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Robert Reich's Phony Predicament


By Noah I. Dauber

Robert Reich is retiring for the best of reasons: he wants to spend more time with his family. He has found that balancing work and family is simply impossible. Not that he hasn't tried. We can imagine the poor sod, armed to the teeth with daily planners and cellular phones, trying to be there for everyone. Reich, our nation's Secretary of Labor, wrote of his decision to step down from the Cabinet for the Op-Ed page of the New York Times last Friday.

The piece is remarkable, though certainly not for its confessional tone. It seems like we hear daily of the trials of the middle-aged. They write to us of downsizing owes, of ailing parents and of swelling prostrates. Even the more marginal among the 40-somethings, the artists and the gays, write about their problems. They tell us of desiccated circles of friends and broken-down coteries. These memories, for all theeir variety, tend to linger on families of one sort or another.

Reich's piece does not have the same varnished air of much of this writing. The article is conversational, almost bubbly, with the triumphant tone of the moral high ground piping in the background. Reich knows that he has done the right thing. He's made the choice to spend more time with his family without being forced to by sickness or a depressed labor market.

Yet, no doubt about it, there is substance to Reich's piece. If we cannot find the story of the poor man here, working 14-hour days to earn a starving wage for his children, then it is because Reich is no poor man. In fact, the tension in Reich's life and in the Times piece is drawn between the joys of work and the joys of family. He suffers from an overbundance; his cup runneth over. For many Harvard students, Reich's story is familiar. We worry about making the right choices in a sea of opportunity.

Reich's advice is much better suited to us than the tired family values rhetoric of the one-sided contemporary political debate. Reich, we must remember, is the Secretary of Labor. He Understands work; he has spent much of his career thinking about work. As a result, Reich does not pit the soulless company man once again against the smiling, tanned familydad. Rather his portrait of the workaholic is sympathetic: "They love their job and find the world of spouse and kids harder to manage."

There is a world of truth in the words "harder to manage." How often have we found it easier to retreat into our books, our problem sets and our future plans than to deal with the demands of our parents, our roommates or our special someones. How often have we said, "I'd love to go out with you tonight. It's just that I have this paper, you see."

We know that work does not have to be humdrum. We know that it takes time, and usually solitude, to write and to think. Reich understands us. He knows that it is not an easy thing to drop one's work, even for one's family. Ultimately, though, he chose to spend more time with his family, and he clearly feels good about this. Still, there is a hint of desperation and ambiguity in his voice; we get the feeling that there's more going on here than meets the eye.

Reich definitely sends us a mixed message throughout the essay. On the one hand, he admits that a shmo in his position is in reality "doubly blessed." Someone so blessed cannot really complain, he continues. Here, Reich is the voice of reason and humility. His choice is not so much a trail as a divine gift. And to confuse the two, it seems, would be sacrilege.

Yet, Reich goes on to describe his predicament as "a painful choice." Now it seems we are to have pity for the fellow. Balance between meaningful work and family is impossible. He has worn himself ragged trying to make it work. Suddenly, Reich doesn't seem like a blessed man anymore. Now we are subjected to the voice of his younger son Sam, who just wants to know that his father will be home that night.

Blessed or pained? Either route has us believing that Reich has had to sacrifice. If we consider him blessed, it is because the pain of his sacrifice is small compared to the magnitude of his blessing. If you listen carefully though, there is an undercurrent in Reich's article that makes this whole question of tone seem preposterous.

Reich may not have managed to strike a balance between work and family at the same time, but he has sure managed to work it out over time. Here is that triumphant key again. Reich has had his cake and eaten it too. Not only has he had a phenomenal career, but he gets to choose to slow that career to spend more time with his family. And, all of this without being compelled by sickness, corporate failure or death.

We should be hearing Robert Reich singing hallelujahs and hosannas until he is blue in the face. If he has made a sacrifice, it is so small in comparison with his blessed three times over. While Reich speaks nobly of the loss of leaving important work for the more private pleasures of family life, it is insulting to find melodrama here in the place of thankfulness.

We who share his predicament, or hope to in the future, might do well not to speak in such insinuating tones of painful choices. We should not delude ourselves, with all our affected mannerisms, moribund imaginations and studied pessimisms, into thinking that we live on the razor's edge.

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