Quotes from Locked in the Cabinet, by Robert Reich

- ‘If any of those with whom I rubbed shoulders, who are described in any of the following pages, feel ill-served by my account, I can only offer my apologies. I claim no higher truth than my own perceptions. This is how I lived it. This is what I learned.’
- ‘It’s always the same thing. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s in? Who’s out? It’s a one-company town, Bob. Everyone works for the same company in some way or another. Politicians, journalists, bureaucrats, lawyers, lobbyists. And all that really counts is your rank in the company. Power, power, power! No one cares about ideas or values, or even their families.’ Mrs. Clare Reich (5)
- ‘He’s had to compromise, get what could be got, keep an eye on the next election and the one after that. Politicians cannot be pure, by definition. Their motives are always mixed. Ambition, power, public adulation, always figure in somehow. Means get confused with ends. Will Bill stick to his ideals in the pinch? Or will I find myself compromised simply by virtue of being connected to his compromises?’ (9)
- ‘To the outside world it appears to be a massive exercise in purposive planning. Inside, it’s hell.’ (20)
- ‘Most people here have never worked in government. The sum total of their public experience has been the Clinton-Gore campaign. And yet simply by virtue of their being here – lobbying for this position or that, sharing the latest gossip, making deals – they will become Bill Clinton’s subgovernment. They will fill every lower-level political appointment in departments and agencies. They will move into the White House. But governing is not campaigning. It’s about holding a public trust and getting a job done. To confuse the two could lead to some big mistakes.’ (21)
- ‘For twelve years, the Republicans have perfected a strategy to shrink the size of the federal government. They could never have taken on public spending directly; too many of the programs were too popular. So they concocted a different plan: First, they cut taxes. They told the public that tax cuts would inspire so much entrepreneurial zeal that they would more than pay for themselves in new tax revenues. When that didn’t happen and the budget deficit ballooned, they changed the tune. They expressed outrage at fiscal irresponsibility. They called for massive deficit reductions. They talked about the importance of balancing the budget.’ (27)
- ‘Presidential campaigns are built on hope. Every four years the nation dips into its bottomless well of optimism. Our quadrennial amnesia prevails. We forget that only four years before we expected the last guy to cure the ills of our society and lead us to the promised land.’ (33)
- ‘This [confirmation] hearing isn’t designed to test your knowledge. Its purpose is to test your respect for them.’ Reich’s confirmation prepper (37)
- ‘Greenspan is whispering into eager ears, deciphering the moods of the Street, prescribing the precise medicine needed to keep the Street healthy and happy. He wants the federal budget to be balanced. He doesn’t want taxes to be raised. That means that spending must be cut, and the Street couldn’t care less what the spending is for. Public investments? The Street doesn’t give a damn. Is Greenspan correct? Here’s his theory: Unless the federal government makes a radical commitment to balancing the budget, global lenders (including Americans themselves) will demand higher and higher interest payments on loans to businesses in the United States because the demand for private savings will far outstrip the supply. Private investment will thus decline. As a result, productivity will slow and inflation will accelerate. This theory is easy to state with conviction, but it is impossible to prove. Look back several decades and you see no direct relationship between deficits and interest rates.’ (64-65)
- ‘Greenspan can prove his own theory correct because only he has the power to raise or lower short-term interest rates. Like Paul Volcker, the Fed chief before him, Greenspan can put the economy in a tailspin simply by tightening his grip. Volcker did it in 1979, and Jimmy Carter was fired. Bill Clinton knows that. Greenspan has the most important grip in town: Bill’s balls, in the palm of his hand.’ (65)
- ‘Don’t blame the shrinkage of American unions on foreign trade. You’ve run the AFL-CIO for a quarter century. Trade isn’t the problem, and you know it.’ (68)
- ‘I can’t win. On one side are Bentsen, Rivlin, Panetta, and the deficit hawks in Congress, demanding that the deficit be shrunk so that public spending doesn’t crowd out private investing. But there’s no guarantee that companies which have easier access to capital once the deficit is reduced will invest their extra capital here in the Untied States to create good jobs. They could just as easily use the money to build factories in Mexico. On the other side are Kirkland and Donahue and all the others like them who want to erect walls around America and produce inside our borders everything we buy. But that would cause Americans to pay astronomical prices, and reduce living standards. The two groups are talking past each other. Neither acknowledges the partial truth in the other’s position. Neither sees that the best alternative is to invest in our people so they can add ever more value to the global economy and thus earn high wages.’ (68-69)
- ‘The Washington press are forever seeking the more cynical explanation. They no longer report what is said; they interpret it, trying to fathom the ulterior motive, the story behind the story. It’s come to the point that even a sincere non-spin is received as a spin, and duly counter-spun. Had I done the unthinkable and expressed what I really thought about the speech tonight, the press would still have probed for deeper meanings: Why did Reich say the State of the Union was disappointing? Because the White House seeks to appease liberal voters who might have been disappointed with the speech, and signal to them that Clinton will return to his campaign promises after he satisfies the deficit-reduction crowed. Because Reich wants to hide his own genuine enthusiasm for fiscal austerity and convince the left that it still has a voice in the White House. Because he and Hillary and other liberals in the White House are escalating their internal war for the President’s ear. Because the deficit hawks in the White House persuaded a gullible Reich to go public with his disappointment, knowing full well that any such statement would rile the President and strengthen their hand.’ (72)
- ‘The real criterion Tom and Kitty use (whether or not they know it or admit it) is their own experienced view of what a secretary of labor with my values and aspirations should choose to see and hear. They transmit to me through the bubble only those letters, phone calls, memoranda, people, meetings, and events which they believe someone like me ought to have. But if I see and hear only what ‘someone like me’ should see and hear, no original or out-of-the-ordinary thought will ever permeate the bubble. I’ll never be surprised or shocked. I’ll never be forced to rethink or reevaluate anything. I’ll just lumber along, blissfully ignorant of what I really need to see and hear – which are things that don’t merely confirm my preconceptions about the world. I make a list of what I want them to transmit through the bubble henceforth:
1. The angriest, meanest ass-kicking letters we get from the public every week.
2. Complaints from department employees about everything.
3. Bad news about fuck-ups, large and small.
4. Ideas, ideas, ideas: from department employees, from outside academics and researchers, from average citizens. Anything that even resembles a good idea about what we should do better or differently. Don’t screen out the wacky ones.
5. Anything from the President or members of Congress.
6. A random sample of calls or letters from people outside Washington, outside government – people who aren’t lawyers, investment bankers, politicians, or business consultants; people who aren’t professionals; people without college degrees.
7. ‘Town meetings’ with department employees here at headquarters and in the regions. ‘Town meetings’ in working-class and poor areas of the country. ‘Town meetings’ in community colleges, with adult students.
8. Calls and letters from business executives, including those who hate my guts. Set up meetings with some of them.
9. Lunch meetings with small groups of department employees, randomly chosen from all ranks.
10. Meetings with conservative Republicans in Congress.’ (74-75)
- ‘[Frances Perkins] was Secretary of Labor from 1933 until 1945. I don’t know how she endured it. I’ve been here less than two months and I’m ready to keel over. And she was busy: Social Security, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, the forty-hour workweek with time and a half for overtime, a federal ban on child labor. It was an era in which almost all Americans felt they were in the same boat, and the boat was sinking. Had America not softened the hard edges of capitalism, the system might not have survived the turbulence of those decades. Other nations succumbed to tyranny or worse. Republicans of that era screamed and howled, of course, but American got on with what had to be done.’ (76-77)
- ‘ ‘I think we should fly coach.’ Silence. It’s as if I had suggested that we wear sackcloth and sleep on nails. ‘Coach?’ sniffs [Treasury Secretary] Bensen, finally breaking the silence. ‘I don’t believe that would be appropriate.’ ’ At the first cabinet meeting (78)
- ‘Environmentalism isn’t to blame for the shrinking number of jobs.’ (100)
- ‘B[ill] is looking for scapegoats. He stalks around the room, fuming. ‘We’re doing everything Wall Street wants! Everything Wall Street doesn’t want gets slashed!’ He takes another few steps. ‘We’re losing our soul!’ He talks to no one in particular, but I can’t help imagining he’s yelling at Alan Greenspan. ‘I can’t do what I came here to do.’ ’ (105)
- ‘Next to the policy wonk who presumes to know what is best for the public sits the pollster who presumes to be able to tell what the public wants. The pollster’s techniques are just as flawed, and his conceit is no less dangerous to democracy. The public doesn’t know what it wants until it has an opportunity to debate and consider.’ (106)
- ‘I’ve been using this obligatory tour of the Midwest to visit workplaces and administer my ‘Pronoun Test.’ I ask front-line workers to tell me about the company, and I listen for the pronouns. If the answers I get back describe the company as ‘they’ and ‘them,’ I know it’s one kind of place; if the answers feature ‘we’ and ‘us,’ I know I’m in a new world.’ (110)
- ‘People think top government officials make decisions that change the nation. Not so. They spend most of their time managing problems, making temporary fixes, mediating among warring factions, nudging subordinates and colleagues in directions that seem sensible.’ (113)
- ‘Because no one will want to make big cuts in defense, and no one will have the political courage to stop the explosion of Medicare, Social Security, and other entitlements for the better-off, the only categories of spending to be sacrificed will be those that go to working people and to the poor.’ (119)
- ‘The real reason that Washington is so leaky has less to do with any one of these strategies than with the way the city is organized. Almost everyone who works in the upper reaches of government has a spouse, best friend, or lover who works in another part of the upper reaches of government, or in a lobbying firm, or in the media. In this one-company town, personal intimacies are indistinguishable from public gossip. Confidential information moves swiftly from one dear ear to the next.’ (120)
- ‘Why can’t we have  serious discussion about cutting the defense and the CIA budgets, and shifting the money to our investments in people? I think I know the real reason, and it’s only partly B’s draft record. Most of these budgets buy things – complex satellite equipment, aircraft carriers, submarines, tanks, planes, electronic devices of all kinds. A large chunk of the American workforce makes these things. These mammoth budgets are, in truth, giant jobs programs. They’re the only real jobs programs this nation has left. Cut them back? Politically unthinkable. But here’s an idea that ought to be politically thinkable: Use some of the savings from cutting defense to rebuild the nation’s ailing infrastructure of mass-transit systems, clean up hazardous-waste dumps, and provide low-income housing. And retrain defense-industry workers to do these sorts of jobs.’ (136)
- ‘Wall Street is the largest legalized gambling operation in the world.’ (145)
- ‘What did you think government would be like, anyway? Did you suppose you could just snap your fingers and America would change? That’s just arrogance, Mr. Secretary. Pure arrogance. And you better learn to be happy with the victories and stop dwelling on defeats that you can’t do anything about.’ Reich’s deputy (158)
- ‘The press isn’t what causes Americans to feel this way; it simply mirrors their feelings. Mean-spirited politicians don’t simply appear on the national scene by accident; they’re put there by angry voters whose feelings they reflect. I sense it in my travels across the country: People are surly, resentful, anxious. The economic stresses that have been building for years are taking their toll.’ (167)
- ‘There’s no National Association of Working Poor. There’s no American Federation of the Penniless and Unemployed. The poor and the jobless don’t have political action committees. So as the budget shrinks, they end up bearing a disproportionate share of the sacrifice.’ (170)
- ‘It could be Tupperware or a used care. Selling is selling. I’m still a rank amateur. This dining room is filled with far better. The Oval Office is occupied by the best in the business.’ (185)
- ‘Campaigning is not a glamorous business: living-room fundraisers featuring cucumber-and-cheese sandwiches; mildew-scented motel rooms in places known only be their all-night convenience stores across the road; phone banks staffed by old people who can’t read the numbers on the printouts and keep apologizing for misdealing; hours of travel in cramped vans; tiny propeller-driven connections from boonville to boonville. You have to want it bad to put up with this. Anyone who thinks members of Congress are in it for the money or the glory hasn’t campaigned with them. This much effort directed at earning money would yield vast riches in no time. And you can forget about the glory; this is shit work.’ (193)
- ‘Free trade is similarly good for the economy overall, but its benefits aren’t shared equally. The higher-skilled and better-educated gain a global market for their services, while those with low skills or no skills have to compete with lower-wage workers around the world. Here again, the main answer lies in better education and training. Otherwise, trade merely widens the gap between the two groups.’ (195)
- ‘Two very different versions of the Lesson of the 1994 election are vying for the lead:
1. Clinton was just too liberal. He presented an overly ambitious health care plan, increased taxes, and allowed gays into the military. Obvious lesson: Clinton should move right. This lesson doesn’t hold water. Polls shows that most of the public still wants national health insurance. Taxes went up only on people at the very top (oil prices dropped, so the fuel tax had no real effect). The issue of gays in the military wasn’t central to any campaign. Most important, B has already moved to the right. After all, the two biggest things B accomplished over the last two years fulfilled the Republicans’ own unfinished agenda: cutting the deficit and signing NAFTA.
2. Clinton ignored the ‘anxious class’ of voters whose wages have been dropping. Obvious lesson: Clinton should fight harder for working people. The evidence here is striking. Exit polls gave Democrats a two-to-one advantages among voters who said their personal standard of living was rising, but a two-to-one disadvantage among those who said it was falling. The largest defections from the Democratic party were men without college degrees – nearly three out of four working men – whose wages have been dropping for a decade and a half. They tilted to Republicans sixty-three to thirty-seven percent. Non-college women also deserted the Democrats by staying home on election day. On the other hand, most voters with four-year college degrees – both male and female – voted Democratic. These are the people whose wages have been rising the fastest.’ (202-203)
- ‘Every politician in America wants to be perceived to be at the center. Who wants to be on the fringe? Political careers are imperiled by labels like ‘right-winger’ or ‘left-winger.’ The public feels safer with people who proclaim total commitment to moderation. This is especially true of presidents. FDR always sought to position himself as a centrist. So did Nixon. Barry Goldwater’s ‘extremism in defense of liberty’ helped cost him the White House. But this is just positioning. The visionary leaders of America have always understood that the ‘center’ is a fictitious place, lying somewhere south of thoughtless adherence to the status quo. Virtually any attempt to lead – to summon forth the energies and commitments of Americans – will be unconventional at the time the challenge is first sounded.’ (204-205)
- ‘ ‘Surely, Mr. Secretary,’ the lawyer says in a high, thin, officious voice, ‘you are aware that all companies operating in the United States have a right to replace their striking workers?’ ’ (231)
- ‘The Wall Street Journal reports that ‘the White house steamed when Labor Secretary Reich stole thunder from Clinton’s education message by talking about the minimum wage.’ Our nation’s major daily newspapers are vehicles through which high government officials transmit coded messages to one another. When the ‘White House’ is ‘steamed,’ it means someone near the top is aiming a knife at my back.’ (233)
- ‘Even if the current minimum wage were hiked by a full dollar, its purchasing power would barely reach what it was in the early 1980s. Technically it’s not even an increase. It’s simply an adjustment to take account of the corrosive effects of inflation. A lot of other things get adjusted for inflation – Social Security checks and tax brackets, to take but two that affect the middle class and the wealthy.’ (236)
- ‘B is an eternal optimist, convinced that there’s always a deal lying out there somewhere. That’s what makes him a supersalesman: He is absolutely certain that every single person he meets – Newt Gingrich, Yasir Arafat, whoever – wants to find common ground. It’s simply a matter of discovering where it is.’ (238)
- ‘This is the trait that worries me most. What ground will he defend against the Republican assault?’ (238)
- ‘If the owners would agree to binding arbitration, it would be over, but they won’t budget. B and I sit with Selig in Leon’s office. B is next to him on the couch, doing the move. B’s face is six inches away from Selig’s, and B’s arm rests on the back of the couch behind Selig’s head so that his hand reaches around to Selig’s other shoulder. This is full-intensity Clinton. I’m amazed Selig hasn’t already melted on the spot. ‘Look, Bud,’ B purrs. ‘You guys can make millions. Millions. We’ll have a b-i-g sendoff for the season. I’ll help you. We’ll all help. I’ll get Dole to go to Kansas, Gingrich to Atlanta. I’ll have every major figure in America out there for the start. Can’t you just see it?’ B sketches the vision in the air with his other hand. ‘This will be the biggest season ever in the history of the game. Now…all you need to do’ – B’s voice becomes even softer, and he moves his face even closer to Selig’s – ‘is agree to have this thing arbitrated. It’s in your interest, Bud.’ B pauses and looks deeply into Selig’s eyes. ‘And it’s also in the interest of…America.’ I think I hear the National Anthem in the far distance. The performance is spellbinding. Selig’s thin body seems to be shaking. ‘Let…let me just…just check in with the other…the other owners,’ he says weakly. I help him out of the couch. He can barely stand, poor man. He wanders out of Leon’s office, dazed. B shoots me a grin. ‘I think we hit a homer.’ ’ (238-239)
- ‘I trust that my position is quite clear: there is no economic theory under which you can raise the price of something without getting less of it. I am convinced that an increase in the minimum wage would cost American jobs. The best way to help the working poor is through other means – such as easing the tremendous burden of a bloated government on the economy. Sincerely, Dick Armey.’ Letter to Reich (244)
- ‘Undoubtedly the cynicism has grown, and has been fueled by decades of disappointments and scandals, beginning with Vietnam and ending, most recently, with the savings-and-loan fiasco. But cynicism toward government is in fact America’s natural state; government has been despised and distrusted through most of our history. This is the way we began. What was unnatural was the long period in this century during which government was held in high esteem. We suspend our distrust only in times of war, economic crisis, or other large-scale threat that convinces us we have to entrust government to meet the challenges at hand. When the mission is complete or we are no longer convinced that the challenge is real, we revert to our natural state.’ (249)
- ‘They sell candidates exactly the way Madison Avenue sells cornflakes and soap. They do phone surveys, opinion polls, and in-depth ‘focus groups’ in a never-ending quest to discover what the public wants. They then use the techniques of advertising and marketing to convert the candidate into that product. At best, political consultants help men and women of principle win election by education the public about what such candidates believe and why. At worst, political consultants fight ferociously against any spark of principle, fashioning a candidate whose only characteristic is his or her marketability.’ (261-262)
- ‘B’s cave-in brings us halfway down the slippery slope. If balancing in ten years is goods, why isn’t balancing in seven even better? If eliminating the deficit is so important, why worry overly much about who bears the pain?’ (264)
- ‘The problem for us is that they offer an explanation for why wages are stuck and why people feel insecure. They pin blame on taxes, deficit spending, immigrant, and welfare mothers. All that’s just displacing the real problem. But when we tell people they need better skills and more education, we seem to be blaming working people themselves.’ Bill (266)
- ‘There once was a time when the attendees at head-of-state luncheons like this were diplomats, artists, and Nobel Prize winners. Now the audience consists of executives of global corporations and Wall Street bankers. Prime ministers and presidents have become traveling salesmen, eagerly hawking their countries to anyone large enough to buy them.’ (275)
- ‘I came to Washington thinking the answer was simply to provide people in the bottom half with access to the education and skills they need to qualify for better jobs. But it’s more than that. Without power, they can’t get the resources for good schools and affordable higher education or training. Powerless, they can’t even guarantee safe workplaces, maintain a livable minimum wage, or prevent sweatshops from reemerging. Without power, they can’t force highly profitable companies to share the profits with them. Powerless, they’re expendable as old pieces of machinery.’ (280)
- ‘Tonight Gingrich and I are both receiving awards from an organization that finds jobs for kids who graduate from high school but won’t be attending college. In this town, awards are distributed like baloney sandwiches. Virtually anyone can get one from anybody for doing almost anything. The purpose of giving out an award isn’t to confer an honor. It’s to attract a crowd of potential donors who want some of the baloney. They’re hungry to see or be seen with the person receiving the honor. So the broader the ideological span of the awardees, the larger the pool of potential attendees. Between us, Gingrich and I cover the pool from edge to edge.’ (281)
- ‘They don’t believe there should be any government except for national defense…They think all we need as a nation is a big military and a few billionaire entrepreneurs.’ B (285)
- ‘Most people are appalled when they see big, profitable companies fire thousands of their employees in order to temporarily jack up share prices and create windfalls for top executives. Americans always assumed that when companies did better, the people that work for them should do better, too. They’d have higher wages, better benefits, more job security. This was the implicit moral code that guided the economy for more than three decades after World War Two. It was reenforced [sic] by the unions, but it was enforced in the first instance by public expectations. It would have been considered unseemly for a company that was doing better to fail to share the good times with its employees. But that compact has become undone.’ (292)
- ‘Remember that cutting the deficit was never an end in itself; it was a means to an end. The ultimate goal was to increase both private and public investment in order to raise the living standards of all Americans. You’re on the way to eliminating the federal budget deficit in order to give the private sector more and cheaper capital to invest, so that the living standards of most Americans can improve. At least, that’s the theory. But unless the private sector understands its responsibilities in turn, there’s no reason to suppose that the extra private investment will have the desired effect. Companies intent on maximizing returns to their shareholders might invest the extra dollars in production abroad, or in labor-saving equipment intended to reduce wages and cut jobs, or in mergers, acquisitions, and divestitures that result in mass layoffs.’ (293)
- ‘Minutes later we’re in the White House press room announcing the new employment report that shows the economy adding eight million new jobs since January 1993. Rubin, Tyson, and I exude nothing but happiness and cheer. ‘The best economy in thirty years,’ we say, almost in unison. We don’t mention that median wages remain flat, benefits are dropping, a third of the workforce is still losing ground, and the income gap is still widening.’ (302)
- ‘One of my most effective lobbying techniques is to debate right-wingers on every pugilistic TV show I can get myself invited to. Only a tiny fraction of the public ever watches these head-to-head combats, but official Washington doesn’t know that. They think the entire nation tunes in to C-Span, CNN, and their offshoots.’ (316-317)
- ‘He’ll decide whether to sign the welfare bill. If he does, it will put a million more kids into poverty.’ (319)
- ‘This election signals the end of the old Democratic coalition of blacks, the elderly, and the downscale. It marks the emergence of a new Democratic coalition of women, Latinos, and, especially, middle-class suburban married couples.’ Pollster Mark Penn (330)
- ‘The turnout was the lowest percentage of the voting population since 1924 – seven million fewer people than in 1992. And almost all of the new non-voters were from households earning less than $50,000 a year. The great mass of non-voters – which keeps growing – is overwhelmingly poor or of modest income. They didn’t vote in 1996 because they saw nothing in it for them.’ (330)
- ‘Who knows what the result might have been had B given them something to vote for? Had more lower-income voters gone to the polls, they might even have elected a Democratic Congress. Had B ignited their interest and their passion, the Democratic party might dominate American for decades to come. But as it is, the largest party in America is neither Democratic nor Republican; it is the party of non-voters, who see no reason to become involved.’ (330)

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