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Flash and filigree.

Writing in The Washington Post late in February, Thomas B. Edsall observed, "President Clinton has wrapped in the rhetoric of moderation an economic program that is, in fact, designed to overturn the anti-government ideology that underpinned the conservative revolution of the early 1980S."

Say what?

That remarkable bit of analysis demonstrates once again the validity of the old saw that beauty--and, for that matter, ugliness--is in the eye of the beholder. From our vantage point, Bill Clinton's economic program--wrapped in the language of conventional liberalism--is conservative by almost any standard except the atavistic one that prevailed in the Washington of the early 1980s. The predictable jeers from the Republican Right should mislead no one. The Clinton plan is a set of feeble halfway measures.

What adds insult to the injury of Clinton's timid undertakings is the rhetoric in which they are cloaked The President luxuriates in talk about "fundamental change," but what is most dramatic about his program is how little change it entails.

[Paragraph] His top-of-the-line proposal to increase the tax rates for corporations and the wealthiest Americans, if fully enacted, will leave those rates lower than they were halfway through Ronald Reagan's first term--and less than half what they were in the Nixon Administration.

[Paragraph] His all-out commitment (in words) to the effective and admirable Head Start preschool program is matched by a commitment to full funding--in 1999.

[Paragraph] His plan to boost the taxes paid by relatively well-off Social Security recipients "looks like the next step in a plan to chip away at Social Security from the top and turn it into a means-tested welfare program," as Doug Henwood pointed out in Left Business Observer.

[Paragraph] His modest cuts in military spending--which surprised even some boosters of the Pentagon, who were braced for much more substantial decreases--ignore the fact that the Cold War is over and perpetuate some monstrously expensive weapons systems for which no conceivable rationale exists.

[Paragraph] His proposals for job-creation and economic stimulation--members of the Administration seem unsure whether they amount to $30 billion or $40 billion or $50 billion--don't begin to deal with the needs of an economy that is recovering sluggishly, if at all, from the Bush recession. "A good stimulus package can probably get 200,000 to 500,000 jobs," says Clinton spokesman George Stephanopoulos. Even if the result were anywhere near the upper end of that considerable spread, it would hardly make up for the jobs vanishing at an alarming rate.

Small wonder, then, that University of Tennessee economist Paul Davidson was moved to speculate, in a recent issue of The Nation, that it might not have made much economic difference "if President Bush had been re-elected and done nothing to change either the tax structure or the spending pattern of the Federal Government in 1993."

When Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan sent television commentators into a tizzy by sitting in the gallery next to Hillary Rodham Clinton during the President's address to a joint session of Congress, some speculated that his prime location was a reward for supporting Clinton's economic program. It would have been just as plausible to turn the speculation around: Perhaps Greenspan favored the First Lady with his presence because Clinton had gone so far to satisfy the financial elite. The economic program is made to order for Greenspan, for Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, for the platoons of fiscal conservatives who have captured the key economic policy posts in the Clinton Administration.

Clinton has apparently concluded that the flash and filigree of upbeat liberal talk and the subdued reality of business-as-usual conservative action make for an ideal combination and a surefire formula for political success. He is mistaken. The grave structural problems that beset our irrational economy will not respond to happy talk from the White House. They demand firm and far-ranging action on a scale the President has apparently not even begun to contemplate.

Some Democrats will say--are, in fact, already saying--that Clinton can do no more than he is doing, given the intractable conservative opposition. This is the kind of craven advice to which Clinton has eagerly succumbed. But the reality is that only the President can effectively build a popular constituency for what actually needs to be done about the economy:

[Paragraph] A massive program of public works--on at least five times the scale proposed by the President--to rebuild our neglected and decaying infrastructure, provide decent housing for those who aren't (and can't be) served by the private market, and create at least two million new jobs (which still will hardly begin to deal with the problem of unemployment).

[Paragraph] Serious dismantling of the bloated military establishment, which almost every economist agrees is the least efficient, least effective Federal spending program when it comes to creating jobs.

[Paragraph] Full funding for such useful domestic welfare programs as Head Start and WIC, as well as school aid and student scholarship--support that is measured in terms of available dollars, not Presidential rhetoric.

[Paragraph] A rollback of the assaults on organized labor that have, in the last dozen years, left workers at the mercy of corporate hierarchies.

[Paragraph] A truly progressive tax system which restores the principle that taxation is not an inherent evil but a means of rendering essential government services--and recognizes that it is just and proper for the rich to pay considerably higher taxes than the rest of us.

This is not a utopian program. It is a set of causes around which a President with Clinton's persuasive gifts could rally a majority of Americans. It is a program that could turn his Administration into a noteworthy success instead of the dismal failure for which it now seems to be headed. It is not yet too late.
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Title Annotation:Bill Clinton's economic plan
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Apr 1, 1993
Words:954
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