With the sequester now beginning, I find myself thinking about Robert F. Kennedy -- and 46 years ago, when I was an intern in his Senate office.
The nation was going through a difficult time in 1967. America was deeply split over civil rights and the Vietnam War. Many of our cities were burning. The war was escalating.
But RFK was upbeat. He was also busy and intense -- drafting legislation, lining up votes, speaking to the poor, inspiring the young.
I was awed by his energy and optimism, and by his overriding passion for social justice and the public good. (Within a few months he'd declare his intention to run for president. Within a year he'd be dead.)
The nation is once again polarized, but I don't hear our politicians talking about social justice or the public good. They're talking instead about the budget deficit and sequestration. At bottom, though, the issue is still social justice.
The austerity economics on which we've embarked is a cruel hoax -- cruel because it hurts those who are already hurt the most; a hoax because it doesn't work.
The trickle-down economics on which Republicans base their refusal to even discuss closing tax loopholes for the wealthy is a proven failure -- proven because it's been tried before, by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush; a failure because nothing has trickled down.
Taxes have been cut on the wealthy, but the real median wage keeps dropping and the rate of poverty keeps rising. Now, 22 percent of American children are living in poverty.
Yet in the months (or years) ahead, federal money will be reduced for poor schools, child nutrition, preschools and mental-health services.
Some 3.8 million people who have been unemployed for more than six months will see their jobless benefits cut.
Some 600,000 low-income women and children will no longer benefit from the federal nutrition program for women and toddlers.
Lower-income Americans are already suffering disproportionately from high unemployment. But they will bear even more of the burden of joblessness as the economy slows because of the sequester.
Meanwhile, America has become far more unequal than it was in 1967. Then, the richest 1 percent got 9 percent of the nation's total income and paid a top marginal tax of 78 percent (and an effective rate, after deductions and credits, of 54 percent).
Now, the richest 1 percent get more than 20 percent of the nation's income and pay a marginal tax of 39 percent (and an effective rate of 23 percent -- or, if you're in Mitt Romney's league, less than 19 percent). The richest 400 Americans have more wealth than the bottom 150 million combined.
If Robert Kennedy were alive today, he'd condemn the tea party Republicans (and the Koch brothers and other billionaires who fund them) for violating the basic ideal of social justice that is the moral foundation of this nation.
Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future." He blogs at www.robertreich.org.