Person

Robert Reich

Robert Reich with a Mattel brand Microphone, University of Iowa, September 7, 2011. (link) by Mike Edrington is licensed CC BY-SA 3.0 (link)

Robert Reich is a left-of-center lawyer, professor, author and public figure who served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration from 1993 to 1997. As Secretary of Labor Reich promoted most of the generally centrist economic policies of the administration, such as the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was opposed by left-leaning labor unions. After leaving the administration, Reich became a critic of some of its policies, such as the 1996 welfare reform proposal Clinton accomplished with a Republican Congress. Reich strongly criticized the law for being a “tough” rather than “correct” welfare policy. “In effect,” Reich later wrote, “what was dubbed welfare “reform” merely ended the promise of help to the indigent and their children which Franklin D. Roosevelt had initiated more than sixty years before.” [1] [2] [3]

Shortly after he became Labor Secretary, a profile in the British magazine The Independent quoted economists and other critics who questioned Reich’s fitness for the position and lack of formal economics training. One economist told The Independent that Reich was “a charlatan.” Another critic quoted in the left-of-center opinion magazine The New Republic gave a backhanded compliment of Reich, saying that as “an academic, he is undoubtedly shallow; as a politician he is unusually deep.” Another New Republic source dinged the new Secretary of Labor for being “notoriously sloppy with facts” and willing to “content himself with a laundry list of gimmicks when it comes to the solution” to a “complex problem.” [4] [5]

Reich’s professional work and activism after leaving the Clinton administration became more left leaning. He promoted both the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns of democratic-socialist Senator Bernie Sanders (I—Vermont). [6] [7] His public writings have argued that the American Dream “has fallen apart,” that pay should not be tied to the value a worker adds to a company, and that capitalism has become a threat to democracy. [8] [9] He has been a strong proponent of hiking the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and is also the co-founding editor of The American Prospect, a left-leaning opinion journal. [10] [11]

Despite Reich’s frequent criticism of CEOs and corporations, his 2013 salary from the University of California—Berkeley (where he taught one class for two hours per week) was $242,613, an hourly wage of $2,500 and 36 percent higher than the average pay of an American CEO that year. [12] Controversy regarding Reich’s salary emerge shortly after he published a blog in the Harvard Business Review that attacked the pay gap between CEOs and ordinary workers. [13] Aside from his work with UC—Berkeley, it was reported that Reich was also charging $40,000 for a one-hour talk in addition to first class travel, hotel accommodations, ground transportation, and incidental compensation for university presentations. [14] A 1994 profile stated he earned more than $500,000 in 1992 ($913,000 in 2020 dollars). [15]

Early Career and Education

Reich attended Dartmouth College before receiving a master’s degree from Oxford University in politics, philosophy, and economics (PPE). [16] After attending Oxford, Reich got his law degree from Yale Law School. [17] During his time at Dartmouth, Reich was a nationally recognized anti-war protestor. [18]

Reich is a longtime personal friend of former President Bill Clinton. [19] The two met on the ship taking them to Oxford University, and they remained friends when they attended Yale Law School together. [20] Reich takes credit for introducing Bill and Hillary Clinton, though a 2017 New York Times profile of Reich notes the Clintons tell a different story that “does not involve Mr. Reich.” [21]

After graduating from Yale Law School, Reich went on to work for two years in the United States Solicitor General’s office before spending five years directing policy with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), beginning under President Gerald Ford and continuing through President Jimmy Carter’s administration. [22]

Reich’s career then became largely academic, including a teaching stint at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, until 1984, when Reich served as an economic adviser to Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale. Reich went on to advise for Democratic presidential candidates Michael Dukakis in 1988 and Bill Clinton in 1992. During his time advising candidates, Reich built a considerable public profile as a pundit, speaker, and Democratic political consultant. In 1992 these endeavors allowed him to earn more than $500,000 ($913,000 in 2020 dollars). [23]

Secretary of Labor, 1993-1997

After years of building their close relationship, Reich served as former President Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor from 1993 to 1997. [24]

Following his appointment to the position, a profile in the British magazine The Independent quoted economists and other critics who questioned Reich’s fitness for the position and lack of formal economics training. One economist told The Independent that Reich was “a charlatan.” Another critic quoted in the left-of-center opinion magazine The New Republic gave a backhanded compliment of Reich, saying that as “an academic, he is undoubtedly shallow; as a politician he is unusually deep.” Another New Republic source dinged the new Secretary of Labor for being “notoriously sloppy with facts” and willing to “content himself with a laundry list of gimmicks when it comes to the solution” to a “complex problem.” [25] [26]

Reich Agenda

The Independent profile also stated that Reich was “attempting the first comprehensive rearrangement of American employment policies since Roosevelt’s New Deal.” [27] Reich championed heavy government spending on education programs, infrastructure, and telecommunications industries, while cutting unemployment benefits. [28] Much of these proposed programs never came to fruition, as Clinton and a Republican-led Congress cut government investment programs to limit the growing national deficit. [29]

Reich did successfully champion some left-of-center reforms during the Clinton-era, including the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which Reich encouraged Clinton to use as a talking point in his 1996 reelection campaign. [30] In 1996, Clinton signed a law increasing the federal minimum wage by 90 cents to $5.15 per hour, a move which Reich encouraged for years and later used as evidence to argue that doubling the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour would not increase prices. [31]

Reich was also a strong critic of what he called “corporate welfare,” arguing government should cut corporate subsidy programs. A March 1995 profile of Reich in the New York Times reported the staunchly free-market Cato Institute shared his opposition to programs such as an advertising budget promoting U.S. agriculture in foreign markets such as Saudi Arabia and Poland, but that the industries benefitting from the subsidy—plus a coalition of Republicans and Democrats— defended the program as necessary for supporting the economy. [32]

Despite championing left-of-center policy changes, Reich was broadly in favor of free trade, helping to negotiate the controversial North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and defending the treaty from labor union criticism. [33] [34] Reich also championed the Re-employment Act, a proposal to shift money from unemployment handout programs to retraining and job-search assistance for unemployed Americans. [35]

Objections to Clinton Policy

In the 1994 mid-term Congressional elections Republicans won control of both houses of the U.S. Congress. This led to a shift in Clinton’s domestic agenda toward some issues where he and Republicans could agree, and sometimes issues where Reich differed with the president.

As a candidate in 1992 Clinton had campaigned on the promise to “end welfare as we know it.” In 1996, with the cooperation of a Republican-controlled Congress, he agreed to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, a welfare reform law that limited a recipient to no more than five years of lifetime welfare support, required most recipients to find gainful employment, and gave states greater flexibility in administering their welfare programs. According to a 2016 analysis of the 1996 reform in The Atlantic, 13 million Americans were receiving “cash assistance” from the government in the year before welfare reform was passed, and their number had fallen to 3 million by 2016. [36]

Reich strongly criticized the law for being a “tough” rather than “correct” welfare policy. “In effect,” wrote Reich in 1999, “what was dubbed welfare “reform” merely ended the promise of help to the indigent and their children which Franklin D. Roosevelt had initiated more than sixty years before.” According to journalist Christopher Hitchens, Reich’s wife responded to Congressional approval of the law by telling her husband: “You know, your President is a real asshole.” [37]

Post-1997 Professional Activity

After leaving the Clinton Administration, Reich became a professor at Brandeis University from 1997 to 2005. [38] In 2005, he left Brandeis to become a professor of public policy at the University of California Berkeley, where he became the Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy in 2010, despite holding no advanced degree in economics. [39] Reich also held a position as chairman of left-of-center organizing group Common Cause. [40]

Despite Reich’s frequent criticism of CEOs and corporations, his 2013 salary from the University of California—Berkeley (where he taught one class for two hours per week) was $242,613, an hourly wage of $2,500 and 36 percent higher than the average pay of an American CEO that year. [41] Controversy regarding Reich’s salary emerge shortly after he published a blog in the Harvard Business Review that attacked the pay gap between CEOs and ordinary workers. [42] Aside from his work with UC—Berkeley, it was reported that Reich was also charging $40,000 for a one-hour talk in addition to first class travel, hotel accommodations, ground transportation, and incidental compensation for university presentations. [43]

Political Involvement

In 2002, Reich ran in the Democratic primary election for governor of Massachusetts. [44] Reich entered late into a crowded field of candidates, relying on name recognition to gain support but failing to capture the more moderate base of the Democratic Party. [45] Reich ultimately lost the primary to Shannon P. O’Brien, then-Massachusetts state treasurer, who went on to lose the general election to Republican Mitt Romney. [46]

In 2008, Reich briefly returned to public life when he joined former President Barack Obama’s economic transition team to advise the president how to handle the 2008 financial crisis. [47] Reich had supported Obama as preferable to Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primary election, even criticizing close friend Bill Clinton’s attacks on Obama as “ill-tempered and ill-founded” and a “smear campaign.” [48] [49]

Film Career

Reich participated in two films with the assistance of independent filmmaker Jacob Kornbluth.

Inequality for All

In 2013, Reich teamed up with Kornbluth to create Inequality for All, a film portraying Reich’s perspective regarding the 2008 financial crisis. The film blames the crisis on financial deregulation and corporate greed, using video excerpts of a lecture from Reich’s “Wealth and Poverty” class. The movie won the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Achievement in Filmmaking at the Sundance Film Festival. [50] [51]

Saving Capitalism

Reich and Kornbluth also collaborated on Saving Capitalism. Released in 2017, it is based on Reich’s 2015 book of the same name. The movie’s objective is to prove the U.S. political system has been taken over by corporations and wealthy special interests, causing the economic system to be “rigged” against the interests of most Americans. [52] [53]

Reich’s film tracks this alleged takeover to a memo released by then-future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in 1971, arguing that corporations and Wall Street should take an active role in shaping politics. [54] When discussing the film with the New York Times in 2017, Reich claimed that, “Wealth buys everything from tax breaks, to bailouts, to subsidies, to laws that on their face look to be neutral, but actually help particular companies or industries or wealthy people.” [55]

The film ends with calls to action to mobilize voters, with Reich advising that government officials adopt a slew of left-of-center policies including publicly-funded elections, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and preventing former government officials from working as lobbyists to prevent unfair influence. [56]

Publishing

Reich is the co-founding editor of The American Prospect, a left-of-center media organization that publishes online content daily in addition to quarterly print magazines. [57] Reich has also published 17 books, most of which advocate for left-of-center policies. [58]

Critics have accused Reich of embellishing and fabricating narratives. The New York Times reported that in his 1997 book, Locked in the Cabinet, a memoir of Reich’s time as Labor Secretary, Reich described several “dramatic episodes and dialogue that did not match the record of C-Span tapes and transcripts of Washington meetings.” [59]

In his 2007 book Supercapitalism, Reich argues that capitalism has become a threat to democracy. [60]

Activism and Ideology

Though Reich championed predominately mainstream economic positions during his time as U.S. Labor Secretary, many of his opinions and activities since then have indicated he has moved more to the left.

Support for Bernie Sanders

In 2016, despite his long-term association with the Clinton family, Reich supported Senator Bernie Sanders (I—VT) over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary, calling Sanders “the only presidential candidate actually trying to change the system we have into the system we deserve.” [61] In defending his support of Sanders, Reich, despite being a professor of public policy, claimed that policy is “increasingly irrelevant,” blaming political strife on inequality and claiming, “The left-right continuum is beside the point. The real interesting divide is establishment versus anti-establishment.” [62]

After Sanders dropped out of the 2016 race, Reich expressed “a great deal of feeling of regret” and claimed that he “worked [his] heart out for [Sanders].” [63] In the same 2016 interview, Reich criticized all of the structures of “neoliberalism,” claiming that he has “done more than write” about the concept, but also that he has “been in the center of power” doing “everything [he] possibly can…to try to change what we now have.” [64]

In 2020, when Sanders again unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination, Reich published an opinion piece in The Washington Post, praising Sanders and claiming that he would be the “safest choice” to beat Donald Trump in a general election. [65] Throughout the op-ed, Reich repeated his frequent claim that the “main divide isn’t left versus right. It’s establishment versus anti-establishment,” to argue that Sanders would gain wide support from the American public. [66] Reich relied on anecdotal evidence allegedly collected through interviews for his most recent book to argue that the 2020 presidential election would not be about ideology, but rather about economic status and class. [67]

COVID-19 Pandemic Response

In commentaries published during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, Reich frequently criticized Republicans and business executives who argued for a quicker end to lockdowns as a path to protecting jobs and economic stability.

In a May 2020 commentary in The Guardian, titled “No, Donald Trump, Americans are not dying to work – work may cause them to die,” Reich criticized lockdown protestors who demanded to return to their jobs as a freedom to which they were entitled, asserting instead that “the supposed ‘freedom’ to work is a cruel joke” orchestrated by big business and the Trump administration. Reich also implied that an indefinite lockdown of the economy was feasible: “Rich economies can support their people for years if necessary.” [68]

In another May 2020 essay, Reich accused Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and Tesla CEO Elon Musk of endangering the safety of their workers by keeping them on the job without sufficient protection from the coronavirus. Reich said Amazon’s warehouse had become “COVID-19 hotspots,” and argued the “arrogance and indifference that comes with extraordinary power” was a possible motive for Bezos’s behavior. After asking “Why is Musk so intent on risking lives?” Reich answered the question with: “Musk wants to impose his will on the world. The pandemic is an obstacle, so it must be ignored.” [69]

$15 Minimum Wage

Reich is a proponent of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour. In defending his position, Reich argued that the 90 cent increase to the minimum wage in 1996 was successful because of the job growth that ensued afterward. He has also claimed that a $15 per hour minimum wage would not result in price increases, a theory rejected by a healthy majority of professional economists, even some that promote left-of-center economic solutions, such as Paul Krugman. [70] [71]

Criticism of Donald Trump

Reich became a frequent critic of President Donald Trump. In August 2016, prior to Trump’s election, Reich told the left-of-center publication, Democracy Now, that Trump was “megalomaniac and a bigot, somebody who will set back the progressive movement decades.” In the same interview, Reich claimed that voting for Trump would be “insane” and accused Trump supporters of being defenders of “authoritarian populism.” [72]

Reich became a prolific user of Twitter and Facebook and known for criticisms of President Donald Trump and Republicans more generally. Reich had nearly 3 million followers on Facebook, as of June 2020, and 900,000 on Twitter. [73] [74]

A Reich Twitter post in June 2020 stated “Trump is a fascist” who is “promoting fascism in America.” [75]

Other Left-leaning Views

Aside from publishing books, Reich has been a frequent contributor to numerous online publications, writing as a finance and politics contributor for Business Insider until 2015. [76] During his time as a contributor to the publication, Reich published a range of left-of-center opinion pieces, including articles claiming that the American Dream is “failing” most Americans and “has fallen apart,” and that pay should not be tied to the value a worker adds to a company. [77]

A 2014 Business Insider commentary titled “The Koch Brothers Are Undermining American Democracy” accused the libertarian billionaires of creating an American “oligarchy” through political spending. The same commentary made just a single mention of left-of-center Democratic megadonor Tom Steyer. [78]

References

  1. Hitchens, Christopher. No One Left to Lie To. New York: Verso (an imprint of New Left Books). 1999. ^
  2. Usborne, David. “Profile: Small Guy, Big Deal: Robert Reich: Can This Man Get the West to Work Again?” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, June 12, 1994. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/profile-small-guy-big-deal-robert-reich-can-this-man-get-the-west-to-work-again-david-usborne-on-an-1422047.html. ^
  3. Neikirk, William. “Reich: Labor ‘Plain Wrong’ On NAFTA.” chicagotribune.com. The Chicago Tribune, July 14, 1994. https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1993-07-14-9307140084-story.html. ^
  4. Usborne, David. “Profile: Small Guy, Big Deal: Robert Reich: Can This Man Get the West to Work Again?” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, June 12, 1994. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/profile-small-guy-big-deal-robert-reich-can-this-man-get-the-west-to-work-again-david-usborne-on-an-1422047.html. ^
  5. Reich, Robert. “Obama’s Transition Economic Advisory Board: the Full List.” U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News & World Report, November 7, 2008. https://www.usnews.com/news/campaign-2008/articles/2008/11/07/obamas-transition-economic-advisory-board-the-full-listn. ^
  6. Klein, Ezra. “Robert Reich on Backing Bernie Sanders, Dating Hillary Clinton, and Making Policy Viral on Facebook.” Vox, May 5, 2016. https://www.vox.com/2016/5/5/11581940/robert-reich-ezra-klein. ^
  7. Reich, Robert “Perspective | Calm down, Establishment Democrats. Bernie Sanders Might Be the Safest Choice.” The Washington Post. WP Company, February 26, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/02/26/calm-down-establishment-democrats-bernie-sanders-might-be-safest-choice/. ^
  8. Kulman, Linda, and Robert Reich. “Robert Reich Issues a Warning in ‘Supercapitalism’.” NPR. National Public Radio, October 3, 2007. https://www.npr.org/2007/10/02/14848767/robert-reich-issues-a-warning-in-supercapitalism. ^
  9. “Author Profile: Robert Reich.” Business Insider. Accessed June 3, 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/author/robert-reich. ^
  10. “Robert Reich.” Goldman School of Public Policy. University of California, Berkeley, March 6, 2020. https://gspp.berkeley.edu/directories/faculty/robert-reich. ^
  11. Worstall, Tim. “Robert Reich’s Terrible List Of Reasons To Raise The Minimum Wage To $15 An Hour.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, April 13, 2014. https://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2014/04/13/robert-reichs-terrible-list-of-reasons-to-raise-the-minimum-wage-to-15-an-hour/. ^
  12. Perry, Mark J. “Robert Reich Makes 36% More than Average CEO and Gets $40k for a One-Hour Talk vs. Average Worker Pay of $46k/Year.” American Enterprise Institute, September 17, 2014. https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/robert-reich-makes-36-more-than-average-ceo-and-gets-40k-for-a-one-hour-talk-vs-average-worker-pay-of-46kyear/. ^
  13. Perry, Mark J. “Robert Reich Makes 36% More than Average CEO and Gets $40k for a One-Hour Talk vs. Average Worker Pay of $46k/Year.” American Enterprise Institute, September 17, 2014. https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/robert-reich-makes-36-more-than-average-ceo-and-gets-40k-for-a-one-hour-talk-vs-average-worker-pay-of-46kyear/. ^
  14. Perry, Mark J. “Robert Reich Makes 36% More than Average CEO and Gets $40k for a One-Hour Talk vs. Average Worker Pay of $46k/Year.” American Enterprise Institute, September 17, 2014. https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/robert-reich-makes-36-more-than-average-ceo-and-gets-40k-for-a-one-hour-talk-vs-average-worker-pay-of-46kyear/. ^
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  21. Gelles, David. “Robert Reich, a Multiplatform Gadfly, Comes to Netflix.” The New York Times, November 20, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/20/business/robert-reich-saving-capitalism.html. ^
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  23. Usborne, David. “Profile: Small Guy, Big Deal: Robert Reich: Can This Man Get the West to Work Again?” The Independent. Independent Digital News and Media, June 12, 1994. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/profile-small-guy-big-deal-robert-reich-can-this-man-get-the-west-to-work-again-david-usborne-on-an-1422047.html. ^
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  40. “Author Profile: Robert Reich.” Business Insider. Accessed June 3, 2020. https://www.businessinsider.com/author/robert-reich. ^
  41. Perry, Mark J. “Robert Reich Makes 36% More than Average CEO and Gets $40k for a One-Hour Talk vs. Average Worker Pay of $46k/Year.” American Enterprise Institute, September 17, 2014. https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/robert-reich-makes-36-more-than-average-ceo-and-gets-40k-for-a-one-hour-talk-vs-average-worker-pay-of-46kyear/. ^
  42. Perry, Mark J. “Robert Reich Makes 36% More than Average CEO and Gets $40k for a One-Hour Talk vs. Average Worker Pay of $46k/Year.” American Enterprise Institute, September 17, 2014. https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/robert-reich-makes-36-more-than-average-ceo-and-gets-40k-for-a-one-hour-talk-vs-average-worker-pay-of-46kyear/. ^
  43. Perry, Mark J. “Robert Reich Makes 36% More than Average CEO and Gets $40k for a One-Hour Talk vs. Average Worker Pay of $46k/Year.” American Enterprise Institute, September 17, 2014. https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/robert-reich-makes-36-more-than-average-ceo-and-gets-40k-for-a-one-hour-talk-vs-average-worker-pay-of-46kyear/. ^
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