MAXWELL: Respect for teachers has declined, but the job has gotten harder
8/7/2002 – Printed in the EDITORIAL Section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

When Robert B. Reich was a boy summering in Upstate New York during the late 1950s, a friend used to protect him from local bullies. The friend’s advice was wise. He said that bullies could not hurt Reich if he were stronger inside than his enemies were inside.
Reich never forgot that advice. The friend, by the way, was Michael Schwerner, one of the three civil rights workers murdered by whites in Mississippi in 1964. Schwerner and his fellow workers were registering black voters when they were killed.
Later, Reich watched as a male-dominated university faculty denied his wife tenure because of her gender. His wife sued and won tenure. She used the award to establish an organization dedicated to stopping domestic violence.
Schwerner’s advice and the lessons learned in the tenure affair became guiding principles of Reich’s life and politics. He never liked bullies _ powerful people who use their power to abuse or to ignore the less fortunate and minorities.
These experiences and others were part of the stuff that made Reich an unabashed liberal with the courage to speak his mind. For those who have forgotten, Reich was the secretary of labor during Bill Clinton’s first term in the White House. He now teaches social and economic policy at Brandeis University and is running for governor of Massachusetts.
I had the pleasure of reading his newest book, self-deprecatingly titled I’ll Be Short: Essentials for a Decent Working Society. The title is apt, and ironic, because the brilliant, outspoken Reich stands all of 4 feet 10 { inches.
I’ll Be Short is a breath of fresh air at a time when smothering conservatism, faux individualism and greed have been elevated to the level of a god and a new religion.
I do not care if the 121-page book doubles as a gubernatorial campaign tract. It is an impassioned call for the nation to remember its instinct for equity and fairness. It is a plea for us to lessen the economic gap between the rich and the poor. Yes, I’ll Be Short is pure liberalism.
Although he uses the logic of a labor economist, Reich argues that simply doing the right thing also has pragmatic value: “We’re all in this together. Our common wealth lies not in the fatness of our individual wallets but in the productivity of every one of us.”
Reich says, and Lord knows I agree, that government and industry abandoned the “social contract” that made the United States a place of hope.
Reich’s social contract has three parts. First, when companies make money, their employees should make money proportionately. Second, all workers should earn a living wage, enough money to care for their families. Third, good public education should be available to everyone as a means of letting us achieve all that we can.
None of this is happening as it should, however. The nation’s fabric is unraveling because government and business have forgotten average people. The following excerpt is central to Reich’s thesis:
“After a point, as inequality widened, the bonds that kept our society together would snap. Every decision we tried to arrive at together _ about trade, immigration, education, taxes and social insurance (health, welfare, retirement) _ would be harder to make, because it would have such different consequences for the relatively rich than for the relatively poor. We could no longer draw upon a common reservoir of trust and agreed-upon norms to deal with such differences. We would begin to lose our capacity for democratic governance.”
Reich does more than complain. He offers solutions, most of them part of the liberal agenda that became anathema after Republicans took over Congress. For starters, on the government side, minimum wage needs to be raised to $7 an hour, and the earned-income tax credit should be expanded.
Businesses could make the workplace family-friendly, where child care, flexible work schedules and medical and family leave are the rule rather than the exception. To create loyalty and fairness, businesses could offer full-time and part-time workers generous benefits. Reich wants companies to finance more employee training and to admit more workers into profit sharing programs during good years.
And, for sure, companies should become full partners with their local public schools, providing apprenticeships, internships and money. Many companies eagerly complain about the poor state of public education. Shut up already! Reich says. Do something positive.
Anyone who has overdosed on right-wing politics and faux individualism during post-Enron should read I’ll Be Short. It is tough on bullies and very long on common sense.