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August 29, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 100




Tom Fox Imagining a decent working society

By Tom Fox, NCR publisher

It is said that before something can be created it first must be imagined. It is within the spirit of imagination and creation that I offer this Labor Day weekend reflection.

So let's take a few minutes to reflect with former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich, on how to make a better working society.

Reich lays out his ideas in his recent book, ''I'll Be Short: Essentials for a Decent Working Society.'' He, of course, served in the first Clinton administration, and the book's title plays off Reich's self-deprecating jokes about the fact that he is 4 feet 10 1/2 inches tall.

The book shouts from the mountaintop that America needs to quit making the poor poorer and the rich richer. He examines frightening trends and says they are good for no one in the long run -- not even the rich themselves.

Moreover, helping the less fortunate, he notes, is the right thing to do.

''We're all in this together,'' Reich writes. ''Our common wealth lies not in the fatness of our individual wallets but in the productivity of every one of us.''

''Should you care? Yes,'' Reich writes. ''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's central point is that government and business have opted out of the American social contract, which he sees as a three-part commitment.

  • As companies do better, their employees should too.
  • Working people should be paid enough to support themselves and their families.
  • Public education should allow all of us the opportunity to develop to our full potential.

This social contract has collapsed over decades of social Darwinism and needs to be restored, Reich argues.

So how do we get on track? Here is where the imagining begins.

Reich sees companies doing more for their workers, and government doing more for families. Family-friendly workplaces should be the norm, Reich argues, with flexible work schedules, generous family and medical leave, and help with child care. More companies need to provide their workers, including part-time workers, with health care and pension benefits. More companies need to invest in employee training programs, and more need to let employees participate in boom times with profit sharing and other programs. Companies should also work closely with public schools, providing apprenticeships as a way to hire graduates.

As for government, Reich states, it must raise the minimum wage to $7 an hour and expand the earned-income tax credit. And the Federal Reserve Board should allow the economy to grow fast enough so that the demand for low-wage workers exceeds the supply, which would mean their wages would rise. Reich is a fan of giving young families what he calls ''a starter nest egg,'' a cash subsidy or a savings account designed to encourage people to save for the long term. And much more money should be spent on education, from universities on down.

Reich's book is a brief distillation of many of the themes he has expounded on at greater length in previous works. The book is filled with insights regarding our current economic situation -- a prosperity threatened by growing inequality, stratification and greed. It is also a call for action to which every American should respond.

Possible? Who knows? One thing is clear. We will never get there without a little imagination.

Tom Fox can be reached at

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