Hillary Clinton’s Magical Economy

Journalist Doug Henwood and PERI economist Robert Pollin: Hillary Clinton has been pushed to adopt Sanders’s ideas about student debt and TPP, but her record gives no reason to believe they will ever be implemented

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton spoke of her economic plans on Thursday at Futuramic plant in Detroit Michigan. Among other things, the plant manufactures F35 nose cones. She spoke of creating jobs, being a superpower in clean energy, creating an infrastructure investment bank, and reducing the student tuition debt repayment burden. She also carefully articulated her opposition to TPP, Trans-Pacific Partnership. Let’s have a look.

HILLARY CLINTON: So starting on day one, we will work with both parties to pass the biggest investment in new, good-paying jobs since World War II. Too many companies lobbied for trade deals so they could sell products abroad. But then they instead moved abroad and sold back into the United States.

My message to every worker in Michigan and across America is this: I will stop any trade deal that kills jobs or holds down wages, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

PERIES: Now joining me to discuss the Clinton economic plan are two guests: economist Robert Pollin and journalist Doug Henwood. Doug Henwood is the founder and editor of the Left Business Observer. Henwood is also contributing editor of the Nation, and does a weekly program on WBAI Radio, New York’s Pacifica outlet. He is also the author of My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency. Robert Pollin is distinguished professor of economics and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute, Peri, at University of Massachusetts Amherst. He’s the author of several books, including Greening the Global Economy. I thank you both for joining me today.

HENWOOD: Thanks for having us.

PERIES: So, Doug, let me start with you. Your book My Turn focused on the shifting nature of Hillary Clinton’s views. What did you make of the speech?

HENWOOD: Well I have to say, a lot of it sounds very good. I can’t deny that. It’s not easy for me to get that as an obsessive critic of Hillary Clinton. But my question is, whenever I read nice-sounding words from her, is why should I believe her? There’s nothing, really, in her record to suggest that she will follow through on what she’s promising. It reminds me a lot of the rhetoric of, that her husband promulgated when he was president. I remember reading through his budget documents, in particular, that were full of high–you know, the prose portions of the budget documents were full of high-sounding rhetoric about investing in people and building a bridge to the 21st century and all that. And when you look at the actual numbers involved, you have to take them out to three decimal points in percentage of GDP to see anything’s happening.

So I just really am very skeptical that anything will come of a lot of these proposals. And also, people always, during the primary campaign, people said about the Bernie Sanders proposal, well, how would he get it through Congress? I have the same question for Hillary, but she doesn’t seem to get the same question with the same frequency or intensity. How would she get that through Congress? She promised bipartisan action to break through the gridlock. Obama came into office with the same kind of ambition, and look what that got him. She did have a reputation for being very friendly with the Republicans in the Senate when she was in that body. But I don’t know if they’re going to vote for some of the things that she’s talking about.

And then with her you always have to look at the fine print. One thing I appreciate, the NPR fact-checking of her speech. She said, I voted against the only multilateral trade bill that came before the Senate when I was serving in it. They helped with, pointed out, she pointed for six bilateral trade deals. So whenever she inserts a word like that you’ve got to say, hmm, what’s up with that?

So there’s, [like I say], a lot of good-sounding stuff, but I’m not quite sure how much to believe her.

PERIES: Right. And Bob, the significance of Hillary Clinton speaking at this plant that manufactures F35 nosepieces, signaling that she’s certainly a supporter and will be creating jobs by way of military industry. What does this mean, since you’ve actually done some work in terms of the significance of the military sector in terms of the U.S. economy?

ROBERT POLLIN: Well, clearly Hillary was making two critical points by showing up at the plant. Number one, that she’s a big supporter of manufacturing in Michigan, so a revival of Michigan’s manufacturing economy, and right, number two, that there’s no way you’re going to hear from Hillary about cutting the military budget, and the military spending is, you know, one of the most stable and most innovative parts of the economy. That’s been a problem since at least World War II. There’s no denying that military spending, innovation, technological innovation coming out of the military had an enormous influence in terms of things like jet aviation and the internet.

Now, the point is, Hillary also does signal that she wants to see investments and growth in clean energy, but as Doug said, there was no substance behind it. It was just a lot of talk. It sounded nice. And so for the moment there’s really nothing that we can grab onto, other than as you just said, Sharmini, she’s clearly making a commitment, a strong statement, about maintaining superiority and investing in the military.

PERIES: All right. And then the other big thing that she talked about was the infrastructure investment bank, and this is obviously going to be in the form of public-private partnerships to rebuild the economy in the U.S. What do you make of that, Doug?

HENWOOD: I think it was interesting. She did say in the speech that, here’s something you don’t often hear for a Democrat, we want to get the private sector involved. Heard a lot from her husband. So I mean, this is not exactly unprecedented rhetoric. He and Al reinvented government on a private-sector model, privatize services, and all that. So this is hardly–it’s classic new Democrat stuff dating back to the early ’90s, so for her to say that is a little weird.

But she’s talking about something like a 10:1 ratio of public to private, that is, ten–$1 public somehow leveraged into $10 private. We don’t really know how that’s going to happen. The details seem rather sketchy. I can’t imagine the private sector’s going to want to get deeply involved in building, rebuilding the infrastructure if they’re not going to make money on it. And how are they going to make money on it? I really don’t understand how we’re going to have this 10:1 magic leverage ratio.

But it sounds really good. I notice a lot of her policies don’t involve the expenditure of much public funds. She’s, for example, the family leave that she’s talking about. That’s required of employers. It’s not something that the government’s going to pay for. And also, this infrastructure magic. Somehow the private sector’s going to pay for this, but it’s not very clear how. And I’d like to see some reporters press around it, but she never gives any news conferences so there’s not much opportunity for that.

PERIES: And Bob, there’s nothing new here in terms of the idea. We’ve been experiencing private-public partnerships for a very long time, and the consequences of it in places like Baltimore, where there’s been not much benefit to the public on this side, your thoughts on her proposal, here?

POLLIN: Well, her, she–I think the one specific thing in terms of budgetary commitments that she talks about in the speech is she does say she’s going to go for $275 billion in public infrastructure spending. But that’s over five years, so that’s roughly $50 billion per year. Now, $50 billion, when you say it, it sounds like a huge amount of money. That’s 0.03 percent of U.S. GDP. So $50 billion a year is not, in itself, going to revive the economy.

Now, if we want to talk about some kind of public-private partnership, and as Doug says, a 10:1 expenditure from private for every dollar of public, that is reconceptualizing what infrastructure is. We’re talking about roads, we’re talking about bridges, we’re talking about lighting systems, water systems. Are we going to privatize those and make those for-profit enterprises? I guess that’s what we have to assume she’s talking about.

So this is–yes. There is no model that this has succeeded anywhere. And I assume the reasons she’s couching it in those terms is because she does not want to put a big price tag on it. In fact, her infrastructure commitment is half of what Trump is saying he’s going to spend. So it’s actually a very, very modest amount. Similarly, with her other–you know, she says nice things about minimum wages, about public options for healthcare. And unions, she wants to support unions. But there’s no specifics whatsoever as to how she’s going to accomplish any of these.

PERIES: All right. Let’s actually move on to an issue very close to you, Bob, in terms of the energy sector. And what she was proposing–tell us what she was proposing and whether that makes sense to you.

POLLIN: I couldn’t tell. You know, at least she’s not denying climate science. I mean, this is a major advance relative to Donald Trump, who has said, you know, that he is going to aggressively rebuild the fossil fuel sector. And by the way, Donald Trump announced today that he’s adding people to his economic advising team. All women, eight women. And one of them has written this book on strengthening fossil fuel–and denying, saying that climate change is a big hoax.

So we’re clear where Donald Trump is. Hillary is, you know, she says, we’re going to be a clean energy superstar, that we’re going to–.

PERIES: Superpower, was the word.

POLLIN: Superpower. We’re going to outcompete Germany, we’re going to outcompete China. Actually, I don’t know why we have to think of this as competition at all. The entire globe has to dramatically reduce emissions, at a minimum, by 40 percent within the next 20 years. And you know, within 50 years eliminate fossil fuels altogether. There’s no reason why we have to think of Germany, the U.S., and China as competing over this. We all have to do it. She doesn’t say anything about her program at all. If she is meant to be adopting more or less what Obama is doing, it’s in the right direction, but it’s very modest, and nowhere close to what’s adequate in order to meet even the modest emission goals that came out of the Paris climate conference in December.

HENWOOD: This rhetoric of competition is precisely the opposite of what we need to approach climate change. We need a rhetoric of cooperation and solidarity around the world. We’re all in this together. It’s the only planet we’ve got. And competition is the wrong way to think about that. It shows where Hillary is coming from, the kind of rhetoric she uses.

PERIES: And Doug, I’m going to go to you on this one, which is her position or her articulation on TPP, which she carefully crafted. First, let’s have a look.

CLINTON: Too many companies lobbied for trade deals so they could sell products abroad, but then they instead moved abroad and sold back into the United States. My message to every worker in Michigan and across America is this: I will stop any trade deal that kills jobs or holds down wages, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

PERIES: So Doug, what did you make of that?

HENWOOD: You know, there’s a nice passage in Mark Landler’s book on the relationship between Hillary and Obama, in which Obama’s, one of Obama’s aides tells him that Hillary has come out against the TPP, and Obama’s only reaction was to roll his eyes. So you know, she was for it when she was Secretary of State, and now she’s against it. She was against the Colombian free trade deal when she was running in 2008, when she became Secretary of State she supported it, and then she came out against it again, she’s out of office.

So I think what she says about TPP now is just completely not believable. She is almost certain to support it in–maybe there will be some minor, I don’t know, cosmetic tweaks to it. But it’s hard for me to believe that she would oppose the thing wholesale. That’s just not who she is, that’s just not why she’s getting scores of millions of dollars from plutocrats. The Hillary I know is the Hillary of the TPP, not one who’s been against it briefly on the campaign trail.

PERIES: And Bob, let me give you a chance to get in on the TPP statement, as well.

POLLIN: Well, you know, I think Doug is completely right. Nothing she says is believable. She does also say in the speech she acknowledges that previous trade deals turned out to be harmful for working people. She doesn’t acknowledge that, you know, the most important one, NAFTA, that was pushed through by her husband with her fulsome support. So you know, the–and of course the person she picked for vice president, Tim Kaine, had been an ardent supporter of TPP until, I think, the day that she picked him for the vice presidential pick.

So I think that, you know, what we can expect from mainstream Democrats on trade is basically what we’ve gotten so far up till now. Obama remains fervently in support of TPP. That’s the mainstream Democratic position. So I think that’s what we can expect.

PERIES: And then, finally, I will come to both of you for this one. Very sensitive one at universities across this country, and colleges, as well. Bob, she spoke about student debt. Let’s have a look at what she said.

CLINTON: And it’s crucial that every American have access to the education and skills they need to get the jobs of the future. So we will fight to make college tuition-free for the middle class, and debt-free for everyone. We will also liberate millions of people who already have student debt by making it easier to refinance and repay what you owe as a portion of your income so you don’t have to pay more than you can afford.

PERIES: Bob, what does that really mean?

POLLIN: Well, of course she’s picking up–this was totally Bernie Sanders’s proposal. Bernie Sanders was going to make college tuition free at public institutions for everybody. Great.

Now, how do you pay for it? Bernie actually had a proposal. A very clear, simple proposal: taxing Wall Street. Wall Street tax was aimed at covering the free college tuition proposal. In my own research on this, I show that Wall Street tax that is before Congress now could cover the full college tuition four times over for everybody, according to Sanders’ plan.

So if Hillary is serious about something like making college tuition free or affordable or you know, she’s obviously couching her terms, but she also has to explain exactly how she’s going to pay for it, because it’s not cheap. And so Bernie said how he was going to pay for it. Hillary hasn’t, to date.

PERIES: And Doug, let me get your reaction to the student debt issue.

HENWOOD: Well, it’s funny. I think it’s in the first presidential debate she was against free college tuition. And now she’s for it. She contradicts herself so frequently and so rapidly that she must assume that nobody has any memory. Perhaps we don’t, especially after listening to these endless campaigns. Just punch-drunk from listening to this thing.

But you know, there’s no reason to believe it. You just look–[inaud.] look at it now. I was reading through all these proposals, and I thought, almost every one of them has something in her history to refute it. She’s going to be a big friend of public education. Well, no. Her husband was, made a lot of money from [Laureate], a private college chain. She herself ran a war against Arkansas’s teachers’ union when she was the first lady of Arkansas. She’s miss clean energy now, but now, when she was Secretary of State she was promoting drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and promoting fracking around the world.

I just don’t believe anything she says. I mean, if you look at her record, as I’ve spent way too much time for my mental health doing, nothing she says in the press is really believable. People do change, people have conversions on the road to Damascus and all, but there’s really no reason to take anything she says seriously. And she looks certainly less bad than Trump in many respects. But on the other hand, [really]. If people are going to support her, they should really now something about who she is and where she comes from.

PERIES: Bob, before we started the interview offline, you were telling me that you were actually passing around Doug Henwood’s book My Turn to some of your grad students yesterday. And I’m just wondering, what are their thoughts, what are the sentiments out there about the current political situation we’re in and what Hillary Clinton is saying.

POLLIN: Actually, it was a new Ph.D., who just became a doctor, [Ying Chen], who will be teaching at the New School in the fall. We had a little party for her. And we were actually passing around Doug Henwood’s book, which I highly recommend, called My Turn, on Hillary. And I think the sentiment was that things like Doug’s book lay out exactly who Hillary really is, and that we need to think about this strategically, we on the left. That is, Hillary is going to throw out all this rhetoric that sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders along the campaign without putting any specifics on it. What we really need to do is struggle around these things. These are contested terrain. We need to struggle to make them real.

She’s not going to ever make them real. She was pushed by the Sanders campaign to embrace the rhetoric. What’s going to happen is we have to push to make these things real. So like, for example, she says she’s all for unions. Well, what the hell does that mean? Let’s–tell us what that means, and let’s fight about it and make it real.

PERIES: The devil’s in the detail. I thank you both for joining us, and we’ll continue to unpack Hillary Clinton’s economic proposals, as we do at the Real News, and I hope both of you can join us then.

HENWOOD: Me too.

POLLIN: Thanks very much.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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