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Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy

Bill Clinton

(Knopf Doubleday; US: Nov 2011)

The Democratic Party has been criticized — by supporters as well as critics — for not having the fortitude lately to stand up for its ideas, policies, even its president. That may change with the release of Bill Clinton’s Back to Work a book with the chutzpah that the Democrats have been missing.


Clinton presents a personal, plain-spoken economic picture of where we are, a mile-high view of the three decades that got us here, and how to revive our economy in classic “American Dream growth” style. He challenges Americans and our elected representatives to make hard choices, support innovation and to renew the spirit of cooperation. He gets behind President Obama’s jobs plan, criticizes Democratic policies when he finds them lacking and, for the most part, supports the recommendations of the wide-ranging bipartisan Simpson-Bowles Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.


Yet despite his calls for a positive dialogue, the former president digs in and calls House Republicans “anti-government zealots”. This is a fight, and there will be blood.


“From 1981 to 2009,” he writes, “the greatest accomplishment of the anti-government Republicans was not to reduce the size of the federal government but to stop paying for it.” This is a jazzy launch into his discussion of the national debt, a subject that ranges from daunting to dull. As he argued during his own administration, debt is crippling. He demonstrates, in a simple chart, that the classic Republican anti-tax stance has been coupled with economic policies that have loaded up the debt. A total of $6.1 trillion in debt was acquired during George W. Bush’s eight years in office, $1.9 trillion in Ronald Reagan’s, $1.5 trillion in George H. W. Bush’s four years, $1.4 trillion in Clinton’s eight and $2.4 trillion during Obama’s administration, much of it trying to pull us out of recession.


Clinton frames the history and issues of big components of the debt, including Social Security and healthcare, while making note of challenges such as corporate tax breaks (ExxonMobil made $10.7 billion in profits in the second quarter of 2011 while paying an effective tax rate of 17.6 percent, lower than the average tax rate of 20.4 percent for individual Americans). As much as the debt itself, it’s the lack of political will to address it that is sending us into a hole too deep to get out of. The policies endorsed now by “antigovernment ideologues”, he maintains, are pushing us in that “destructive” direction.


So much so that Clinton feels he needs to make a case for government itself, in a chapter titled “Why We Need Government”. His list: We need government for security, to provide equal access to opportunity, assistance to those most vulnerable, advancing economic interests at the state and national level, oversight of financial markets, protections where the markets fail, fostering large-scale investments and collecting revenue. Has our discourse really reached a point where these things are not self-evident? Apparently it has.


Congressional Republicans intent on taking the White House in 2012, Clinton argues, are “convinced that you’ll punish (President Obama) for what they do, or don’t do, to keep unemployment high, wages low, and poverty rising.” That would be a terrible price to pay for political power.


Concerned, as many Americans are, that we will leave a nation worse for our children than the one we grew up in, Clinton takes the long view. At this point, we can see that we have failed to create jobs at the pace we need to (although he cites his own administration’s strong job-creation record) and we have failed to keep pace with developed countries that now are offering better versions of the American dream than we seem to be able to offer ourselves.


In the second half of the book, he offers a 46-point description of programs and policies that would get America, in a refrain that sounds coined for the campaign stump, “back in the future business.” They go from the macro to the micro, including ideas about improving international trade to supporting green programs like the 140,000 LED streetlights being installed in Los Angeles. If the list whiplashes from the nitty-gritty to the mile-high view and back again, it demonstrates that Clinton is a politician who can operate at both levels without breaking a sweat.


And a politician he is. The most interesting thing about this book is not the economic arguments themselves, but that they’re being made in one place, in plain language, by Clinton. The former president has blossomed as an elder statesman, standing side by side with both Bush presidents to support emergency relief, forming his nonpartisan foundation and friendships with powerful players of all stripes. He has stepped out of that role to return to the trenches of partisan politics, what he calls “the food fight in Washington.”


Economists and close political watchers may take issue with parts of the book — the characterizations are broad, he omits his own administration’s healthcare efforts and underplays its role in financial deregulation, his hopes for green technology are rosier than others predict, and very real political influences like money and lobbyists don’t factor into his analysis or prescriptions. But Clinton himself seems convinced he’s put together a coherent economic picture that is honest, persuasive and necessary.


“We’re in a mess now. At the dawn of the new century, after years of strong job growth, rising incomes, and declining debt, we abandoned a proven path to shared prosperity in favor of doubling down, once more, on antigovernment ideology. Now we’re paying for it. The only sensible thing to do is for all of us to take some responsibility for changing things,” Clinton writes. He’s rallying the troops. “Think how exciting it would be if all of us had real arguments based on real facts that produced real results through principled compromise based on what works… Let’s get the show on the road.”

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