I'll Be Short: Essentials for a Decent Working Society by Robert B. Reich.
Former Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich first gained notice in the 1980s as a champion of "neoliberalism." The term was never clear. Neoliberals generally took the same stands as paleoliberals and mesoliberals, except that they uttered words such as "high-tech." Their distinguishing trait was a grating smugness, which helped sink the presidential hopes of their leading political figure, Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.
Republicans have held the Boston statehouse ever since Dukakis left, and now Reich is seeking the Democratic nomination to reclaim it for his party. I'll Be Short is a campaign manifesto of sorts, a cut-and-paste from other writings. The title refers both to the book's brevity and the author's diminutive stature-and is just about the only light note in a heavy-handed statement of party dogma.
Corporations rule the government, he says. "After burying Washington in campaign contributions, Enron got exactly what it wanted." No, what Enron most wanted was ratification of the Kyoto Accords, which would have enabled it to profit from emissions trading. But never mind: mentioning the Great Corporate Satan gives him an opening to lay out the old agenda of more workplace regulation.
In his eagerness to become a commander in the class war, Reich leaves logic behind. On the book's first page, he notes ominously that most Americans pay more in payroll taxes than in income taxes. On the second page, he blames income-tax cuts for the coming crunch in social security, forgetting that the system relies entirely on payroll taxes.
Although Reich is running for governor, he spends most of the book on national issues outside state jurisdiction. The exception is education policy. His diagnosis—"not nearly enough money"—is as false as it is trite. Real spending per pupil has gone way up in recent years. The problem lies with teacher unions that stifle reforms, but Reich fears to take them on.
Cliché follows cliché. He attacks "trickle-down economics" and the "Ozzie and Harriet" stereotype of family values. He even damns "three-martini lunches," not realizing that they died with Dean Martin.
Reich is a nimble thinker capable of much better work. Here, alas, he produces a diatribe that is not only short but slight.
—John J. Pitney, Jr.
Claremont McKenna College
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This article appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of the Claremont Review of Books