Escape Mechanisms


Locked in the Cabinet, by Robert B. Reich, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 338 pages, $25.00.

This is an odd and irritating book. On the surface, it is a tale of an academic, author, and Friend of Bill of 25 years, reluctantly persuaded to become secretary of labor. His motives are pure: using power to help close the widening income gap between skilled and unskilled workers; to raise government investment in human capital by funding education and training; and, in general, to aid the people at the bottom of society.

As happens when the pure of heart meet the realities of power in D.C., the dream goes awry. Reich portrays himself as a naif about government who loses crucial battles to economic trolls worried about the budget deficit and inflation. He winds up so far out of the loop that he hangs out in the White House parking lot to beg scraps of information from passing officials. Final defeat comes at the hands of Dick Morris, who seduces a once-pure president into adopting the themes of the cold-hearted Republicans and focusing on the suburban vote while ignoring the economic anxieties of lower-class America. In the end, despite his love for the job, the protagonist is unwilling to sacrifice time with his family to carry the crushing workload of a cabinet officer and to engage in more losing battles, and he disembarks from the ship of state to return to academia.

The book is in the form of a journal, with entries for specific dates scattered throughout the four years of the first Clinton term. The entries grow steadily farther apart, and are pretty skimpy for 1995 and 1996. Many bear the mark of heavy reworking in hindsight, making the book a fragmentary memoir illuminated by notes made at the time rather than a real diary.

The book is also redolent of literary forms beyond the memoir. It is a bit of a Bildungsroman, a somewhat sappy coming-of-age novel wherein a naive youth grows into an adult. Or it can be read as a picaresque novel, recounting the tale of a young, slightly roguish hero who goes out into the world, meets wonders and adventures, and makes faux-naive but actually shrewd comments on his experience.

The roman à clef, that form in which real events and people are fictionalized à la Primary Colors, also comes to mind. Lots of scores are settled. Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO comes through as burnt-out and inept, and a social snob to boot. Newt Gingrich has "the meanness of a nasty little kid." In fact, all Republicans are pretty rotten. Bridgestone Tire, which out-PRed Reich over an OSHA rule, is strung up to twist in a wind of corporation baiting and Japan bashing. Alan Greenspan is a bloodless gnome. The National Association of Manufacturers is a cigar-smoking lynch mob. Even grandees of the Democratic Party, such as Lloyd Bentsen and Robert Rubin, are spoofed for their hidalgo ways.

Clinton is treated with ambivalence, extending even to his name. He starts out as "Bill," but Reich soon describes a phone conversation in which he expresses discomfort over what to call his longtime friend. Instead of saying, "Call me Bill," Clinton says, "Yeah. It's strange, isn't it?" For the rest of the book, Reich refers to "B," since he lacks sanction to use "Bill" and somehow cannot make himself say "the president." (I have a hard time with this one myself, but my political situation is rather different.) The explanation for Clinton's failures to measure up to Reich's hopes is a standard one: The king has good instincts but is misled by his advisers.

Some come out all right. Ron Brown, it turns out, was really a champion of the nation's downtrodden all along. (So that's who went along on those foreign trips!) Hillary is treated with respectful sycophancy as she is persecuted unfairly for such things as her commodity trading. Reich, the corporate expert, seems unaware of something known to all financial experts, that her investment coup was simply not possible within the bounds of the trading rules.

There is another reason for likening the book to fictional forms: Much of it is not believable. I knew Reich 20 years ago in the Federal Trade Commission. He is an intelligent, able, sophisticated, and ambitious man. Exceedingly so, on all counts. He was politically active for the Democrats throughout the 1980s. Given this, the roster of improbable statements grows rapidly. His initial reluctance to come to Washington is dubious. The repeated claim of his own naiveté is laughable; Reich is about as naive as Machiavelli. Throughout the book, he puts little speeches explaining the realities of Washington and politics into the mouths of others while he sits and says, "Golly gee!" At one point he forgets, and within a few pages he puts identical words into the mouths of two different staffers, which gives you a pretty good fix on the name of the ventriloquist. He says, with no trace of a grin, that the AFL-CIO throws major resources into lobbying for an increase in the minimum wage because it is a big symbolic issue. Not a word about its effect in removing competition for union members from lower-skilled workers, while at the same time making the losers think you are helping them–a perfect two-fer of modern politics.

Nor do I believe that Reich was humiliated at a Washington dinner party by reaching for the mint jelly at the wrong time. He makes much of his own plebian origins and even plebian behavior, but in fact he is safely on the sunny side of that chasm between rich and poor, with assets that put him comfortably in the millionaire class. When the government shuts down in late 1995, he talks of his pain in laying off 17,000 people and wondering if the Department of Labor will ever reopen. He must have been the only person in D.C. who did not know that the government employees would wind up with pay for their time off and an extra vacation. A lot of people got hurt by the shutdown, but not one of them was actually on the federal payroll.

It goes on. Most of the book is taken up with this sort of thing, stories of dubious authenticity and mild interest portraying Reich at less than full worth, or misleading you about government realities. (Indeed, writing in Slate, journalist Jonathan Rauch documented numerous fabrications among Reich's allegedly true accounts.)

Occasionally the real Reich, insightful and subtle, breaks loose, but only for a page or two at a time. A paragraph on spin, and on the way in which an effort not to spin is treated as particularly subtle spin, is amusing, true, and a perfect potential lead-in to a discussion of the press. A couple of pages on the multiple levels of the 1996 Democratic Convention come close to art, and could have paved the way for extended insights into the party. A page of musing on the true masters of each Cabinet department is shrewd and useful, as are a few paragraphs on the social incestuousness of the capital. References to bipartisan support for corporate welfare could serve as the springboard for a probe of this phenomenon. Each time, Reich quickly reins himself in and returns to froth and propaganda.

In the end, it is not the froth that is the most irritating, but the propaganda. The issues that worry Reich are real: the gaps between rich and poor, between skilled and unskilled; the proper role of government in education and training; the impact of the global economy; the nature of community and the meaning of the concept of a nation.

These are worth serious attention, and Reich is superbly equipped to deal with them. And he cops out, treating everything at a stunning level of triviality. Democrats, insofar as they want to spend money on education and training, are good. Other Democrats need education. Republicans are evil, the tools of business, who enjoy grinding the workers and are blind or indifferent to the real forces at work. Reich's universe does not allow for the possibility that one could start with the same list of concerns and come to wildly different conclusions about the proper responses. He accepts as faith that federal "investment" in education and training will have a payoff. If you want to know whether past or current federal programs have been helpful or harmful, if you want to even think about the issue, do not look here. And do not look at other federal "investments," such as housing or business development.

Do you think there might be conflicts between the interests of unions and those of other workers, or that the growth of public-sector unionism is unsettling? Well, do not look here for illumination; these possibilities go unmentioned.

In bemoaning the chasm between rich and poor, Reich harps on high CEO salaries but ignores how rapidly corporate pay tails off below this level. He also avoids mentioning that many of the best-off people in America have their pay fixed by political means, or otherwise batten on government largess–civil servants, doctors, lawyers, foundation executives, and academics, for example. Could it be that the government is actually causing some of the disparity by subjecting the lower ranks to the market while insulating the rich? Or by sopping up investment funds? Or by a vast regulatory apparatus that raises the need for paper pushers? Don't ask Reich. But you can ask "B," who, as you will not learn in the book, looked out over a recent fundraiser of fat cats and joked about how many people have gotten so rich helping the poor.

The government described by Reich is also wildly incompetent at every level. A modest reform in the administration of unemployment compensation finally gets through, more or less by accident, but it takes 20 years. At one point Department of Labor regulators are hell-bent to zap a minor-league baseball team for child labor law violations because it used a bat boy. Reich stops this, but solely because of the bad press it generated for his department and without a thought that strict enforcement of the law is flawed in other, less eye-catching areas. The White House is a pediacracy, without structure or coherence, lurching from one position to another, consumed by politics, swallowed up by concern over the deficit and then by the values of Morrisism. The cynicism of the good Democrats in Congress is exceeded only by the cynicism of the bad Republicans.

Nonetheless, this is the government that Reich wants to endow with even more power to tax, micromanage, spend, and regulate. On the basis of the evidence he presents, you wonder how he avoids becoming a libertarian. He avoids it easily, though, largely by exhibiting the most irritating characteristic of modern liberalism–self-righteousness. He shows no awareness that any opponent could possibly be his moral equal, acting on principle. He jumps from facile analysis to policy prescription (more power and money for DOL programs), then elevates the conclusion into a moral imperative which automatically converts opposition into immorality.

In end, you are left with puzzles. If anyone is qualified to make a coherent case for liberalism, it is Reich. So why does he completely shun the attempt? Does he actually believe his own propaganda? Does he care about nothing but selling books, and political analysis does not sell these days? Does he find the degeneration of his party into a pirate band glued together solely by love of loot too awful to gaze upon?

Does he really think such a party will help the downtrodden? Why does he focus his animus on "business," ignoring other targets–does he think business people have a monopoly on avarice? Or that avarice for power is not as deadly a sin as avarice for money? If the propaganda portion of this book presents the best case that one of the ablest liberals can summon up, then the left is in sad shape indeed.

James V. DeLong (jdelong@regpolicy.com) is the principal of the Regulatory Policy Center (www.regpolicy.com) in Washington, D.C., and author of Property Matters: How Property Rights Are Under Assault-And Why You Should Care (The Free Press).