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Bill Clinton's Unreality: Tinkering With Unpassable Ideas, when Transformation is What We Need

Clinton's prescription offers incremental change, at exactly the time so many are realizing that we need need transformational change.

Former President Bill Clinton’s new book,  Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy, is a book for policy wonks and politics junkies. Progressives will love his defense of government. They will be outraged by his buying in to conservative/Wall Street arguments about Social Security. We will roll our eyes at the long, detailed, brilliant arguments for and against a wide range of policy ideas. We will hate his support of trade agreements without mentioning what they have done to manufacturing jobs. And we will be sad that this book didn’t come out  just a month later, so you could see if the Occupy movement changes the way he sees things. 

This book is timely and full of good ideas for helping grow the economy and create jobs. But its timeliness is also disappointing, because our political system is so dysfunctional that none of these ideas will be implemented. And while the ideas are good, they are also incremental just when we are coming to see the need for transformation. 

Right Time, Wrong Time 

Back to Work arrives right on time with ideas to help the economy just as Washington “pivots to jobs” from a mistimed, destructive obsession with deficits. In fact, the book was completed so recently that it references the Republican debate audience cheering the “let him die” comment. But the book was completed just as the Occupy movement was beginning, and reading it in the prism of that movement makes it seem as if Clinton is just about ready to reach conclusions similar to those of the movement. Just about … but not quite. 

The book is written in two parts. Part I looks at where we are as a country and as a people, our economic problems and our attitudes about government. Clinton responds to the right’s anti-government campaign and launches a strong defense of government. He talks about the country’s debt and where it came from. Finally he compares this to how things are doing in other countries. Part II offers a list of 46 policy proposals for reviving the economy, paying off debt and creating jobs, and in true Clinton style, it drills down into quite a bit of detail about how these proposals would work and the reasons they would help improve the economy.   

Part I makes a good case for how well the country was doing before it was messed up by anti-government conservative policies. But many people think that part of today’s problems was Clinton's own incremental, “centrist” approach as president and his failure to see how this was enabling and empowering those very anti-government forces. By giving ground to those who give no ground, he enabled them to ratchet up their own power and propaganda advantage. This is why it was so easy for conservatives to quickly turn back the clock under Bush and to blame government for the collapse they themselves caused.   

Social Security and Medicare

Clinton acknowledges the huge Social Security surplus, but he calls it “bonds not cash.” He sees the problem of paying off this obligation as a cash-flow deficit and treats it like that is Social Security’s problem. This is the typical Washington-centric elitist position, ignoring the vast human need.

In other words, if the problem of government finances is cash-flow, how do you reduce cash-flow needs? One way is if retirees weren’t getting so much cash. So solve this by forcing them to retire later, and get less per month by fiddling with the COLA. In other words, stiff the retirees.  

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