What it's going to take, Reich says, is some seriously innovative social engineering. He's a fan of school vouchers, including progressive vouchers that would give even bigger tax savings to poor families who place their kids in private schools. He also suggests providing every American with a $60,000 nest egg, upon reaching adulthood, to spend on education, start a business, or sock into the market. He proposes earnings insurance as a better means than unemployment insurance to smooth income variations in a workforce composed largely of free agents who, while remaining employed, may have large fluctuations in earnings from year to year.

Whew. Reich does not temper his visions with too much pragmatism, as even he admits. "We wouldn't want to rush wholesale into any of these without more experiments," he allows. "I offer them as a set of starting points for a conversation we ought to be having in this country."

What about Reich's own life? One son, the one he quit government to spend more time with, goes to public school in Cambridge, Massachusetts; the other attends college. So much for vouchers. He writes - turning off telephone, cell phone, pager, and computer e-mail for three hours a day to free up space for cogitation - and he teaches. He does some painting. "My wife and I have started to go back to something we did 30 years ago, which is acting together," he reveals. "Just a few weeks ago we put on a performance of Love Letters by A.R. Gurney. It's a lovely and quite poignant two-person play. We did it as a fundraiser, and about 800 people showed up, to our amazement."

All told, it doesn't sound like a particularly laid-back existence, especially when you consider Reich totes a Palm handheld computer to organize his schedule, still travels twice a month, and, of course, has to devote more time than he would like - or, by this point in our conversation, has budgeted for - to talking to reporters. But is it a successful life? "Undoubtedly," Reich states without hesitation. "I've made a quantum leap toward a more successful life."

But before you start dusting off your watercolors and working on your stage presence, Reich cautions against trying to emulate the success of anyone else. He acknowledges no hero of success in his own life. "I wish I knew such a person," he says, slipping for a moment into a tone resonant with feeling before going back to his more normal professorial mode. "I don't know that we can pattern our lives after any individual person," he says. "But self-awareness is the first step toward achieving a better set of priorities. And I'm trying to be quite self-aware."