William Greider, a prominent political journalist and author, has been a reporter for more than 35 years for newspapers, magazines and television. Over the past two decades, he has persistently challenged mainstream thinking on economics.
For 17 years Greider was the National Affairs Editor at Rolling Stone magazine, where his investigation of the defense establishment began. He is a former assistant managing editor at the Washington Post, where he worked for fifteen years as a national correspondent, editor and columnist. While at the Post, he broke the story of how David Stockman, Ronald Reagan's budget director, grew disillusioned with supply-side economics and the budget deficits that policy caused, which still burden the American economy.
He is the author of the national bestsellers One World, Ready or Not, Secrets of the Temple and Who Will Tell The People. In the award-winning Secrets of the Temple, he offered a critique of the Federal Reserve system. Greider has also served as a correspondent for six Frontline documentaries on PBS, including "Return to Beirut," which won an Emmy in 1985.
Greider's most recent book is The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to A Moral Economy. In it, he untangles the systemic mysteries of American capitalism, details its destructive collisions with society and demonstrates how people can achieve decisive influence to reform the system's structure and operating values.
Raised in Wyoming, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, he graduated from Princeton University in 1958. He currently lives in Washington, DC.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan is a disappointment to those who counted on him to uphold the banner
of ethical social change.
For years, environmental advocates in and out of government have labored to construct a connecting arch between opposing interests that could lead to the first real legislative action on global warming. Last year the elements for a breakthrough deal seemed in place. Both major presidential nominees said they were on board. Then George W. Bush came into office and removed the keystone from the arch.
The keystone is the bundle of federal lawsuits that the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department have filed against electric utility polluters, plus the active investigations of a hundred or more other power plants and refineries for similar gross violations. The President has ordered a "review" of these legal actions--in effect freezing enforcement and perhaps halting it entirely. Without the threat of these lawsuits, electric utilities have no incentive to accept new federal regulation of their carbon dioxide emissions--a crucial first step in the long-delayed imperative to reduce global warming.
Bush's action may sound like inside-the-Beltway intrigue--and it is--but the consequences could be momentous if not challenged by a public outcry. His action should also inspire a careful Congressional investigation. Who exactly put the fix in at the White House? The defendants, appears to be the answer, joined by old reliables like ExxonMobil. The companies threatened by the EPA's multibillion-dollar lawsuits--coal, oil and the big-time scofflaws in electricity generation--evidently went through a back door labeled Rove-Cheney Office of Political Environmentalism. Their achievement illustrates another bipartisan scandal--our torturously slow-acting and incomplete environmental laws. The government is, in fact, still struggling to get this crowd to comply with clean-air standards put in place thirty years ago.
To appreciate the contradictions, start with the Clean Air Act of 1970, which grandfathered in, as exempt from the new pollution standards, hundreds of outmoded power plants. Regarded at the time as necessary for passage of the act, this trade-off allowed the plants to keep operating--but not to expand their output--on the assumption that they would gradually be phased out. Instead, more than 300 of the grandfathered power plants are still going and produce more than half the country's electricity, as well as the bulk of its mercury, nitrogen and sulfur air pollution (electric utilities are also the largest source of carbon dioxide pollution). And, in defiance of the law, a lot of the exempted plants expanded. Those violations, after decades of regulatory debate and failed persuasion, led to the first batch of EPA lawsuits filed against seven companies in 1999, with many more promised. They involve serious lawbreaking and huge liabilities--and potentially expose companies to public-health damage suits as well.
Several of the more enlightened companies began looking for a deal: In exchange for relief from the lawsuits, they'd accept a new regulatory law curbingtheir pollution. That's when enviro groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) put global warming on the table too. If Congress enacted legislation covering the other three pollutants, it made sense to include carbon dioxide, never before subject to regulatory curbs. Some utility executives, recognizing its inevitability, accepted the trade-off. Why modernize plants for the three established pollutants, then have to come back to retrofit for carbon emissions? That promising confluence of interests inspired the four-pollutant legislation now pending in Congress.
But the Bushies are proceeding to let industry off the hook. First, Bush canceled his campaign promise to support mandatory carbon dioxide reductions (his policies will likely be hammered at the United Nations conference on global warming in Bonn this month). Then Dick Cheney's secretive energy task force proposed the "review," virtually suspending compliance agreements that some companies had already negotiated with the EPA. The NRDC has identified the National Coal Council, a supposedly nonpolitical federal advisory committee, as a central meeting place where defendant firms and their lawyers collaborate with coal and oil reps on devising the counterattack. Lois Schiffer, head of the Justice Department's environmental enforcement under Clinton, told the Wall Street Journal: "It's sort of like going to the White House to get your parking tickets fixed."
White House tampering with law enforcement on behalf of accused lawbreakers who are the President's patrons ought to be treated as a big deal, even in scandal-jaded Washington. Senate Democrats do not need to engage in bipartisan niceties on this-- they must make a full-throated commitment to legislate and to make global warming a decisive election issue for 2002 and especially 2004, if Bush persists in pandering to the most retrograde industrial interests. Democrats, quite by accident, have a running start here. The new chairman of the Senate environment committee--former Republican Jim Jeffords--is the co-sponsor of the four-pollutant legislation (with Democrat Joe Lieberman). If Jeffords couldn't rally his old party to the cause of global warming, maybe he can convince his new friends on the other side of the aisle to take it seriously.
Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill is turning out to be a dangerous crank.
New York's City Council is about to open a promising new front in the global struggle against sweatshop exploitation--a city procurement ordinance that requires decent wages and factory conditions for the apparel workers who make uniforms for New York's finest. Mayor Giuliani huffily vetoed the measure, denouncing it as "socialist economics," but since the Council passed it 39 to 5, a veto override is expected. New York City spends up to $70 million a year on uniforms for police, firefighters, sanitation, park and other employees. The city is a customer with clout.
The new ordinance was drafted and promoted by UNITE (Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees) with a unique feature--a global index for determining "nonpoverty" wage levels, country by country, based on objective economic data. The law would require any apparel manufacturer, domestic or foreign, to certify that its wages meet the standard--before the city will buy the company's goods. "The city should not spend its citizens' money in ways that shock the conscience of a vast majority," the Council report declared.
What is more significant, however, is that New York's initiative should reopen a path for local legislative activism on global issues. New York has created a model that city and state governments across the country can use to legislate their own procurement rules against sweatshop conditions. As of last year, the subject seemed closed. The Supreme Court nullified a Massachusetts law boycotting companies that do business with Burma, known for its brutal repression of workers and citizens. The Massachusetts statute was badly drawn and clearly suggested that Boston was trying to make foreign policy--power the Constitution gives to Washington. The New York ordinance has been cast to avoid those flaws, though it will certainly be challenged in court (Mayor Giuliani promised to lead the attack).
"The apparel industry has become a global factory where there are no standards," says Steven Weingarten, UNITE's director of industrial development. "This bill connects the customer with standards for decent conditions and a decent wage. The uniformed unions--police, firefighters and others--are very supportive. To wear uniforms made by people in sweatshop conditions is not what they want to stand for. There are 80,000 apparel workers in New York City, and it should at least stop rewarding the irresponsible manufacturers, both in the United States and abroad."
The principal mechanism for enforcement is disclosure. To complete a sale, a company must certify where the goods were made, including locations of subcontractors, and that it is producing as a "responsible manufacturer"--that is, complying with relevant wage, health, environmental and safety laws, not abusing or discriminating against employees and providing the nonpoverty wage determined by national economic context. If a company files a false report and violates the standards, it could be fined or barred from contracting with the city or sued for civil damages. The reporting system opens the door for citizens to submit facts, and the companies must permit independent monitoring of their factories if city officials request it.
Professor Mark Barenberg of Columbia Law School, chairman of the governing board of the Worker Rights Consortium, believes UNITE's draft legislation is immune to any accusation that New York City is poaching on federal territory, either the regulation of interstate commerce or the executive branch's exclusive domain of foreign relations. Among its flaws, Massachusetts' Burma law targeted a single country with the goal of forcing policy changes, and the boycott rule attempted to hold US corporations responsible for a foreign government's actions. In the New York legislation, the terms apply to any seller of apparel, regardless of location, and involve issues that are already accepted in state-local procurement laws (though not usually applied to foreign production). Under the interstate commerce clause, cities and states are forbidden to discriminate against other states by targeting their producers with anticompetitive restrictions. But, Barenberg explains, "when a city or state acts like a consumer--a market participant itself--it can discriminate in the ways any consumer does."
If a city decides its citizens are offended by abusive working conditions or exploitative wages by producers outside its jurisdiction, it cannot enact a law to stop them, but it can refuse to buy their goods. "It would be a radical act of the Supreme Court to overrule the 'market participant' doctrine and say states and cities may not choose to reject products from foreign countries because they don't want to buy from sweatshops," Barenberg observes.
Of course, the Rehnquist Supreme Court has demonstrated that it is fully capable of "radical acts" in pursuit of right-wing results. Among its various rationales, the Court might declare that while the New York ordinance alone does not damage constitutional balance, the prospect of scores or hundreds of communities enacting similar measures would be intolerable. In the meantime, however, widespread agitation from the grassroots is precisely what's needed to build a fire under the seat of government in Washington. That's how democracy was supposed to work--let the Supremes analyze that.
When NAFTA was adopted in 1993, Chapter 11 in the trade and investment agreement was too obscure to stir controversy. Eight years later, it's the smoking gun in the intensifying argument over whether globalization trumps national sovereignty. Chapter 11 established a new system of private arbitration for foreign investors to bring injury claims against governments. As the business claims and money awards accumulate, the warnings from astute critics are confirmed--NAFTA has enabled multinational corporations to usurp the sovereign powers of government, not to mention the rights of citizens and communities.
The issue has exquisite resonance with the present moment. On April 20 thirty-four heads of state gather in Quebec City to lead cheers for a Free Trade Area for the Americas. The FTAA negotiations are designed to expand NAFTA's rules to cover the entire Western Hemisphere. The Quebec meeting should provide good theater but not much substance. Tony Clarke of the Polaris Institute, in Ottawa, says the meeting is intended to be "a face lift for the whole global agenda, by portraying free trade as democracy." Protesting citizens will be in the streets, challenging 6,000 police and Mounties, with an opposite message: Democracy is threatened by the corporate vision of globalization.
Chapter 11 of NAFTA should become a defining issue for FTAA negotiations. Many, including Clarke, vice chairman of the Council of Canadians, believe corporate governance was and is the FTAA's intent. "There is a conquering spirit at the heart of all this," he says, adding that the corporations' attitude is: "We have to get into every nook and cranny of the world and make it ours."
Chapter 11 provides a model of how this might be accomplished. The operative principle is that foreign capital investing in Canada, Mexico and the United States may demand compensation if the profit-making potential of their ventures has been injured by government decisions--"tantamount to expropriation." Thus, foreign-based companies are given more rights than domestic businesses operating in their home country. For example:
§ California banned a methanol-based gasoline additive, MTBE, after the EPA reported potential cancer risks and at least 10,000 groundwater sites were found polluted by the substance. Methanex of Vancouver, British Columbia, the world's largest methanol producer, filed a $970 million claim against the United States. If the NAFTA panel rules for the company, many similar complaints are expected, since at least ten other states followed California's lead. The federal government would have to pay the awards. California State Senator Sheila Kuehl and others have asked the US Trade Representative to explain how this squares with a state's sovereign right to protect health and the environment.
§ In Mexico, a US waste-disposal company, Metalclad, was awarded $16.7 million in damages after the state of San Luis Potosí blocked its waste site in the village of Guadalcazar. Local residents complained that the Mexican government was not enforcing environmental standards and that the project threatened their water supply. Metalclad's victory established that NAFTA's dispute mechanism reaches to subnational governments, including municipalities.
§ In Canada, the government banned another gasoline additive, MMT, as a suspected health hazard and one that damages catalytic converters, according to auto makers. The Ethyl Corporation of Virginia, producer of MMT, filed a $250 million claim but settled for $13 million after Canada agreed to withdraw its ban and apologize.
§ The Loewen Group Inc., a Canadian operator of far-flung funeral homes, lodged a $750 million complaint against the United States, claiming that a Biloxi, Mississippi, jury made an excessive award of $500 million when it found Loewen liable for contract fraud against a small local competitor.
§ Sunbelt Water Inc. of California has filed the largest and most audacious claim--seeking $10.5 billion from Canada for revoking its license to export water by supertanker from British Columbia to water-scarce areas of the United States.
§ Canada's Mondev International is claiming $50 million from the United States because the City of Boston canceled a sales contract for an office building with a shopping mall. Boston invoked sovereign immunity against such lawsuits and was upheld by a local judge and the Massachusetts Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal. So the company turned to NAFTA for relief.
"When just the threat of a Chapter 11 action may suffice to wrest a financial settlement from a government, investors have unprecedented leverage against states," Lydia Lazar, a Chicago attorney who has worked in global commerce, wrote in Global Financial Markets magazine. Mexico, Canada and the United States effectively waived the doctrine of sovereign immunity, she explained, when they signed NAFTA.
As many as fifteen cases have been launched to date, but no one can be sure of the number, since there's no requirement to inform the public. The contesting parties choose the judges who will arbitrate, choose which issues and legal principles are to apply and also decide whether the public has any access to the proceedings. The design follows the format for private arbitration cases between contesting business interests. With the same arrogance that designed the WTO and other international trade forums, it is assumed that these disputes are none of the public's business--even though public laws are under attack and taxpayers' money will pay the fines. The core legal issue is described as damage to an investor's property--property in the form of anticipated profits. The NAFTA logic thus establishes the "regulatory takings" doctrine the right has promoted unsuccessfully for two decades--a retrograde version of property rights designed to cripple or even dismantle the administrative state's regulatory powers. "NAFTA is really an end run around the Constitution," says Lazar.
The fundamental difference in Chapter 11, unlike other trade agreements, is that the global corporations are free to litigate on their own without having to ask national governments to act on their behalf in global forums. Clearly, some of the business complaints so far are more exotic than anyone probably anticipated. These initial cases will set precedents, however, that major global firms can apply later. If nobody stops this process, the national identity of multinationals will become even weaker and less relevant, Lazar points out, since they have status to challenge government as "an open class of 'legal equals.'"
In Canada a private lawsuit was filed recently challenging the constitutionality of Chapter 11, since Canada's Constitution states that the government cannot delegate justice to other bodies. The Canadian government, itself embarrassed by the cases against it, expressed doubt that Chapter 11 should be included in the hemispheric agreement, though it appears to be backing away from outright opposition. In US localities, the cases are beginning to stir questions, but lawmakers and jurists are only beginning to learn the implications.
Does George W. Bush understand what he is proposing for the Americas? Did Bill Clinton and Bush the elder understand the fundamental shift in legal foundations buried in NAFTA's fine print? They knew this is what business and finance wanted. As the public learns more, the smoking gun should become a focal point in this year's trade debate, confronting politicians with embarrassing questions about global governance. Who voted to shoot down national sovereignty? Who crowned the corporate investors the new monarchs of public values?
Twenty years ago this season, when another new Republican President arrived in Washington to push for massive income-tax reductions, I was having breakfast every other Saturday morning with David Stockman, the brainy young budget director, and collecting his insider account of the Reagan revolution. Stockman was the enfant terrible who implemented the supply-side agenda and promised to achieve the improbable--reduce taxes dramatically and double defense spending, while cutting other federal programs sufficiently to produce a balanced budget. It didn't work out that way. Ronald Reagan's great legislative triumph of 1981 destabilized federal fiscal policy for nearly two decades, creating the massive structural deficits that were not finally extinguished until a few years ago. Washington seems about to replay history as farce, albeit on a less threatening scale. It prompts me to reflect on what, if anything, was learned from the revolution.
My private sessions with Stockman stretched over nine months and led to a controversial magazine article, "The Education of David Stockman," in which I disclosed the contradictions and internal swordplay behind Reaganomics, but the real sensation was Stockman's own growing doubts and disillusionment with the doctrine. Both of us were excoriated in the aftermath. The Gipper likened me to his would-be assassin John Hinckley. Stockman was roasted for duplicity and cynical manipulations; for concealing the truth about the looming deficits while Congress plunged forward in fateful error. Stockman was guileful, yes, but it was his intellectual honesty that shocked Washington. That brief moment of truth-telling resonates with the current delusions and deceptions. A lot of what he said twenty years ago seems painfully relevant.
"None of us really understands what's going on with all these numbers," the budget director confided during intense budget-cutting battles in the spring of 1981. That admission should be engraved over the door at the Treasury, the Capitol and the White House. Projections of fabulous budget surpluses that provide the premise for this year's political action are no less airy-fairy. Nonetheless, official fantasy becomes the operating truth, so long as everyone bows to it. Stockman's wishful forecasts on economic growth were nicknamed Rosy Scenario by his colleagues, but now the Congressional Budget Office has matched his rosiness. The economy is expanding this year by 2.4 percent and faster next year, according to the CBO. Actually, right now it's headed into the zero-minus territory known as recession.
Stockman's boldest accounting gimmick--reporting $40 billion in budget cuts but declining to identify them--was dubbed by insiders "the magic asterisk." Bush has already topped him with his "magic blueprint" and the miraculous "trillion-dollar reserve" he saves and spends at the same time. The new President has not actually issued a real budget, only a "blueprint" that leaves out the grisly, painful details of what spending will get whacked. Dubya sounds like the Queen of Hearts: Tax cuts first, punishment later! Congressional nerds protest, but Bush intends to ram through his tax cuts before anyone has been given an honest picture of the fiscal consequences.
"Do you realize the greed that came to the forefront?" Stockman exclaimed to me twenty years ago. "The hogs were really feeding." As the Reagan White House lost control of the action, Democrats and Republicans engaged in a furious bidding war to see which party could deliver more tax breaks and other boodle to the special-interest hogs (Republicans won, but the Dems gave it a good try). The Bushies recognize this danger and are trying to wall off the usual business greedheads from exploiting the same opening this year. The deal-making may still begin, however, if the White House is a few votes shy and needs to seduce a few hungry senators with special favors. As Stockman learned, if you buy one senator, you might have to buy them all.
Another of Stockman's vivid metaphors is the centerpiece for 2001--the "Trojan horse" approach to rewarding the rich. Giving everyone the same percentage rate cut sounds fair, but actually delivers most of the money to the very wealthy, who pay the top rate. Supply-side doctrine "was always a Trojan horse to bring down the top rate," Stockman revealed. "It's kind of hard to sell trickle-down economics, so the supply-side formula was the only way to get a tax policy that was really trickle down." This year's new wrinkle is a Keynesian twist. Instead of talking about rich investors who need a little encouragement to invest in America, Bush talks about the waitresses who need a little cash to pay off their credit-card debts.
The most disturbing difference I see in 2001 is political--the role reversal between the two major parties. What Republicans learned from the revolution is this: Deficit spending doesn't really count for that much in politics--not among average voters--and a party will not be punished for creating fiscal disorder as long as other good things seem to happen. Democrats used to understand this as a visceral matter but have forgotten the street-smarts their party knew in olden days. On fiscal discipline, the two have swapped positions. Republicans, once the scolds, are now the reckless feel-good party, willing to risk big deficits in order to deliver goodies to main constituencies. Democrats, perhaps wishing for respectability, have become the party of rectitude, preaching forbearance of pleasure. Republicans want voters to have a little fun. Democrats sound like nervous bookkeepers.
Leaving aside economic consequences, Democrats have dealt themselves a very weak position, even though they're largely right about the budget accounting. Most Americans are not fiscal experts and cannot be expected to absorb all the fine-print arguments about cause and effect. Think of the old Far Side cartoon with a dog listening to his master. All the dog hears is: "Fido, blah, blah, blah, Fido, blah, blah, blah." What voters hear from Republicans is: "Want to cut your taxes, blah, blah, blah, want to cut your taxes, blah, blah, blah." What voters hear from Democrats is: "Must pay down the debt first, blah, blah, blah, must pay down the debt first, blah, blah, blah." For skeptical voters with already low expectations of government, this is not a tough choice.
The great accomplishment of Reagan and the supply-siders was to persuade the old-guard Republican Party that its root- canal approach to fiscal policy was a loser--and that recklessness can be a win-win proposition for their side. If the Trojan horse approach succeeds in winning regressive tax-cuts, the GOP delivers huge rewards to its favorite clients. If this also creates a big hole in the federal budget, that's OK too, since runaway deficits will throw another collar around the size of the federal government and provide yet another reason to slash the liberals' social spending. With clever marketing, the GOP may even persuade voters it was spendthrift Democrats who created the red ink. Even recession is OK if the timing is as lucky as the Gipper's. When this recession ends, Bush will credit his tax cuts for the recovery and claim vindication in time for re-election.
Democrats, meanwhile, are the "responsibles," telling the people to save their allowance for a rainy day. They were led into this cul-de-sac by the champion of artful deception, Bill Clinton. Two years ago, when the prospect of burgeoning federal surpluses arose, Clinton devised a very clever ploy to hold off Republican tax-cutters. We will not spend the extra trillions, he announced, we will pay off the national debt. Democrats felt exceedingly virtuous about this position, although they understood that the subtext was quite different: The surpluses would allow government to do big things again for people--someday, but not yet. A different kind of leader might have recognized that politics doesn't wait for ten-year budget projections. If Democrats wished to accomplish big things like universal healthcare or helping debt-soaked families, they should have gone for it right then while the resources were available. Instead, Clinton's stratagem actually adopted the old-time religion that Reagan had shed--a loss of nerve that is the opposite of activist government. Some Dems are agitating to change that, proposing a genuine commitment to healthcare reform and other measures, but others have internalized the bookkeeper politics and are preaching hair-shirt economics: Cancel any tax cuts if a severe recession wipes out our sacred surplus. That's a righteous recipe for more pain.
One more point: Both parties are playing with a phony deck of cards. No matter what unfolds this season, the government is not going to reduce the "national debt." On the contrary, the government's total indebtedness is going to keep growing steadily, from $5.6 trillion right now to $6.7 trillion by 2011. Despite what you read in the newspapers, that occurs with or without tax cuts and even if all the outstanding Treasury bonds are paid off (if you still don't believe it, check the CBO's latest budget forecast with its chart on page 17). The awkward fact neither party brings up is that federal financing has depended crucially on collecting more money than it needs from working people since 1983, when both parties collaborated in a great crime of bait and switch. After Reagan cut taxes for the wealthy and business in 1981, he turned around two years later and raised Social Security payroll taxes dramatically on workers (earnings above $76,000 are exempted from Social Security taxes). Ever since, workers have been paying in extra money toward their future retirement--trillions more than needed now by Social Security--and the government simply borrows the surplus revenue to spend on other things: upper-income tax cuts or paying off Treasury bonds or reducing the fiscal damage from deficits in the operating budget.
Taxing one class of citizens--the broad ranks of working people--so government can devote the money to other people and purposes is not only wrong but profoundly deceptive, bait and switch on a grand scale. Government still owes workers the money, of course, and someday will have to find the borrowed trillions somewhere, either by raising taxes or borrowing the money or possibly by cutting Social Security benefits. When FICA taxes were raised in 1983, Reagan at first objected and reminded aides that he was opposed to raising taxes--of any kind. David Stockman reassured him. If the rising payroll-tax burden was imposed on young working people, they would eventually revolt and Social Security would self-destruct of its own weight. The Gipper liked that and gave his OK. The same objective, now called privatization, shows up again this year on George W. Bush's agenda. He proposes to "save" Social Security by destroying it.
Multinationals, their intellectual coverings shredded, are love-bombing labor while hunting for new fig leaves.
He and the Greens are both a problem and a possible asset for the Democrats.
Something doesn't add up about the new Treasury Secretary nominated by George W. Bush. The supply-side conservatives who live for more big tax cuts on capital and upper-bracket incomes are actively leery about Alcoa chairman Paul O'Neill. Some grumble that he may be a talented corporate manager but that he's ill equipped for the top economic post in the Bush Administration. Meanwhile, George Becker, president of the Steelworkers union, loves the O'Neill selection. "I'm not an economist, I just go on gut beliefs," Becker said. "But Paul is a person working people and labor people can talk to. He is an industrialist who believes in the United States and has maintained a strong industrial base in the United States. I think this is far better than having another bond trader in that job."
Bush's choice has startled many quarters, including Wall Street, because O'Neill comes to the job from old-line manufacturing and with a reputation for independent thinking, albeit in the moderate Republican manner. Above all, he is not a banker or financier--the first Treasury Secretary since the Carter Administration to originate from the business realm that actually makes things (aluminum, in O'Neill's case). Yet, oddly enough, O'Neill is also a government pro. He spent sixteen years as a systems analyst and budget economist in the federal government, rising to deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget under Gerald Ford, before a brilliant business career at International Paper and Alcoa (both multinational companies are reviled by environmentalists--he's not Ben & Jerry's). But unlike the laissez-faire crowd, O'Neill understands the power of activist government to intervene in the private economy and has demonstrated a taste for doing so. At a minimum, he represents a refreshing shift from the free-market mantra that has ruled at Treasury for the past two decades.
"I negotiated with Paul for years--he's very tough but fair--and we've always been able to get a fair, decent contract," said Becker, whose union represents 22,000 Alcoa workers. "I had people I could talk to in the Clinton Administration too. They would listen and tell me how much they understand our pain. Then they went out and deep-sixed us. I like [former Treasury Secretary] Bob Rubin, but Rubin killed us in steel. He would say, Let the marketplace decide. Except, when financial firms got in trouble, they went to the rescue."
In contrast, as a business executive, Paul O'Neill artfully engineered a worldwide rescue for the aluminum industry and persuaded President Clinton to make it happen. Prices were collapsing in 1993 because the former Soviet republics were flooding the world market with cheap aluminum--devastating US producers like Alcoa. The temporary agreement amounted to a government-negotiated cartel--every producing nation reduced its output to prop up world prices--and it worked. Yet the political deal was done so skillfully that few in the media even noticed. And nobody complained about the scheme's contradicting Clinton's free-trade rhetoric. O'Neill knows where the levers are located and how to pull them.
While it would be nice to imagine that the Bush/Cheney team is sending a message about new ideological priorities with this appointment, their motivation is probably more pedestrian--personal trust, not policy. O'Neill comes from the same "old boy" circle of policy advisers that includes Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and, yes, Alan Greenspan during the Nixon/Ford years. He is a familiar old friend to all of them, experienced and capable, above all loyal. During George Bush Senior's ill-fated presidency, O'Neill took Alcoa out of the US Chamber of Commerce in order to endorse Bush's deficit-reducing tax increase--the one that got the President into permanent trouble with the party's right-wingers. Around the same time O'Neill proposed a $10-a-barrel tax on oil to force greater energy conservation. He supported Bill Clinton's more modest energy-tax proposal, which failed in 1993. He is quite willing, in other words, to break eggs over the GOP's antitax doctrine.
In another season, these qualities would have made for intriguing possibilities, but O'Neill's strongest asset--he's not from Wall Street--might also become a handicap in present circumstances, because the Bush Administration is assuming power amid a breaking storm--the collapsing stock-market bubble and deteriorating economic growth worldwide. Whether this event turns out to be good luck for Dubya or the ruination of his presidency will depend crucially on the smarts of O'Neill and a team of White House economic advisers that includes former Federal Reserve governor Lawrence Lindsey as principal counselor and, presumably, Stanford economist John Taylor at the Council of Economic Advisers. The old boys from business and finance gathered at the governor's mansion in Texas to throw in their advice, a private conversation that did not include the press and public.
The problem is that none of Bush's lead advisers have displayed any special feel for financial markets--especially markets that are scared and imploding. The conservative financial experts I talked with all delivered the same warning. "O'Neill needs to have a serious banker at his side, someone who has done a lot of financial restructurings and bankruptcies," one of them said. "Because that's what is coming."
O'Neill has been relieved of an obvious first challenge--coaxing the Fed chairman into cutting interest rates--because that job was done for him by the frightened financial markets. Falling stock prices and market interest rates, along with plummeting sales and production, delivered a message of terror--the markets' fear that Greenspan was dangerously behind events. He was thus compelled to start cutting rates. Many market players figure it's already too late, however, and Greenspan's wizard status is swiftly evaporating, at least among those who understand what's happening. So Bush's team will begin by blaming Clinton/Gore for the rising unemployment and corporate bankruptcies, while privately nudging Greenspan to keep on easing credit terms. A deep distrust toward Greenspan lingers in the Bush family--a sense that he broke promises and allowed high unemployment to linger much too long after the 1991 recession, effectively dooming George père's re-election campaign in 1992. This time, they will not wait passively on the chairman's wisdom, and Bush Jr. has real leverage he can apply. The seven-member Federal Reserve Board has two vacancies and a third one expected. The White House can surround Greenspan at the boardroom table by appointing friendly critics and even a possible successor.
A recession that comes early in a new President's term--and is over well before he's up for re-election--can wind up as smart political timing, but Bush may lose his Congressional majority in the process. While Ronald Reagan enacted a radical conservative agenda during his first year in office, his popularity sank as the ugly recession worsened; Democrats picked up twenty-seven House seats in the off-year election of 1982. By 1984, however, it was "morning again in America," and the Gipper won in a landslide. If Bush's advisers are as shrewd as they appear, they will push hard for their big ideas up front and, meanwhile, do whatever they must to reverse the economic bloodletting.
The more ominous possibility facing the Bush presidency is that given neglected realities inherited from the Clinton years, this downturn could renew globalized financial crisis in Asia, Latin America or elsewhere. Only this one could not be blamed on "crony capitalism" or other establishment canards. The $360-billion-a-year trade deficit in the United States has kept Japan and many developing countries afloat in recent years, though a long way from genuine recovery. If the United States becomes mired in recession, Americans will buy far fewer imports, and that will reignite financial failures in the exporting nations. Their panic can flow right back into the US financial system, with banks and brokerages demanding another round of IMF bailouts. O'Neill and company may find themselves standing in a circle of bonfires.
The specter of bad times coming does, of course, add momentum for major tax-cutting legislation--a centerpiece in Dubya's campaign--but it's not obvious how Bush's retrograde measure would actually help the economy (40 percent goes to the very wealthy, as that fellow Gore kept reminding us). Some elements, like abolishing the inheritance tax, may even generate drag on economic activity. The Bush team talks like conservative Keynesians, but in the real world, economic stimulus requires steeply progressive tax cuts--putting money in the hands of people who will promptly spend it. That means quick rate cuts or temporary tax credits that skip over the upper brackets for a change and deliver the money to the bottom half of the income ladder. Democrats are wrong-footed by events too. After several years of indulging in Coolidge-Hoover pieties about paying down the national debt, Democrats must scurry now to come up with a progressive--don't say liberal--tax-cutting proposal of their own. Clintonism is over, and they had better shake out the cobwebs quickly, because their choices on who needs tax relief and who doesn't will define them for the 2002 election and beyond.
The essential handicap in using fiscal policy to restart the economy (one that has always burdened Keynesian economics) is the problem of timing. In the best circumstances, it can take six or eight months to enact a major stimulus package, and even if the tax cuts are postdated to January 1, the money arrives too late to stanch the contraction. If Democrats are alert and public-spirited, they will propose a quick, emergency reduction in paycheck deductions with a commitment to support a second, broader tax measure later in the year. They should also call for stand-still protection for those working people drowning in debts who lose their jobs--a temporary safety net that keeps them out of bankruptcy until the economy revives. These and other measures are, of course, way beyond the present imagination of either party. More likely, the tax bill will turn into a special-interest bidding war in which both parties compete to pay back their accumulated obligations to lobbyists and contributors.
The new Republican majority, already frail and dubious, has been taken hostage by these economic portents even before it assumes power. A "normal" recession of brief duration might be manageable. A longer, more profound unwinding will shake the foundations of Republicans and Democrats alike.