The Road to Trump
In his otherwise thoughtful review of Thomas Frank’s Listen, Liberal and Steve Fraser’s The Limousine Liberal [March 20], Matt Stoller charges that “Robert Reich spent much of his career peddling many of these meritocratic premises and working out the justifications for why this new upper class deserved its increased share of the national wealth.”
Rubbish. Anyone who has read my books and articles over the last 40 years would see that I’ve argued the opposite. Stoller claims that in my 1991 book, The Work of Nations, I saw as a “cause for celebration” the secession of the successful. To the contrary, as I wrote in that book, “the underlying question concerns the future of American society as distinct from the American economy, and the fate of the majority of Americans who are losing out in global competition. The answer will depend on whether there is still enough concern about American society to elicit sacrifices from all of us—especially from the most advantaged and successful of us—to help the majority regain the ground it has lost and fully participate in the new global economy.”
Unfortunately, as we’ve witnessed over the last quarter-century, America’s most advantaged and successful have in effect chosen not to sacrifice in order to help the majority regain ground. And that tacit decision has helped deliver us to Donald Trump.
Robert B. Reich
Matt Stoller Replies
I am not disputing that Robert Reich has always cared about inequality. What I wrote, which jibes with Thomas Frank’s critique, is that the framework that Reich proposed in the 1990s was in part responsible for the economic and political inequality Americans face today.
Reich’s ideas stood in sharp contrast with the Democratic Party’s traditional focus on fighting concentrated power. They were simply a variant of how Chicago School libertarians saw political economy, packaged in liberal corporatist clothing and with some more welfare and infrastructure spending attached. In fact, Reich learned antitrust from key conservative antitrust guru Robert Bork, first as Bork’s student at Yale and then as his assistant for two years in the solicitor general’s office.
Reich claimed, in books like The Work of Nations, that Americans no longer need worry about the political power of the corporation or the nation-state. For every job lost to automation, he argued in 1991, “three new jobs open for aerobics instructors.” He called the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 “well-intentioned legislation” with a “practical effect precisely the opposite of that intended.” One of his colleagues, Susan Tolchin, pointed out in 1992 that his writing “played right into the laissez-faire theories of the Reagan-Bush administration.”