The new life

Have the Let’s Blame Fed Superhero Alan Greenspan, Sky Is Caving In, Chicken Little Ate Your 401(K) Recession Blues got you down?

Boy, do I have an antidote for you. It’s called The Future of Success.

Robert B. Reich, the diminutive (4-foot-11) former secretary of labor under Clinton, is one sharp, cheerful dude. In typically witty, cogent fashion, Reich presents the challenges and the choices we all face in the New Economy.

To wit: he posits the “New Work,” and the “New Life.” The New Work is a result of the shift from a relatively stable, production-based economy to one of technology-driven continuous innovation. The job security inherent in the Old Economy has vanished in the New: “The dynamism and innovation that rewards buyers also subjects sellers to less certainty. … Almost all earnings are becoming more volatile, and less predictable.”

The New Economy rewards the talented and ambitious as never before. But this results in income disparities not seen since the Gilded Age. What, Reich asks, is the “true meaning of success under these more extreme conditions?”

Herein lies the brilliance of Reich’s analysis. The future of success in the “New Life” lies in the uneasy combination of traditional American values—hard work, Yankee ingenuity, equality of opportunity, sympathy for the underdog—with new “un-American” values dictated by the global marketplace—the “obsolescence of loyalty,” the “sale of the self,” the “community as commodity,” and the multitude of sorting mechanisms that separate the men from the boys, the men and boys from women and girls, whites from non-whites, upper middle-class from all other classes, good from bad neighborhoods, excellent schools and colleges from lousy ones, and so on.

To take just one sample of Reich’s trenchant and telling gift of aphoristic accuracy: “Once, the worst thing that could be said of someone was that he had sold out. Now the worst thing that can be said is that he is not selling.”

But, says Reich: “We are not slaves to present trends, nor captives of the sorting mechanism. … In this, as in other aspects of the new economy, we have choices.”

Personal choices include deciding what you really want, managing your time better, simplifying your needs, and balancing your work life and your home life. “Do any and all of this, and maybe you can get a life,” Reich says. “But don’t bet on it.”

What about social choice? As Reich observes, every culture is the product of countless individual choices, most of them knee-jerk and unconscious. Working harder and enjoying it less? “[T]he culprit isn’t out there—not in the global corporations, greedy executives, insensitive elites, immigrants, or poor minorities. It’s in here … in us, the ancient enemy.”

Without offering solutions, Reich suggests points of departure toward a more balanced society: cushion people against sudden economic shocks, widen the circle of prosperity, give care to those who need it most and reverse the sorting mechanisms. A liberal agenda? Absolutely. Reich would be the last person to claim otherwise.

Not held in great esteem by technical economists, Reich is therefore worth listening to. The old saw that if you laid all the economists in the world end-to-end they would never reach a conclusion, is absent from his writing. He reaches lots of conclusions, all of them sensible.

And, in a willfully obscurantist profession, Reich stands out as a model of clarity. He consistently transforms the “dismal science” into a joyful art.