Robert Reich stepped down from his post as Labor Secretary in 1996 to spend more time with his teenage sons, Adam, now a sociology professor at Columbia University, and Sam, a writer and director who heads the video department at the popular comedy site CollegeHumor.com. (Reich and Clare Dalton divorced in 2012; he has since remarried.) Resuming the academic career he had embarked on in 1980 as a professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, he took a position at Brandeis University and published a well-received serio-comic memoir about his years in the Clinton administration, Locked in the Cabinet.
Other than an unsuccessful run for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, he has spent most of the past two decades as a de facto Economic Educator in Chief for millions of Americans. Reich, who co-founded the American Prospect magazine, and has written seven of his 16 books since 2000, excels at translating the arcana of economics into language that is both accessible and inviting, all the while making the case for greater equality in the distribution of income and wealth. His success as a communicator is all the more notable given the steady decline of unions and their ability to shape the national dialogue.
I asked Fred Ross Jr., a prominent labor activist with Local 1245 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, to describe his friend’s role. “He’s our teacher,” Ross said simply. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is also friends with Reich and shares many of his views, described him in an email as “smart, thoughtful and utterly fearless. Our economy is rigged to work great for those with money and power, while everyone else gets left behind — and Bob is doing everything he can to change that.”
Reich’s embrace of the latest communications tools has greatly extended his reach. Several years ago, he began working with Jacob Kornbluth, a Bay Area filmmaker. Reich already had a national following based on his books, his regular radio commentaries for Marketplace and three decades as a public figure. But the medium of online video was a game-changer.
“The videos are more successful than I ever expected in terms of reaching people,” Reich said. Kornbluth was equally surprised at the response. “I went to his office and made a video and I put it on my own Facebook page, and hundreds of thousands of people watched it,” he told me, recounting his first project with Reich. “I had never had an experience like it.”
Reich and Kornbluth soon formed a nonprofit organization, Inequality Media. In 2015 alone, they produced 25 videos that were viewed more than 25 million times. Most present sober topics in a light-hearted style — how the sharing economy is hurting workers, why deficit hawks are wrong. One, set during a family holiday meal (see below), even features Reich playing two characters: himself, and a Scrooge-like conservative, dubbed “Uncle Bob,” who fires off straw man lines like, “I’m paying too much in taxes to support poor people who are sitting on their duffs.” Reich, framed by a snowflake, then coaches viewers on how to respond to the Uncle Bob in their clans.
The two also made Inequality for All, which according to the Inequality Media website is the highest-grossing issue-based documentary since 2010’s Waiting for Superman. In the documentary, Reich presents many of the ideas that he has been hammering away at for years. The difference now is the size of the audience. “I think his decades of work are paying off,” Ross said. “He was a prophetic voice, and now he’s really part of the national debate.” The film was seen by President Obama and much of Congress, according to Kornbluth, who along with Reich took the movie on a national tour that included all 50 state capitals.
While Inequality for All is a thoroughly current film, packed with infographics and animation, it is also an engaging history lesson, reflecting Reich’s fascination with how the past informs the present. Any encounter with Reich — via video, book, lecture or interview — will likely reveal his desire to take on America’s notorious amnesia, not merely to set the record straight but to lay the foundation for a reasoned discussion of how we can shape the future.
“I have a basic faith that people are rational,” Reich told me. “If you explain something in ways that are not threatening and lace that explanation with enough illustration, example and humor, people at some point can relax and take it in.”
The Silicon Valley speech in November was a master class in the art of political communication. Aware that the audience included not only liberal Democrats but also wealthy businesspeople and libertarians, Reich steered clear of any wholesale indictment of tech billionaires – or glorification of government. Instead he offered a measured, non-ideological analysis of how the concentration of economic and political power was endangering everyone’s interests. And, of course, he kept the crowd laughing with lines like, “Economic forecasters exist to make astrologers look good.”
After the event I spoke to Jessica and Victor (who declined to give their last names), a married couple in their twenties for whom Reich’s lament about the loss of the American Dream struck a chord. “It’s definitely changed since when I was growing up,” said Jessica, who works at a company that makes medical devices. “My father was an engineer, so we lived a middle-class life, but the kind of wealth that my parents were able to accumulate — I don’t see that happening for my generation anymore.”
Victor, who works for a tech firm, talked about the huge disparity he sees between the company executives and low-wage workers like the security officers who guard his building: “People at the top really do not hear the people at the bottom. I see it every day where I work and we need people like Robert going out there and talking about this and making it an issue that everybody’s aware of.”
Those who attended the Silicon Valley event were less homogenous in their views than the capacity audience that turned out the next night at First Congregational Church in Berkeley to hear Reich. It was a home crowd in every way, and Reich, though exhausted at the end of his two-month book tour, clearly was enjoying himself. Speaking without notes, he offered a whirlwind tour of other turbulent periods in American history that spurred momentous change — the Jacksonian era of democratic renewal in the mid-1800s, the early 20th century progressive reform movement, the labor-left social justice crusades of the 1930s.
Among those in attendance that evening was Rhiannon Salter, a 28-year-old teacher at Mercy High School, a Catholic girls’ school in the San Francisco suburb of Burlingame. While an undergrad at U.C. Berkeley, Salter took one of Reich’s courses. Now, five years later, she brought with her a dozen students from her economics and advanced placement government and history class.
A few weeks later I asked Salter how her students had reacted to Reich’s talk. They loved it, she said, while adding that one of their primary takeaways was that they wouldn’t be able to buy a home in the Bay Area.
“One of them turned to me afterward and said, ‘All right, whatever I do, I have to earn a lot of money,’” Salter recalled. “In some ways she’s right, but in another way it’s sad that they have to lose some of their idealism to succeed in this system.”
Reich, however, believes there is ample precedent for the country pulling itself back from the brink when capitalism gets out of hand, which is why he presented the Berkeley audience with a highlight reel of American reform movements. This is a major theme of Saving Capitalism, one that was reinforced for Reich during his red state book tour last fall. To his surprise, many of those he met shared his views on the economy, including conservative Republicans and Tea Party members. It turns out they are as fed up with crony capitalism, big banks, hedge fund managers and the influence of corporate money on politics as he and many progressives are.
“They call themselves Republicans, but many of the inhabitants of America’s heartland are populists in the tradition of William Jennings Bryan,” wrote Reich in a November blog post.
In that same light he views Donald Trump’s popularity as rooted not only in immigrant bashing but in what he believes is a misguided perception that Trump is standing up to the overwhelming economic force of Wall Street in a way that no one else could or would. In doing so, Trump represents to his supporters what Reich calls a “countervailing power” — a person or movement capable of challenging the dominant political structure.
Saving Capitalism posits the rise of a new countervailing power (though Trump is not what Reich has in mind) as the way in which our economy, and our country, will ultimately get back on the right track. Reich does not predict what form this will take, though he sees potential in the new variations of labor organizing that have arisen in the last few years, including the national campaign to raise the minimum wage, Fight for 15, and the worker-led organization OUR Walmart. But he is hopeful that what he experienced during his red state travels could portend a political realignment in which liberals and conservatives start to unite around core economic issues.
However it occurs, Reich is adamant that a fundamental repositioning can and must occur — not to forestall some apocalyptic endgame but to prevent a slow fragmenting of the nation’s social fabric.
“I don’t see a revolution or a kind of political upheaval,” Reich told me. “But I do see capitalism as a political economic system [that] is going to come under increasing strain. I mention in the book that trust begins to disintegrate, that our system depends upon people feeling that it’s fair, that there’s something about the system that works for everybody. The more people begin to think that the game is rigged, the more they are likely to act in ways that undermine the system.”
Reich’s response to this possibility is to focus on projects he believes can shift the balance of political power. He has ramped up his longstanding partnership with MoveOn.org, the progressive online advocacy group. This year he and the director Kornbluth made a series of 12 videos called “The Big Picture,” in which Reich presents a set of economic principles and policy ideas (old habits die hard). The videos have been seen by millions of people, according to MoveOn.org campaign director Jo Comerford, who in an interview described Reich as “one of the most prolific people on the planet.”
While Reich’s high-volume production won’t convert everyone to his views, Kornbluth said there’s no doubting his motivation. “The integrity of his passion is one of the most inspiring things that I’ve ever been around. It’s genuine. It’s really infectious, too. Very rarely have I seen anybody who is this successful in public who’s also this good of a guy.”
Reich would likely disagree with that assessment. There’s a scene in Inequality for All in which he says, “Sometimes I feel like my life has been a complete failure.” During our interview, I asked him if he ever marvels at his own American journey — how the son of a Jewish shopkeeper went on to advise presidents and become the preeminent voice on one of the defining issues of our time. He wasn’t having any of it.
“I honestly don’t see it that way,” Reich, who was awarded the Vaclav Havel Vision Foundation Prize in 2003 by the former Czech president for his contributions to world economic and social thought, said in a quiet voice. “I’m more aware of what I haven’t done and haven’t achieved and the very small amount that I’ve contributed to advancing the ball. I say that not out of false modesty. I don’t see a great deal of achievement.”
Last month he delivered the winter commencement address at U.C. Berkeley’s Haas Pavilion. The speech was, as usual, sprinkled with humor, but toward the end Reich eschewed levity and left graduates with this advice: “If you’re going to change the world for the better, you’re going to need patience. It is not easy to do. There are going to be setbacks. Change doesn’t come easily. You’ll need to accept what you cannot change, at least right away, and dedicate yourself again and again to changing what you cannot accept.”