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Paranoids 'r' us

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The Future of Success is a funny title for Robert Reich's new book. Success for UPPIES--upwardly mobile professionals, even the aging ones--would be better. Reich, the popular economist and Friend of Bill, who served as President Clinton's first labor secretary, is coming to the Triangle this week, and those stressing over how hard they're working to rake in the big bucks will want to consult with him. Though if you have time to do that (or to read his book), then he'd have to question just how stressed you really are.

Here's the Reich take on things: There's lotsa money out there if you're well-positioned, and a lot less if you're not; but even if you are well-positioned, you have to work your buns off because the competition is unending and technology makes small improvements instantly available worldwide. In other words, let up even a little, and you'll be yesterday's popular economist, which does not pay well at all.

Reich has anecdotes. My favorite--and his, I think--is about his clothes. He's famously short (4 foot 10), stout and hard to fit, but there's a Web site, etcetera, so now he's lookin' slick. His loyalty to this site, however, is zero. Same stuff, lower price, and he's gone. Reich also has statistics. Americans work more hours than Europeans, even the Japanese. We're marrying less, having fewer children (about one-fifth of women in their 40s are childless, double the number two decades ago) and "outsourcing" their care so we can work more hours. It's a trap, girl.

What's strange, given that he led the labor department in a Democratic administration, is that Reich is so sanguine about the dominant role of capital that he almost forgets the term, preferring to cast the world in terms of "buyers" and "sellers." We're both, of course, as we buy our shirts and sell our books. But the underlying issue is that huge sums of investment capital are available to those with connections and talent; and one talent that's especially valuable is knowing how to produce at the lowest possible cost by using cheap labor wherever it can be found. "We--you and I and most Americans--are benefiting mightily from the new economy," Reich argues. "Paranoid populists who say global corporations and international capitalism are conspiring against us are deluded, possibly hallucinating." But if conspiring means acting together, surely Reich knows better. He cites the statistics about the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us, notes that median income barely increased in the '90s despite huge gains at the top, and describes in detail how American entrepreneurs sell ideas to corporations who can "brand" and market them (IBM, Sony), then outsource as much of the work as possible to subcontractors whose production methods they don't really want to know. Is Wal-Mart responsible if its shirts are jobbed out to an Indonesian sweatshop that exploits child labor, Reich asks? His answer: "How can it be?" But he adds: "How can it not be, if a significant percentage of the American public finds child labor morally offensive."

But, of course, a significant percentage doesn't know, and the Clinton Administration did remarkably little in eight years to expand our understanding, preferring to talk about the glories of free trade and the delusions of paranoid populists. Perhaps that explains why Reich devotes just 17 pages of a 250-page book to "public choices," the title of his concluding chapter, and suggests such lame things as making health insurance portable--from job to job--rather than universal. "It is time for a larger discussion about what combination of economic dynamism and social tranquility we want," Reich says.

Well, better late than never.

Reich's book tour takes him to McIntyre's Fine Books, in Pittsboro (Fearrington Village), where he'll talk and answer questions at 7 p.m. Friday, March 2. At 4 p.m. the same day, he'll be speaking at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy, Duke University, on "Who Needs the Democrats?"

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