Monday, May 31, 2004

Robert Reich's Reason : A Terse Review Books: Reason : Why Liberals Will Win the Battle for America
I've just finished Robert Reich's book "Reason". With a title like that (Coulter's "Treason" without the "T") I couldn't resist the impulse buy.

It's a quick and fun read. The bottom line is that Reich is trying to resurrect (recreate?) both the American Liberal (meaning something close to what The Economist means by Liberal -- the 19th century enlightened rationalist) and the Democratic Party as the party of Liberalism.

His key points are:

1. Evangelicals and right wing white conservatives have a fairly severe hang-up about anything to do with human sexuality coupled with a less public fear of "immigrant invasion" as well.

2. Neocons shares some of the same sexual hang-ups, so they were able to forge a solid alliance with the evangelicals. They express outrage about many things, but the outrage outrage is readily reducible to sex and taxes.

3. Neocons are still reacting to the 1960s, where they missed out on the orgies. The "Left" of the 60s has disappeared, but the Neocons keep trying to resurrect the Hippie corpse.

4. The Right's language of outrage can be smoothly and properly applied to the excesses of Wall Street, the scamming of the naive investor (pension and mutual funds), and the epidemic corruption of American politics.

5. The Evangelical/Neocons are now harvesting the fruits of a 20 year program to advance their agenda at every level of government and social organizations, with funding from amoral, shortsighted, egomaniac billionaires with sexual hang-ups.

6. The Evangelical-Neocons justify their actions by recreating Spencer's Social Darwinism -- last popular in the 19th century Gilded Age. By their "Values" Wealth is the best measure of Virtue (either God's Virtue or the Market's Virtue -- depending personal preference). Thus a wealthy man is by definition virtuous and to be applauded, and a poor man is by definition sinful and ought to be ignored (or euthanized). The means by which one acquires wealth, whether by birth, industry, talent, luck or theft is irrelevant. (Credit to my wife, Dr. E.L., for noting the irony of Evangelical Social Darwinism.)

7. The Democratic Party is in awful shape; fractious and demoralized. Democrats come together briefly for Presidential elections then fall apart. The Unions have no future. The Party must be reinvented.

8. Traditional (respectable) conservatives (John McCain, Gerald Ford, even GB I, etc) are in even worse shape than the Democratic party.

9. There's no "Vast Right Wing Conspiracy" -- but there might as well be. The action of individuals advancing their own interests without regard to ethics or a sustainable future, combined with the Puritanical obsessions of the social conservatives and the consolidation of the media around right wing owners, has produced the functional equivalent of the "Vast Right Wing Conspiracy".

10. The US will always be a two party system -- barring radical change to the constitution. Change must occur within the structure of the two parties.

11. Globalization, on balance, is a very good thing for the world and for American security and prosperity. Protectionism would be a disaster, and, in any event, what globalization did not displace technology would.

11. The middle class of the late 20th century is disappearing. Symbolic analysts (aka knowledge workers) are becoming the only true middle class. Manufacturing is disappearing in the US, and manufacturing workers are being forced into the service economy. Service economy wages are stagnant due to increasing competition, and overall non-symbolic-analyst workers are moving into the lower class (near-poverty or poverty wages. This group lives on the edge of disaster.

12. Progressive taxation is just -- "equal pain" rather than "equal proportion".

13. The best way to deal with the stresses of globalization and especially with the stresses induced by technological transformation, is training and education -- not redistribution of income.

14. Early education and training is the answer to most social problems, with the right training and education almost everyone can have a good future in an American with a strong moral core and honest government. (Implicit in much of Reich's writing is an assumption that environment is the main determinant of human behavior, and altering environment is the key to improving people's behavior and improving social justice.)

What do I agree with?

Items number 1-12 with a major caveat on item #10 (globalization). I think Reich underestimates the "threat" of outsourcing to his vaunted symbolic-analysts. In contrast to manufacturing, this group is threatened much more by outsourcing than by the direct effects of technological transformation.

What do I disagree with?

Items 13 and 14; specifically the unstated but implicit thesis that a human is almost entirely the product of his environment.

Ironically Reich is indeed the product of his environment here -- when he went through college it was utterly forbidden to raise the possibility that human capacities and behaviors were constrained by genetics, biology, or anything but the post-natal environment. Reich is persisting in the 19th century belief that humans are fundamentally malleable -- at least when young.

Most of the research of the past 10-20 years points to a more complex picture. Temperament appears to be almost entirely genetically determined, but temperament can be altered by medications -- a form of environmental influence. Character, arguably of greater import than temperament, can be influenced by the post-natal environment.

Genetics and intrauterine environment appear to set "upper levels" for most human potentials, but on the other hand few people really push the limits of their potential. Training cannot restore lost sight, but training can allow a blind person to read. An Aspergergian is unlikely to be the life of the party, but Apsergians may train to "fake" many social interactions.

And yet ... all the work and cross-training in the world would never have made me a concert pianist or an NFL linebacker. (Of course with the "right" course of drugs perhaps the latter might have been attainable ...)

The making of a person is complex, and technologies are shifting the nature-nurture borders, but the evidence is strong that humans are not endlessly malleable. This is an increasing problem, because 21st century America rewards a fairly narrow range of workers. In the new-world, many of the old-middle class may not have a happy home -- no matter how hard they retrain. In a fundamental way, many Americans may be "disabled" for the modern workplace.

Reich should not be so quick to write-off redistributive solutions. We will need some creative thinking to produce a healthy American when the true "disability" rate starts to top 30%.

Otherwise -- a great book. Highly recommended.

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