Monday, October 3, 2005

Setting the record straight about Bill Clinton

/ lesser evil / idealized /
Having lived in the US under most of the Clinton years, I'm continuously surprised by the rosy picture painted regarding his administration's economic policies - especially from the left. Bill Clinton himself is aggressively pushing a rather idealized version of his administration's record regarding the poor (among other things). Thankfully Paul Street does a good job of reminding the memory-challenged among the left what that was about:
"...What emerges from a careful reading of these and numerous other texts and sources is a Clinton administration that defied mainstream public support for socially democratic policies by conducting the public business in regressive accord with the interrelated neoliberal and racially disparate imperatives of empire and inequality..."

Going back to my seemingly ancient bookmarks on the subject, I find that, yes, at the time, this wasn't really an issue - since then of course Hurricane Dubya has made even Ronald Reagan's seem like a benevolent and sensible presidency. Yet Mark Weisbrot was challenging almost five years ago the received wisdom of a triumphant economic policy, noting among other things that:
The economic policies for which the President can honestly claim responsibility-- e.g., NAFTA, the creation and expansion of the World Trade Organization-- served primarily to prevent the majority of Americans from sharing in the gains from economic growth. And then there was welfare reform, which threw millions of poor single mothers at the mercy of one of the lowest-wage labor markets in the industrialized world.

In short, Clinton's policies continued the upward redistribution of income and wealth, and punishment for the poor, that were the hallmarks of the Reagan era. It was not until 1999 that the median real wage reached its pre-1990 level, and it remains anchored today at about where it was 27 years ago.

...going on to highlight the Clinton administration's deep involvement in aiding and abetting the Mafia Economy that oversaw the Russian collapse.

Similar issues were highlighted at the time by the International Socialist Review, and many others among which I'll just point to a Chomsky article from 1994.


Eric Gordy said...

Clinton's offer to get business and financial types to switch from Republican to Democrat was pretty much: I'll give you Republican economic policy, and I won't scare everyone with religious zealots. It seemed to work for him, but it hasn't worked for subsequent Democrats, who have still not come up with a way to offer people economic security, education and health care.

Anonymous said...

Hm. Did they bother explaining why income equality decreased during the Clinton years, after steadily increasing for the two decades previous?

Eric: Health care initiative? tax increases for the top 2%? heightened labor and environmental standards? CERP, Northwest Forests Initiative, California Desert Protection Act? earned income tax credit for low-income families? deficit reduction? Family and Medical Leave Act? expansions of Head Start and Americorps? comprehensive child immunization plan? Brady Bill and assault weapons ban? -- okay, that wasn't economic policy. 40-year low in unemployment? Elimination of the tax deduction for lobbying expenses? "Save Social Security First"?

Republican economic policy? Hm.

Come on, man. Don't let the best be the enemy of the good.

Doug M.

talos said...

Doug: income inequality rose under Clinton, the Health care initiative (which would undoubtedly been a good thing) remained an initiative, his environmental record (though not the subject of this post) is uneven - some good and some bad.

I know that compared to George Bush, Clinton's presidency seems downright enlightened, but let's not allow the godawful to be an excuse for the bad, eh?

Anonymous said...

income inequality rose under Clinton

No, dammit, it didn't.

That piece you linked to is a mishmash of misleading factoids and stuff that's just wrong. For instance, "[T]he average income of the richest five percent of households rose from $173,784 to $201,220" -- Yeah, a 16.1% increase in four years. In other words, slightly less than the total increase in US GDP over those same four years (16.2%). And during that same period, the poorest 20% of households grew their income by 16.0% ($7,596 to $8,412).

The pretax Gini coefficient of US households rose slightly, from 0.429 to 0.433. But because Clinton shifted tax rates to hit the wealthy harder, the /post/ tax Gini dropped, from 0.409 to 0.396. That it didn't drop farther is, I suspect, a testament to the ability of the very wealthy to hide their taxable incomes. Nevertheless, drop it did.

2001 was the last time any US Gini measurement was under 0.4. Since then, they've all -- household, family, pre- and post-tax income, wealth -- headed north in a hurry.

Then there's poverty. The US poverty rate was at 12.3% when Clinton came into office. By the 2000 election it was -- take a deep breath, now -- 8.7%. And the poverty rate for black families? 31.3% in 1993, a national disgrace. 19.2% when the movers knocked on the White House door.

Bubba cut US poverty by over a quarter, and black poverty by over a third. If Hugo Chavez had done it, y'all would be wetting your pants with excitement.

The health care initiative: my point is, Eric was repeating the hoary canard that Clinton was a Republican _manque_. But no Republican President would have attempted anything like Clinton's health care reform. And given the amount of resources invested in it, and the damage the Clintons took from it, there's no question of their sincerity; if they could have passed it, they would.

Environmentalism: calling David Brower a "part of the moderate wing of the US environmental movement" is like calling Ann Coulter a "moderate Republican". I had a lot of respect for Brower, but let's mince no words: he was a wingnut. He described /himself/ as a "radical activist" and a "militant"... read the obituary he wrote for himself (it's on his website). The Sierra Club kicked him out just before he died, for being too radical, critical, too stubborn, and just generally a PITA.

Oh, and he claimed he could talk to coyotes.

Doug M.

talos said...

I'm not sure where you're getting your numbers from Doug. The US census bureau [pdf, see table A3 p.25] seems to disagree with them at least as far as the (pre-tax I assume it doesn't say otherwise) Gini coefficient is concerned:

From 1992 to 2000 the Gini index rose from 0.434 to 0.462 (an increase of 0.028). By comparison from 1980 to 1988 the Gini index rose from 0.404 to 0.427 (an increase of 0.023). I'd be interested to see post-tax Gini numbers from a non-partisan source (i.e. no economists that had worked for the Clinton administration).

The gains in poverty reduction I'll concede (finally raising the minimum wage had a lot do with it), yet I can't help but think that this was, at least partly an effect of removing people from welfare (massively) and forcing them to take shitty minimum wage- no benefit jobs - very frequently in a one-adult household, a fact that raises some questions as to whether the extra costs of daycare (to mention but one factor) more than balanced out the "income gains" of the poorest, or whether this resulted in a better quality of life for those "lifted out of poverty".

Regarding the environmental record: Brower might very well be a total lunatic - the question is whether his criticism is valid.

(BTW anyone can talk to coyotes - the hard part is to make them answer back).

Anonymous said...


"I can't help but think that this was, at least partly an effect of removing people from welfare (massively) and forcing them to take shitty minimum wage- no benefit jobs"

Then you need to explain why the decline started three years before Clinton's welfare reform went into effect (1997) and five years before the first welfare recipients would have been forced into jobs (1999).

Also, while a minimum-wage job will keep a single adult above the federal poverty level (barely), they won't keep an adult with a child there.

So, for instance, the 1995 poverty threshold was $7,470 for a single person, but $10,030 for a person with one child. The minumum wage was $4.75 then, which translates to an annual wage of $9,500.

Still true today, BTW -- the numbers are $9,310 for one person, $12,490 for two, while the $5.15 minimum = $10,300.

IOW, even if welfare reform forced a single parent to work at a "shitty minimum wage job", that would have zero effect on the poverty level -- that person would still be (formally, officially)poor.

So, no.

Doug M.

Eric Gordy said...

The health care thing is a bit of a sore point, since for so many years I have been hoping that some Democrat would make the effort to give the US the kind of health care system that every decently run country (and even some badly run ones) has, instead of this godawful system of underwriting the profits of insurance and drug companies. What I'd say about Clinton's health proposal is two things:

1) he didn't pass it
2) even if he had, it would have been supplemental insurance, not a proper national level health plan

Yes, I do know that Democrats are better than Republicans. But only by a hair, it isn't good enough.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I do know that Democrats are better than Republicans. But only by a hair, it isn't good enough.

It's this attitude that helped bless us with our current President and his friends.

I noticed that the Brower article -- from 1996 -- was really about how Brower was so unhappy with Clinton that he and all his friends were going to _vote for Nader_. So there! Take that, compromiser!

IMS Brower died just before the 2000 election.

Doug M.

talos said...

It's this attitude that helped bless us with our current President and his friends.

Well, Doug it could be said that it is the other attitude that allowed Democrats to turn into Rebublicans-lite.