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Economist Robert Reich is driven to end income inequality

HOW I MADE IT

The political commentator, author, professor and Labor secretary under President Clinton doesn't consider himself a success because the nation's income gap keeps growing and so many American families are struggling.

March 06, 2011|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
  • Economist Robert Reich said he hasnt accomplished what he set out to do. Average working people are not in good shape in the U.S.
Economist Robert Reich said he hasnt accomplished what he set out to do.… (Robin Utrecht, AFP/Getty…)

The gig: Reich, who was Labor secretary under President Clinton, is a nationally known economist and political commentator. Much of his work focuses on America's rising income inequality. Reich's belief that too much of the nation's wealth is going to the rich at the expense of the middle class and poor has made him a bestselling author while inflaming his critics. Reich, 64, now teaches public policy at UC Berkeley.

Not short on ambition: Reich grew up in South Salem, N.Y., near the working-class town of Peekskill, where his father owned a women's clothing store. As a teenager, he once worked as a gofer at a Madison Avenue ad agency, although he says he spent most of the summer cleaning up after the boss' dog. Reich, who is 4 feet, 10 inches tall, credits his mother for his ambition. "My mother made me believe I could do anything, notwithstanding of my size," he said. "It never dawned on me that there was anything I couldn't do."

Galvanized by the 1960s: Reich's mentor was Michael Schwerner, a young civil rights worker whose family vacationed in the Adirondack Mountains where Reich's grandmother had a summer cottage. Schwerner's 1964 murder by members of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, a crime that inspired the 1988 movie "Mississippi Burning," affected Reich profoundly. "Up until that point, I was interested in issues of politics and social justice but hadn't really felt the emotional commitment," he said. Reich also interned in the Senate office of Robert Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1968.

Not-so-dismal science: After graduating from Dartmouth College, Reich headed to Oxford University, where he said he fell in love with economics. "It seemed to me that economics held a key to the understanding of the organization of society," he said. He then attended Yale Law School, where his classmates included Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham and Clarence Thomas.

Inside the Beltway: During the Nixon administration, Reich was assistant to U.S. Solicitor Gen. Robert Bork, whose conservative views would later lead the U.S. Senate to reject his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. "We disagreed on a few items: the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 8th and 9th Amendments of the Constitution," Reich said. "Otherwise, it was a good job." Reich worked at the Federal Trade Commission during the Carter administration. A Democrat, Reich is close friends with former Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, who is a Republican — and 6 feet 5. "We see eye to eye on nothing," Reich said.

Getting published: Reich has written 13 books, "some relegated to the dust heap of history weeks after they were published," he said. Others were bestsellers, including "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future" (2010), which links the recent financial crisis to America's growing wealth divide. Reich is one of the founding editors of the American Prospect magazine. He has also written a play, "Public Exposure," a farce about a television host who decides to run for office, which premiered in Cape Cod, Mass.

Open mouth, insert foot: Reich ran unsuccessfully for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. And he concedes he has trouble keeping his mouth shut. "The biggest challenge has always been to bite my lip and not say the first thing that comes to my mind, particularly when I'm confronted by people who have a great deal of power," he said. While arguing a case in front of the Supreme Court, Reich once called Justice Potter Stewart by the wrong name, a gaffe the justice was quick to point out to him. "The audience roared — if there had been a trap door, I would have sunk in gratefully," he said.

Has he made it? Reich said he doesn't think he has "made it" because the nation's income gap keeps growing and so many American families are struggling. "I don't feel particularly successful in terms of what I set out to do," he said. "Average working people are not in good shape in the U.S.," he said.

alana.semuels@latimes.com

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