Friday, September 1, 2000

Q&A Robert Reich — The Future of Success: What A Deal


Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
(Date approximate).

We are entering the Age of the Terrific Deal, where choices are almost limitless and it's easy to switch to something better. This is the first principle of the new economy. . . . This has long been the American way. It is now rapidly becoming the world way. America was founded by people who left places and abandoned old ways in search of a better deal. And if they didn't find it where they landed, they kept moving until they did.
     Robert Reich "The Future of Success"

Robert Reich was the Secretary of Labor during President Clinton's first term. Cofounder of the magazine, The American Prospect, his commentaries are often heard on National Public Radio. Reich's new book, "The Future of Success," a study of the new economy, starts with the story of his leaving the Clinton administration.

HB: If you had to explain what's new about the new economy while standing on one leg, what would you say?

RR: Choice and access are the two key words. Consumers and investors have many more choices than ever before about where to put their money, and they can exit very quickly for a better deal. Wider choice and easier access have created a very dynamic economy, with lots of benefits for consumers and investors, notwithstanding the current downturn.

But that same economy is playing havoc with a lot of our personal lives. The easier it is for consumers and investors to switch, the harder we have to hustle to attract and keep every consumer and investor. This brings with it a dramatic increase in social stratification.

HB: "The Future of Success" begins with the story of your quitting your job as Secretary of Labor when you realized you weren't spending any time with your kids. Is that how the whole question of the costs of success dawned on you?

RR: Yes. It happened in 1996. I loved being Secretary of Labor. I hoped I did a good job and helped people in ways that I believed in. But I realized quite suddenly that I wasn't seeing anything of my family, I was losing contact with my friends, I was losing contact with myself. I had no life. Quite literally, I had no life outside of work.

I had been there four years. Four years is not a short amount of time to be a cabinet secretary; on average they burn out much quicker. But my case was not burnout. I had a lot of life left in me for that job. But I simply had to leave.

HB: You write about it as if it were a sudden insight, a revelation.

RR: It was sudden. It happened almost immediately after a conversation with my younger son who was then twelve.

I hadn't been home in five nights to see the boys before their bedtime, although I had promised them every night that I was coming home the next night. On the fifth night I called and said once again I had a meeting -- the President had called a meeting and there was no way I could get out of it. My younger son said that was OK, but just wake him up when I got home. I told him it might be late, there was school the next day, I would see him in the morning. He said no Dad, please wake me up, I just want to know you're here with us, here in the house. And I realized my priorities were completely screwed up.

HB: We usually think of geeks as glued to their computers. In describing the new economy, you redine the geek.

RR: I wanted to expand the old definition. So in defining the people who are monetarily most valuable in this new economy, I broke out two kinds of value. First, there's the geek -- someone who sees the new possibilities in a medium, regardless of what the medium is. It could be technology, it could be journalism, law, advertising, whatever -- the geek sees possibilities for innovation that were not fully understood before.

I call the other person who adds enormous value a shrink. The shrink is roughly analogous to a therapist; he or she sees in advance the new possibilities not in media itself, but in what people will want from it.

HB: You set aside Peter Drucker's term, knowledge worker, and call geeks and shrinks creative workers.

RR: The term knowledge worker doesn't quite do it anymore. Now we can get all the facts and even most of the concepts we need fairly easily, often from the Internet. The real scarcity now is creativity, the ability to recognize and solve new problems, to anticipate how all sorts of media can develop, and to anticipate what consumers might want or need.

HB: What about the medium itself? If you are creative in software, you are worth a bundle. If you are creative in writing novels, you may not be.

RR: Exactly. The only proposition that I'm advancing in the new economic world creativity is a necessary but not sufficient precondition for being among the economic winners.

HB: What I think is unique about your new book is how well it puts the Internet in context. You show that networking is now the key to our society. The Internet is one way of implementing it, and has become a symbol for it.

RR: Exactly right. The Internet is an embodiment of something occurring in our society in many different ways. If it weren't for the Internet, it would probably still be happening. The Internet helps it along, but it's all about choice and access.

HB: What is the major downside of increased choice and access?

RR: There are three. One is the loss, if we're not careful, of time and energy for the rest of our lives. The second is a great degree of economic stratification, a wider divergence of incomes. And the third, related to the second, is our being separated into homogenous communities. The sorting mechanisms which are direct outgrowths of choice and access encourage us to separate into groups that are exactly like ourselves.

HB: You focus, in the book, on the marketing of self. You describe the marketing of self as a peculiar, flattened out individualism, almost a post-individualistic individualism.

RR: It's a an individualism that relegates the true self, the unique self, to the background, and forces us instead to create a self that fits the market.

HB: What about the parts of our identities that have not yet been made marketable?

RR: You are asking a question about integrity, which is a fundamental question.

HB: I think I am also asking a question about subjectivity. ,

RR: Well, let's take both of them. Who am I in terms of my authenticity if I am in a new economy in which I have to constantly promote something that is salable and marketable? What's left of me in terms of my core values? That's a question so many people have to be asking themselves these days. Many of my former students who are now out in the world come back to me, and all they want to talk about is how they have to suppress their own values in order to be marketable.

The psychological question is, how does the new economy change our understanding of ourselves? We live in a fundamental tension that comes from putting forth one marketable personality and, in a sense, hiding or denying that there is another self that may have absolutely nothing to do with the market. Artists through the ages have struggled with this. The whole question of whether you are a commercial artist or an artist who is true to yourself is a question they have long had to contemplate. Now many more people have to deal with it.

HB: When we talk about globalization, we usually talk in terms of commerce spanning continents and cultures. But doesn't globalization also mean that the market is reaching inward, into aspects of our experience that were previously not for sale?

RR: Yes. And as we delve into our own subjective experience, to try to pull out of that what is marketable, what is salable, we deny other aspects of ourselves. Tom Peters, for example, has come up with what I think is an insidious idea -- the brand called "you."

HB: But that's a logical consequence of a new economy.

RR: An absolute consequence of a new economy based on choice and access, where organizations are flattening out and everyone is, in a sense, a free agent.

HB: Conservatives tend to interpret the encroaching market in terms of a crisis in morality. In their eyes, everything would be OK if we could go back to our moral and religious roots.

RR: That response leaves out economic reality. I don't believe most people are any less moral today than they were ten or twenty years ago. I don't think the culture had declined or been defiled.

HB: So you don't buy the breakdown of morality theory?

RR: It's simplistic, and leads easily to some very demagogic positions. The more direct explanation has to do with the changing structure of the economy, and the power of technology to give consumers and investors much greater choice and access, thereby forcing all of us to hustle, work, and, along the way, sell ourselves much harder. There is simply less time and energy for families and communities. Personal integrity is compromised.

How can you stress family values, for example, without acknowledging that the average middle-income family with kids today is working a total of seven weeks more than just ten years ago? How can you talk about the importance of community without acknowledging that we're sorting ourselves into living situations that are more and more homogeneous?

HB: So the increased religiosity in this country is one sort of reaction to the expanding market?

RR: Yes. People are looking for meaning wherever they can find it. If people find meaning in religion, that's wonderful. But when cultural and moral conservatives assume that the goal of public policy must be to help us become a religious nation, they are simply wrong. The goal of public policy should be to help people lead fuller and wholer lives, with time and energy for themselves, their families and their communities, and to give people some buffer against a market that is becoming ever more volatile and demanding.

HB: The right sees the problem as a breakdown of moral values. The left stresses social and economic processes. Where do you fit in?

RR: I attempt to provide a very clear explanation for what has happened over the last fifteen years. I want people to understand that this is not a matter, on the one hand, of cultural or moral decline, or, on the other hand, as many on the left would say, of venal corporations and greedy CEOs.

I don't want to reject out of hand the conservative assumption that we need more morality, more respect, more civil society. And I don't want to reject out of hand the left's claim that there is a lot of greed out there, and global corporations are doing some pretty awful things. But both of these claims do nothing to explain the kinds of pressures that have mounted in the last fifteen years.

HB: I think you explain those pressures very well. But you give a much less convincing picture of what can be done about them. For example, you talk about the safeguards that were put in place for the industrial economy, and argue that it's time to update those safeguards for the new economy. But the safeguards for the industrial economy were put in place as a result of social struggle, not on behalf of sweet reason alone.

RR: No, sweet reason alone will do it. But political movements, if they are to survive and grow, have to come out of a strong narrative, a strong understanding of historical and economic forces. Unless people understand what is going on, there is no basis for political movement.

If we cede the ground to conservatives who call for a moral re-enlightenment, we are making a great mistake. If we simply excoriate global corporations, and bray at the moon about globalization, we are not going to get anywhere, either. I don't necessarily hold a brief for any of the particular ideas I put forward in the book, but I do think that unless we begin having a principled discussion, a hard discussion -- it may be a struggle as well -- about these or other ideas, we're not going to get off the dime.

HB: You want to see change happen without blaming or demonizing. But doesn't demonization go along with political struggle most of the time?

RR: That's a very good question. I think the struggles that I've been involved with, beginning with the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam, and then the efforts when I was Secretary of Labor to raise the minimum wage, all had several things in common. They were able to mobilize a lot of people. They mobilized around some truths that were very difficult to deny. And they had a sense of ethical correctness; they held a firm ground in an ethic of fairness. Those same elements have to be there in addressing the new economy.

But you raise an interesting question: do we need a demon? Do all such struggles need an enemy?

HB: How far can you go without one?

RR: Here's the problem: If the enemy becomes demonized to the point where the struggle is about conquering the enemy, and not about advancing some particular cause, then the cause becomes distorted, and, unless we're fighting Nazis, we're going to become very confused about our objectives.

It's one thing to say *we* believe certain things and *they* believe other things, and *we* are correct. It's quite another thing to say that what *they* are doing or failing to do is the cause of all our stresses and injustices. People then mistakenly suppose that the struggle is all about conquering them, overcoming them, making them change their ways. That lets us off the hook.

I've been quite vocal and quite critical, for example, of large American corporations. I've been vocal and critical of CEOs who earn 400 times what the average worker earns. But when it comes to demonizing, I draw the line. As I look at the current economy, I don't see a class of terrible individuals and institutions that are to blame. I see a system that is out of whack, off track in certain respects.

HB: Our society has been youth-centered since the 1960s. Won't that continue to be the case as long as our economy stresses change, risk, and innovation?

RR: True. Young people are ready to embrace change and innovation in a way a fifty-four year old like me cannot. Still, take several layers of the old, encrusted personality off a Boomer, and you find that many of us still have the energy, the ambition, the idealism, the sexuality, the playfulness, the creativity we did when we were in our 20s. And also the self-indulgence. Let's face it, the children of the sixties were extraordinarily self-indulgent. Bill Clinton is America's favorite example of that self-indulgence. What happens as we become elderly? This core personality doesn't vanish. It may make itself even more evident.

HB: David Brooks reviewed "The Future of Success" in Commentary.

RR: The author of "Bobos in Paradise"?

HB: Right, the widely-read celebrant of the new economy. He wrote, in effect, that if Reich is now finding balance, as he claims, how does he keep on churning out so many books?

RR: Actually, I left the fast track. I was working sixteen to eighteen hours a day. That was hard. What I'm doing now is nothing.

HB: Eight or nine hours a day isn't enough for you?

RR: It's not a matter of billable hours. That's a myth. Anyway, we waste a huge amount of time with meetings, Internet, email. What's important is the quality of what we are doing. If I can write an article that really satisfies me, that feels like what I really want to say, and if I could do that once in a whatever, once in a blue moon, rather continue to pump out stuff, I would be delighted.

Most of the twentieth-century, it was quantity that counted. We're now moving into a qualitative economy, and I don't think we've fully made the psychological adjustment.


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