A Congress of Robert Reichs

On April 12, 2016, Robert Reich and Rob Reich (with special guest Rob Reich) convened at Stanford University

Good evening. My name is Robert Reich. Welcome to an evening with Robert Reich. Just to make things easier: I go by Rob, he goes by Bob.

The story behind tonight’s event begins some twenty-five years ago. In my sophomore year at Yale University, I was writing a paper on foreign policy. Imbued with the sense of youthful and unearned entitlement that an education at a place like Yale (or Stanford) specializes in developing, I decided I would just try calling the office of my home state senator, Dem. Frank Lautenberg, of New Jersey.

I naively imagined that he’d just pick up the phone and answer a few questions about my research paper.

Instead I got his receptionist, so I left a message. Getting his receptionist should not have been a surprise. What was a surprise was when my dorm room phone rang ten minutes later. It was Sen. Lautenberg eagerly returning my call. “Bob! Good professor, how can I help you?”

Boy was he disappointed to learn that he had reached some punk college kid Rob Reich, not Robert Reich, the distinguished professor at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. That was the first moment I realized that my name was not all mine. That I had a doppelgänger — an eminent American intellectual, a Rhodes Scholar, and a soon-to-be U.S. Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton. Indeed, a giant Robert Reich.

Twenty-five years later, not a month goes by where I show up to give a lecture without people in the audience frowning slightly, puzzled at who has appeared at the podium. They start digging around in the program or whispering to their neighbor, “He doesn’t look like the former Secretary of Labor!” I’ve barely opened my mouth and I’ve already disappointed. They were expecting someone else named Rob Reich.

So tonight is an assembly of Bay Area Rob Reichs. But at its heart this event is an exercise in public disambiguation. Here, finally, you have proof that we are not the same person. True, we are both professors. And we both write about politics and about inequality. But there [pointing] is Berkeley Bob, and [pointing] here is me, Stanford Rob. Two different Reichs.

The Berkeley one is the Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy, who Time Magazine named one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century, who ran for governor in the state of Massachusetts, who has starred in an award-winning documentary, Inequality for All, who makes folksy YouTube videos with whiteboard explanations of the economy, who co-founded the magazine The American Prospect, and who has written fourteen books, including the book he’ll talk about tonight, Saving Capitalism.

And here is the Stanford one — yours truly — who is a professor of Political Science, who directs the Stanford Center for Ethics in Society and the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, who sits on the board of the magazine Boston Review, and who has written on education, the health of American democracy, about ethics and inequality, and about philanthropy.

This is an exciting night for me. All the moreso since I met Bob Reich for the very first time an hour ago when he arrived on campus. Yet I feel like I know the man a bit, for we have interacted occasionally over the past few years.

Ever since becoming a professor myself here at Stanford, and especially since he moved across the country and took up a position at UC Berkeley, I get email from people who are obviously intending to contact the former Secretary of Labor. I dutifully forward these messages along, and so Bob and I have had some amusing email exchanges.

Let me share with you what it’s like to have the same name of a much more famous person in one’s own line of work.

Sometimes I get fan mail.

Or more dramatically, this:

These are easy to handle. I’ll occasionally reply — I know, I do have all the answers — and then I dutifully forward to Bob.

Other messages present greater temptations. Sometimes I receive exciting invitations to do things that would be pretty interesting. Like being interviewed on NPR.

Appearing on a television show:

Talking at the World Bank:

Going to speak to the Italian metalworkers union in Rome:

Or this:

Oh, wait. That one was actually for me.

It is just a fantasy, but I like to imagine that Bob also receives email messages that are actually meant for me.

Dear Bob,
The Nobel Committee invites you to Oslo to receive a medal for your exceptional work on the ethics of philanthropy.
King of Norway
Dear Bob,
Jay Z and I are wondering if you and Heather want to come with us to the Warriors game tomorrow. Courtside seats!
Hugs, Beyoncé
Dear Bob,
You need to pick us up after school on Friday.
Love, Gus and Greta

(I’m not exactly sure why my kids would have the wrong email address for me. But that’s how pervasively confusing this whole thing has been.)

Over the course of the past decade, I’ve been invited to give a few dozen keynote addresses on books he’s written or to speak about his film, Inequality For All, in New York City, Copenhagen, Washington D.C., and other exciting places.

One time, I received an invitation to give a talk at an investment bank, and the bank offered a $20,000 honorarium. I very nearly accepted that invitation.

One day I will do such a thing and show up to an event and just give a talk, even though the organizers clearly mean to invite the other Robert Reich.

Yet the ease of confusing me, Stanford Rob Reich, with Berkeley Bob Reich, is not always a source of amusement. Sometimes it’s irritating.

A few years ago I was asked to provide a blurb for a book published by Harvard Business Review. It was on a topic I knew something about, so I accepted and read the book and sent back a glowing short blurb. I soon received this email from the person at the press:

Gah.

Another time I received an email confirmation from the Charles Hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts thanking me for choosing the Charles Hotel for my stay there.

But I hadn’t been there at all! I forwarded that email on to Bob Reich and he wrote back:

But that’s not the worst of it.

The government can’t tell us apart either. Long ago I gave a talk at Berkeley, received a token honorarium and ended up in their HR database. Then, when Bob Reich took a job there, the Berkeley controller began paying his salary but filing it under my name and social security number. I was audited that year, and it took hours of work to figure out why the IRS thought I had earned tens of thousands of dollars from Berkeley. I suppose this is the kind of wealth redistribution that Bob will make possible when he answers the pleas of his fans and runs for president.

So life in the Bay Area with the name Rob Reich is sometimes amusing and sometimes irritating. Mostly, it just introduces confusion.

There’s a final twist to this whole story.

We’ve seen how NPR, other universities, and the IRS can’t tell us apart. What about Google? If you do a Google search for “Bay Area Rob Reich” here’s what you’ll find atop the search results.

Who’s this guy?

It turns out there is a third person named Rob Reich in the Bay Area. He’s a really accomplished musician, and he plays gigs all the time. His primary instrument is the accordion, and he has an amazing bio, working with two ensembles, the Rob Reich Trio and the Rob Reich Quintet, composing songs based on the poetry of e.e. cummings, and writing pieces for contortionists and trapeze artists at Circus Bella. Reich performs with the groups Tin Hat, Todd Sickafoose’s Tiny Resistors, Gaucho, Nice Guy Trio, and has performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival, SFJAZZ Festival, and at San Francisco venues including Herbst Theater, Yoshi’s, and Yerba Buena Gardens.

I’ve never met him either. In my world, he’s called Accordion Rob. He’s obviously an amazing musician. And he’s playing at the Boxing Room in San Francisco this Sunday, April 17.

In contrast to the drumbeat of doom and gloom criticism about the state of American politics that comes from Berkeley Bob and me, Stanford Rob, Accordion Rob is upbeat and joyful.

The academic Robs just think grandiose ivory tower thoughts and pretend they’re smart so that no one will notice that they don’t actually have a real skill, like being a virtuoso instrumentalist.

In my fantasies, accordion Rob gets emails like this:

Dear Rob,
Are you free to play the White House on Sunday? Michelle and I have this stupid state dinner we have to host for a couple of other Rob Reichs — Bay Area academic twits — and we want to make sure that at least the music will be good.
Barack Obama

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m thrilled to say that Accordion Rob is here with us tonight too.

So, if you weren’t paying attention:

There’s Accordion Rob Reich, the rock star musician.

There’s Stanford Rob Reich, your host.

And, there’s Berkeley Bob Reich — the former Secretary of Labor.

It’s a veritable Congress of Rob Reichs.


I’m now going wrap up this introduction. Robert B. Reich will come and talk for 30 minutes about his new book, Saving Capitalism. His presentation is called “Capitalism and Democracy.”

Then I’ll return to the stage for some conversation with him about the book.

And once you’ve had enough of egghead Robert Reichs, we’ll treat you to some music. Accordionist Rob Reich will conclude tonight’s event with a short performance.

Would you please join me in welcoming to the stage Robert B. Reich.


Photos and Video from the Evening

Christine Baker

Christine Baker

Christine Baker