To gauge the level of hatred entertained by liberals for the Bush Administration, take a look at the bestseller lists. Rubbing shoulders in the top tiers we find Michael Moore, Al Franken, Paul Krugman and Molly Ivins all pouring sarcastic rebukes on Bush II and, categorically or by implication, suggesting that in favoring the very rich and looting the economy in their interest, Bush stands in despicable contrast to his immediate predecessor in the Oval Office. So just get a Democrat, any Democrat, back in the White House and the skies will begin to clear again.
But suppose a less forgiving retrospect of the Clinton years discloses that he did nothing to alter the rules of the neoliberal game that began in the Reagan/Thatcher era, with the push to boost after-tax corporate profits, shift ever more bargaining power to business, erode social protections for workers, make the rich richer, the middle tier at best stand still and the poor get poorer.
We now have just such an unsparing scrutiny of Clintonomics, in the form of Robert Pollin’s Contours of Descent: U.S. Economic Fractures and the Landscape of Global Austerity. Pollin is unambiguous. “It was under Clinton,” he points out, “that the distribution of wealth in the U.S. became more skewed than it had been at any time in the previous forty years–with, for example, the ratio of wages for the average worker to the pay of the average CEO rising astronomically from 113 to 1 in 1991 under Bush-1 to 449 to 1 when Clinton left office in 2001.” In the world, exclusive of China, between 1980 and 1998 and considering the difference between the richest and poorest 10 percent of humanity, inequality grew by 19 percent; by 77 percent, if you take the richest and poorest 1 percent. Welcome to neoliberalism.
The basic picture? “Under the full eight years of Clinton’s presidency, even with the bubble ratcheting up both business investment and consumption by the rich…average real wages remained at a level 10 percent below that of the Nixon/Ford peak period, even though productivity in the economy was 50 percent higher under Clinton than [under] Nixon and Ford. The poverty rate through Clinton’s term was only slightly better than the dismal performance attained during the Reagan/Bush years.” We had a bubble boom, pushed along by consumer spending by the rich.
To be sure, in accord with the captious laws of class-based mechanics, the bubbling tide did raise boats, albeit unevenly. The yachts of the rich lofted magnificently on the flood. Meaner skiffs rose an inch or two. In those years businesses needed more workers, and for a brief moment the labor shortage gave them some leverage to get more pay.
At the end of eight years, when the bubble tide had ebbed, what did workers have by way of a permanent legacy? Clinton, Pollin bleakly concludes, “accomplished almost nothing in the way of labor laws or the broader policy environment to improve the bargaining situation for workers…. Moreover, conditions under Clinton worsened among those officially counted as poor.”
Nowhere is Pollin more persuasive than in analyzing the causes of the fiscal turnaround from deficit to surplus. Was it the consequence of economic growth (producing higher tax revenues), plus the moderate rise in marginal tax rates on the rich in 1993? If indeed these were the causes of fiscal virtue, we might take a more benign view of Clinton’s fiscal policies. On the other hand, if surplus was achieved by dint of hacking away at social expenditures and social safety nets, plus by increases in capital gains tax revenues stemming from the stock-market bubble, then progressives might not so eagerly extol the Clinton model.
In a piece of original and trenchant analysis Pollin shows that almost two-thirds of Clinton’s fiscal turnaround can be accounted for by slashes in government spending relative to GDP (54 percent) and by capital gains revenues (10 percent). Pollin then asks the question, Suppose there really had been a peace dividend after the end of the cold war? And he gives a partial answer. We could have had fewer weapons systems, 100,000 new teachers, 560,000 more scholarships, 1,400 new high schools and still had a budget surplus of $220 billion. Wall Street applauded the surpluses and the ordinary folk paid the costs of all those slashes in the budget, including fewer teachers, a dirtier environment.
You think the next Democratic nominee is going to address the horrors engendered by the neoliberal credo to which Clinton paid such fealty? Of course not. What, at minimum, would have to be done? Pollin doesn’t shirk the questions, and he offers answers that steer past easy rhetorical flourishes about trade protections. If we are to move toward a world in which families don’t have to line up outside churches to stay alive and teenagers don’t have to work for 20 cents a day in Third World sweatshops, we have to have policies here that promote full employment (remember the Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill of the 1970s?) and income security.
Such policies would have to include strengthening workers’ legal rights to organize and form unions, and to fight on a level playing field in the conduct of strikes. To get a measure of fairness and stability in the financial system, financial institutions would have to honor asset-based reserve requirements; one example would be the margin requirements Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan failed to impose in 1996. Banks could also be required to channel credit to socially beneficial projects such as low-income housing.
Despite the best efforts of our doctrinal leaders, the moral sentiments of the people are not entirely corrupted. Consumers, for example, are prepared to pay a premium if they can be assured they are buying products not made in sweatshops. And Third World countries need not survive only under the sweatshop conditions (“tremendous good news”) praised by Krugman and his colleague at the Times, Nicholas Kristof. They have to be permitted to return to the somewhat protected conditions encouraged in the development policies of an earlier era, without agencies of the US government decreeing that their reformers and their union organizers be murdered by death squads.
I’m sorry, but you won’t be hearing these ideas from Howard Dean.