Here’s one thing I’m sure of about the economic speech Hillary Clinton gave Monday morning at the New School: If a relatively unknown Democratic governor of Illinois or Michigan were running for president, and he gave the speech Hillary Clinton gave Monday morning at the New School, rank-and-file liberals would be turning rapturous cartwheels. She correctly identified the central economic problem of our time; she talked very clearly about the kinds of solutions she’d pursue to address it; she even tossed a few threats in Wall Street’s direction.
The problem is the wages of middle-class workers. The solutions are varied but boil down to a range of policies that would do two things: one, give corporations incentives to share profits and think less about short-term profit-maximization; two, help middle-class families meet the life expenses (college tuition, day care, etc.) that have increased greatly over the last 20 years while wages have remained stagnant. And as to Wall Streeters who gamble with middle-class people’s money, she said, “We will prosecute individuals and firms” who do so. She used the word “criminal” in this context more than once.
My hypothetical governor giving exactly this speech would be showered with liberal praise. But Clinton says it, and it’s like so what. She faces too much distrust from liberals over her past centrism; and for the moment everybody’s all Bernie Bernie Bernie. And that’s all fine. Sanders is fun and sometimes exhilarating, and a primary contest needs a candidate who can speak the unvarnished truth.
But it’s the speakers of varnished truth who usually win presidential nominations, and Clinton is at least 90 percent likely to win this one. And as varnished truths go in Democratic presidential politics, Clinton’s are about as liberal as any liberal could reasonably hope for. There’s an art to taking it right up to line, but not an inch past, and she’s doing that.
One way of testing whether proposals have any ideological bite to them is to imagine whether anyone from the other party could put them forward. Everyone can and will say they want to help the middle class. But how? Jeb Bush says with 4 percent growth into infinity. First of all this is a big fat lie of a promise, and he’s surely smart enough to know he’s lying. From 1975 to 2014 (for 40 years), annual GDP growth in the United States averaged 2.79 percent, according to World Bank data (the stuff I used came in the form of an Excel spreadsheet, so there’s no URL, but Google something like “Real Historical Gross Domestic Product” and you’ll find it). So it doesn’t happen. The best years of sustained GDP growth we’ve ever had were under—yep—Bill Clinton, but even in the late 1990s, we had only four straight years of plus-4-percent growth, and that’s a modern record (there was a three-year run under Ronald Reagan from 1983-1985).
So it’s a lie, number one, but more importantly, it means nothing as a measure. No, actually, it means something, and what it means is toxic: It means that if we actually do experience growth at 4 percent but without taking any of the ameliorative measures Clinton is talking about, the main impact of that growth will be to give us more inequality, more wage stagnation, more corporate profit-hoarding, more stock buybacks, and more roulette-wheel banking. Bush’s is a flawed way of looking at the economy, and this is a very old point of contention between right and left; As Robert Kennedy once said, GDP “measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”
Clinton is talking about growth too, but she’s emphasizing equitable growth. And she puts forward numerous proposals that no Republican would touch, from raising the minimum wage—remember, Bush wants no federal minimum wage—to strengthening unions to offering paid family leave to cracking down on employers who misclassify workers as contractors to expanding on Dodd-Frank to endorsing the Buffett Rule, which applies a minimum effective tax rate of 30 percent on earners north of $1 million.
She left a lot of the details for later, and she was fuzzy here and there—she was noncommittal on trade, and it will be interesting to hear what “defending and enhancing” Social Security actually means.
But for now, it’s enough that she’s linking the concepts of fairness and growth and that she’s making that link the centerpiece of her economic agenda. This is important because until very recently, the economics profession hasn’t regarded fairness as anything it should care about. But that has begun to change. This was the big question in my mind last year as I contemplated Clinton’s candidacy last year. Believe me, I had no small amount of doubt about how aggressively she’d embrace the equitable growth proposition. I’d say she’s answered my questions. Last year, on her book tour, she pooh-poohed paid family leave. Now it’s a centerpiece of her platform.
It’s still going to take time for liberals to believe this, and of course some never will. This is where Clinton still has some work to do. When it comes to economics, liberals don’t really want to hear policy proposals. They want to hear FDR-style attacks on the economic royalists. This is not something Clinton is known for, to put it mildly. I don’t think anyone expects her to be Elizabeth Warren, but in her own way, she has to go there, especially when you consider that she might become the wealthiest president in modern times.
This, from the speech, started moving in that direction, and it’s the first time I recall her talking like this: “And while institutions have paid large fines and in some cases admitted guilt, too often it has seemed that the human beings responsible get off with limited consequences—or none at all, even when they’ve already pocketed the gains. This is wrong and, on my watch, it will change.”
Maybe if she keeps this up and the royalists start attacking her, and she stands her ground, the Warrenites will finally come around. In the meantime, liberals ought at least to recognize that the old cautious Hillary they have in their minds would never have gone this far this fast.