reich quotes Rep. Marty Sobo, chairman of the House Budget Committee:
We're owned by them. Business. That's where the campaign money comes from now. In the 1980s we gave up on the little guys. We started drinking from the same trough as the Republicans. We figured business would have to pay up because we had the power on the Hill?. We were right. But we didn't realize we were giving them power over us. And now we have both branches of government , and they have even more power. It's too late now.
And then in 1994 the Republicans took over Congress. Democrats have been unable or unwilling to mount an effective defense, and things have gone steadily downhill from there. Clinton helped it along by giving in on key issues like welfare and pushing globalization., a policy wonk's wet dream.
On an issue of interest to the Northwest, Reich says that "Environmentalism isn't to blame for the shrinking number of jobs [in the logging industry]. As in much of the rest of American industry, technology is taking over routine work."
Reich wanted "investments" in the workforce, such as free job training. It was part of Clinton's 1992 campaign, and probably the main reason I voted for him. (Somehow I missed the welfare bashing.) But the "investments" got crowded out by deficit reduction:
Historians will note that Bill Clinton's investment plan was killed when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the White House. Marty Sabo had it partly right: Democrats have sold their souls to big money, and big money isn't buying the plan.
Perhaps because, unlike Reich, they didn't see a need for it. Reich thought the future of America, as he said in a previous book from the late 1980s, was in specialty, high-value manufacturing. As opposed to the mass, high-volume manufacturing that had made America prosperous, and was now declining. He thought specialty manufacturing would require high worker skills, so it would be a good "investment" to retrain them.
What has happened instead is that manufacturing in general has been automated, and some of it exported to cheaper wage countries, so we simply don't need very many manufacturing workers. Manufacturing has gone the way of agriculture.
That, along with the U.S. baby boom, women flooding into the labor force and unlimited immigration, much of it illegal, has made workers expendable.
The good jobs are not there to train people for. Most new jobs are routine, low-skilled, badly paid service jobs. Well there are skills, like taking care of children in day care centers, but these are skills our culture doesn't value and won't pay much for. What we need to do is to force employers to pay service workers more, but that means the sacred middle class would have to pay more for services. They've come to depend on a low-paid servant class.
Reich also points out that Clinton screwed up by publicly focusing on reducing the deficit instead of public investments. "What'll I be able to tell the average working person I did for him?" Clinton fumed, as his program went down the drain in Congress. Not much, as it turned out. Not enough to keep a lot of us in his party. There was a failure of leadership.
We haven't even begun to adapt to an economy with a chronic surplus of people. Either we need to reduce the surplus, probably by cutting off illegal immigration, or find some other way than jobs to pay people. Give everyone a piece of the pie. Make us all part owners of business - not a particular business, which may disappear at any moment, but business in general - with required monthly payments from our "investments." Some economist proposed that in the 1970s. He said we should all be capitalists. Yeah, that would still leave the plutocrats in charge, but they would have to cut us in on the deal.
Would free job training, in the early 90s, actually have helped me? I don't know. With the help of some money I made growing pot, I bought computers and taught myself how to use them from books. I was a secretary, word processor, administrative assistant. At my highest level, I learned Photoshop, on the job, scanned and adjusted images. But I still only made $10 per hour, part-time. Where were the good jobs using a computer that I could have gotten into?
I know someone who works as a "graphics designer," using a computer to help create a print publication, but I don't have the artistic ability - I've tried - to do that. I tried programming but my mind doesn't work that way and after a few classes I lost interest. Not real technical. I took a class in technical writing, which I do have some talent for, good at explaining things, but couldn't find a job at it.
I just could not find the door in the wall. For me, and I suspect most people, the door isn't there. In so many fields, the career ladder has been pulled up, and we labor eternally in the mines.
In Jeremy Rifkin's book, The End of Work, 1995, he suggests that we deal with the gradual disappearance of jobs by paying people to do volunteer work. That might have worked for me, if I had a lot of freedom to choose the work and change it whenever I wanted to. Rifkin wrote that there is plenty of work in this country that needs to be done, it's just that we don't want to pay people to do it.
Somehow we need to break the rigid grip of "the market," which locks us into fixed roles that don't suit us, and will not let go.
Unionized or nonunionized, America's front-line workers feel bruised and beaten by years of promises unkept, real wages and benefits cut, and jobs eliminated.
In 1993, during the first year of Clinton's reign, he got a bill through Congress to raise taxes on the rich. It barely passed by two votes in the House and one vote - Gore's - in the Senate. The Clinton team celebrated. (Bob Woodward, The Agenda)
But Reich wrote at the time that they had walked into a trap. The whole plan had been sold as a way of reducing the deficit. (Which it eventually did, later producing a surplus. Or maybe it was just the usual business cycle upswing, producing more tax revenue.) This would also mean no money for Reich's beloved public "investments," and budget cuts for programs that helped people. The deficit had taken over the Clinton administration.
Because no one will want to make big cuts in defense, and no one will have the political courage to stop the explosion of Medicare, Social Security, and other entitlements for the better-off, the only categories of spending to be sacrificed will be those that go to working people and the poor - spending on public schools in poorer areas, on job skills, on public employment for the jobless, on child care, mass transit, food stamps and welfare.
Defense can't be cut because even liberal Democrats see it as a jobs program - the only one they're going to get - although spending on civilian projects such as construction of low-income housing would create more jobs per tax dollar spent. Conservatives see defense spending as a way to make the corporations richer.
Cutting entitlements for the well-off through means testing (benefits inversely related to income) would turn programs like Social Security and Medicare into poverty programs, probably costing them their middle-class political support.
I can see that one reason Reich didn't get his money for job retraining is that no one believed the jobs were there to be retrained for. I don't believe it. I hear that laid off computer programmers are having a hard time finding jobs.
I also think that retraining older people is a nonstarter. By the time we're in our 50s we want to coast on what we already know. To some extent it could be done. I started learning computers at 42 and continued into my late 50s, but I was learning the kind of low-level skills that make you $10 an hour, just enough to stay in the game. And I give myself credit for doing that. I'm still learning, but only if I feel interested, and rarely for money. I was never very patient with technical details. Beyond a certain level I get bored.
A woman I worked with as a data entry temp, in the late 80s, said computers sure had created a lot of lousy jobs.
By the end of the 90s a lot of those jobs had gone away. Business executives were typing their own letters, or emails, on their laptops. Businesses saved money by getting rid of their office staffs.
Reich, writing in 1993, claims that "the fastest-growing occupations are technician-type jobs paying above-average wages?." He doesn't say what he means by "fastest-growing" - percentage-wise or total number of jobs? If a small field doubles its number of jobs that's still not many jobs. I read now that the fastest-growing job categories are low-wage service jobs: janitor, retail sales clerk, nursing home attendants, cooks, etc.
I know an electronics technician in his 50s who was laid off from his $40,000 a year job and ended up working for a car rental business at half the salary. Technology jobs turned out to be boom-and-bust, and many are being outsourced to cheaper labor in other countries. Turns out India and China can train techs too.
One reason Reich couldn't get money for job training out of Congress is that he supported NAFTA, pissing off labor and their congressional supporters. Reich thought it didn't matter if NAFTA wiped out some U.S. manufacturing jobs because shucks, we'll create better jobs which workers can get by . . . retraining. No one bought it.
Twenty percent of American citizens remain functionally illiterate.
Reich says the unions weren't interested in job training, they wanted job security, to hang on to the jobs they had. Specifically, they wanted a law barring permanent replacement of strikers. They believed that Clinton could have passed such a law if he had put the same energy into it as he did to pass NAFTA - which the unions hated. Reich agrees. It was a classic case of pleasing the rich instead of the workers.
Blue-collar men are losing good jobs or fear they will. Their wages are dropping, and they have to take women's jobs in fast food, retail sales, hospitals, and hotels. Their wives have to work harder. They are angry and humiliated and scared. They thought Clinton would change all that. But nothing happened. It only got worse.
Clinton's health plan, Reich wrote in 1994:
. . . plays into its opponents' hands. It's unwieldy. I still don't understand it. I've been to meetings on it, defended it on countless radio and TV programs, debated its merits publicly and privately, but I still don't comprehend the whole. In the public arena, nothing is more vulnerable to organized opposition than a huge and complex idea.
Reich says that the two main political parties in the U.S. (in 1994) are actually "Keep the Jobs" and "Let Them Drown." He doesn't agree with either one. He wants to help people, but doesn't believe keeping industrial jobs is possible. He wants to retrain people for "better" jobs, technical, high pay.
So here we are ten years later. Most of the industrial jobs have gone bye-bye, replaced with low-paid service jobs. Two members of my working-class family are retirement home cooks, at $8.50-$9.50 per hour. They are not going to be retrained, at their ages, for nonexistent tech jobs. What they need is higher pay for the jobs they've got.
Earth to Reich: job training doesn't do any good if the jobs aren't there, and the jobs that are available pay shit wages.
Flint [Michigan] is bleak and boarded up, most of its manufacturing jobs having disappeared. Campaigning here [fall of 1994] is like staging a pep rally in a graveyard. Unemployment is in double digits.
Flint is Michael Moore's hometown, featured in his first movie Roger and Me. Mentioned also in Fahrenheit 911, real unemployment still estimated at 50 percent. Twice as bad as the Depression. They might as well evacuate it.
Reich has more faith in the American economy than I do. I have none. It may keep the middle class afloat, but my people are sinking. Unfortunately, as Reich says, "There's no National Association of Working Poor," although there sure ought to be.
Reich alternately gets it and doesn't get it.
In the 1996 election, Reich writes:
. . . almost all of the new nonvoters were from households earning less than $50,000 a year. The great mass of nonvoters - which keeps growing - is overwhelmingly poor or of modest income. They didn't vote in 1996 because they saw nothing in it for them.
Earnings inequality among full-time adult workers was greater by the end of the first Clinton administration than it had been at the start. Workers with only a high-school education or less continued their long-term slide.
Some half a billion dollars was spent on presidential elections. Most of it came from corporations and Wall Street, which outspent even organized labor in their support of Democratic candidates.
Reich wrote to Federal Reserve chair Allan Greenspan that in 1996:
Only in metropolitan areas where the official level of unemployment is under three percent are we beginning to see employers recruit from the central city and train employees in basic skills.
Reich says we're becoming segregated not just by race but by class. "Economic apartheid is becoming the rule."
In the 1994 election, where Democrats lost big, exit pools gave
Democrats a two-to-one advantage among voters who said their personal standard of living was rising, but a two-to-one disadvantage among those who said it was falling. The largest defections from the Democratic party were men without college degrees - nearly three out of four working men - whose wages have been dropping for a decade and a half.
Yet Democrats still think they can win by appealing to middle-class suburbia.
Nor did Reich have a high regard for labor.
Organized labor is an aging, doddering prizefighter still relishing trophies earned decades ago. But it's the only fighter in that corner of the ring. There's no other countervailing political force against the overriding power of business and finance.
In 1966 Reich asked Dick Gephardt, "Which would you prefer, a minimum-wage bill the President signs into law before the election, or the minimum-wage issue to clobber Republicans with during the election?" Gephardt replied, "Let's just say we need the minimum-wage issue as long as possible." In other words, the Democrats were using it as a political football.
The bill did pass, boosting the minimum wage from $4 something to $5 something, still greatly inadequate, even in 1996. One of the very few working-class victories in the Clinton administration.
After that Clinton signed the so-called welfare reform bill. Clinton's original proposal, Reich says, would have added $2 billion a year to the bill for job training and public-service jobs, to move welfare recipients into paid work. But Clinton didn't push it. Instead, he ended up signing a Republican bill which would "cut total welfare spending by about $9 billion a year, eliminate entirely the sixty-year-old guarantee to help the poor, turn over administration to the states, and cut off benefits after a certain time [five years] even if there's no work to be had."
When Clinton signed the welfare bill, mainly to take the issue away from Republicans before the 1996 election, he was 20 points ahead of Bob Dole in the polls.
Reich on the 1996 Democratic convention: "No suggestion that the wages and benefits of almost half the workforce are still stagnant or dropping while the rest of the economy is flourishing."
Clinton got 49 percent of the vote, after
co-opting the Republicans on all their issues . . . . The turnout was the lowest percentage of the voting population since 1924 . . . . And almost all of the nonvoters were from households earning less than $50,000 a year. The great mass of nonvoters - which keeps growing - is overwhelmingly poor or of modest income. They didn't vote in 1996 because they saw nothing in it for them . . . . Earnings inequality among full-time adult workers was greater by the end of the first Clinton administration than it had been at the start.
Some half a billion dollars was spent on the presidential elections. Most of it came from corporations and Wall Street, which outspent even organized labor in their support for Democratic candidates.
The fiscal year 1997 budget started right on schedule. The biggest budget cuts were in programs for the poor.