Thoughts on the End of a Hell of a Year

The biggest thing to happen to me this year was the birth of my first grandchild, a little girl named Ella. I know this kind of thing happens all the time and frankly I get bored with people who go all gushy about the birth of kids or grandkids.

I’m bringing Ella up not so much because she’s special — of course she is — but because she was born right in the middle of the worst economic downturn in my lifetime and probably yours, and maybe even hers. Ella came with a crash.

Like almost everyone else, I’ve lost a big chunk of my savings this year. And the house I bought here in Berkeley at the very top of the housing boom is probably worth a lot less than I paid for it. I’m not too worried about my job because I have tenure here at the University of California, although maybe I should worry because the state is technically bankrupt. Still, I’m one of the lucky ones.

Yet all of this seems somehow beside the point, relative to Ella.

Having kids or grandkids expands your focus and also your time horizon. You pay a bit less attention to what the Dow is likely to do over the next quarter and more to the underlying wealth of the nation. By that I don’t mean just its gross domestic product but also its gross domestic decency, if there were such a measure: The quality of our public schools and of our atmosphere, the extent of our openness and generosity toward one another, our national promise of opportunity to all. You find yourself less interested in the gossip surrounding Bernie Madoff or Rod Blagojevich than in the larger questions they raise about private greed and public morality.

Alright, maybe I am going all gushy. The point is, it’s the Ellas of the world we’re fighting for. This Mini-Depression is causing a lot of pain, to be sure, but it will be over in a year or three. Yet what kind of economy will we have on the other side? Will we have a more just society?

Which brings me to the end of the year. I wish you not just a happy and prosperous new year. On that score, 2009 may be something of a bummer. I wish you and your kids and grandkids, and Ella, something more — a decent, generous, and humane future.

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About Robert Reich 547 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

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