Reich discusses economic recovery

There are two things one cannot help noticing about Robert B. Reich, the former Secretary of Labor and a leading economist: He is extremely small physically, and he is extremely large intellectually.

Reich, who served as Secretary of Labor under President Bill Clinton, and who is now professor of public policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California-Berkeley, was last week’s featured speaker at the St. Louis Speakers Series before a packed house at Powell Symphony Hall. During his talk, he assessed prospects for a recovery from what has been described as the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

But before launching into serious matters, he immediately confronted his short stature, which was made more pronounced by the large TV monitor on the stage of Powell Hall. “As you can see, the economy has really worn me down. I used to be 6-foot-3,” he said in the first of many laugh lines that punctuated his talk.

Referring to the economic downturn of the past few years, Reich said that historically, “the good news is that what goes down must go up applies to our economy. The question is when it will go up and how to move it there.”

Reich emphasized the uncertain nature of economics, which his colleagues frequently call “the dismal science.” He quipped that he has consistently predicted a recovery “within two years,” and when the two years are up he simply predicts it will happen in another two years, stressing that economics is an inexact science and that predic tions do not guarantee that they will come true. “Eventually, the economy is going to start going up, and jobs are going to start coming back, but it will take years for some of the effects of (president Barack Obama’s) stimulus (package) to get results. So the question is: what should be done right now, and really nobody knows exactly what to do.”

Reich said that deep recessions or even depressions occur as part of the natural business cycle. “In order to decide what to do, we must first understand the underlying structure of the economy. Let me warn you that I have a reputation of being a kind of economic soothsayer. And I’m going to be making some predictions in a moment, but I want you to understand the context of those predictions, so you can know how much you can trust them to come true.

“My first efforts at soothsaying started in October of 1987, when there was what they call a market correction. The first week of October 1987, I was on a television ‘yelling program.’ I was opposite an economist who was saying that over the next month, you will not believe how bullish the stock market will be . . . I said he was wrong. I can’t tell you precisely when things will change, but in about two weeks, the market’s going to lose about 20 percent of its value.”

Reich said that in two weeks, the market did lose 20 percent of its value, “and I got all kinds of calls from people who wanted to subscribe to my investment newsletter. Actually, I had been making the exact same prediction for the previous five years, and this was the first time it came true. The lesson behind all of this is stick with your predictions as long as you can, and eventually you will hit it right.”

Reich indicated that over the past 20 years, the American economy has been radically changed by a number of factors including a loss in the value of wages adjusted for inflation, increased personal debt and the large number of women who have joined the work force. He added that American workers now work an average of 350 hours more per year than European workers, “even more than workers in Japan, which has a reputation for long hours of stressful work. Over the same period, we had the bursting of the housing bubble, and Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan kept interest rates too low for too long. We also had the decline of regulations, such as the repeal of the Glass-Spiegel Act, which was passed in 1933 during the Great Depression to separate the commercial banks from investment banks. When that wall was taken down, some of the problems with our banking and Wall Street sectors took effect.”

Reich also took note of the impact of globalization of the economy, which made it easier to ship various manufacturing and other jobs overseas, along with the impact of automation. “There used to be people called bank tellers, who are practically no longer in existence. And what about so-called ‘service’ stations? Twenty years ago, I would pull into a service station in Washington and people would come out to offer me services, such as filling the tank and asking if I wanted an oil change. Now I go to the same station and there may be nobody there, except perhaps someone to sell items in the shop inside.”

Most significantly, Reich said was the increased differential between the top financial tier and the rest of the nation in earning power. He also outlined the challenges resulting from the costs of the present health care system and lamented the possible failure to pass a health care reform bill. “I hope that some kind of compromise can be reached, because our present system is in dire need of reform to avoid even further challenges to our economy,” he said.

Despite all the challenges, Reich said, “Take my word for it. For every downturn, there is an eventual upturn. We are all in this together, and my prediction is that things will start to improve within two years.”