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The Truth About Clintonomics

by Alexander Cockburn

Gestures to the least well-off have been slight and backhanded
The political conventions will soon be upon us. In Philadelphia, the Republicans will fill the air with thunder about the moral pollution of Clintonism. In Los Angeles, the Democrats will tell Americans they've never had it better. So far, no contest. As a sales pitch, "you've never had it so good" beats "we'll end moral pollution" every time.

But who exactly has had it better in America over the past eight years? The crowd cheering Bush and Cheney in Philadelphia will mostly be feeling flush. And the big contributors to the Democratic National Committee, feted in Los Angeles, will be feeling flush, too. Through eight years, Clinton-Gore never let them down. But Gore still needs the votes of people who aren't feeling flush, who won't be renting sky suites in the Staples Center in Los Angeles. How have these people really been doing these last eight years?

Robert Pollin, a good economist at the University of Massachusetts, has an "Anatomy of Clintonomics" in the bimonthly periodical New Left Review for May/June of this year. It doesn't offer much comfort to those trying to run the "Gore is the friend of working people" flag up the pole.

The record: "Clinton has done virtually nothing to advance the interests of working people or organized labor." What about the two-step rise in the minimum wage? Answer: The overall rise from $4.25 to the current $5.15 has done little to offset the plunge in the real value of the minimum wage. Even the rate of $5.15 set in September 1997 is 30 percent below its real value in 1968, even though the economy has become 50 percent more productive across those 30 years.

Nor can it be said that under Clinton-Gore organized labor enjoyed much of a renaissance, starting with the kick in the face from Clinton-Gore over NAFTA. Remember that back in 1992, some optimistic people were even talking about reform of the Taft-Hartley anti-labor law. In 1988, Reagan's last year, the percentage of the total workforce in unions stood at 16.8. In 1998, it had fallen to 13.9.

How about anti-poverty programs? Pollin looks at all the claims made by the administration for the glories of the earned income tax credit, offsets these against the destruction of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (now known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), and factors in the decline in the number of people getting food stamps (five times greater than the decline in the number of people in poverty). Then, he spells out the conclusion that the combination of a low minimum wage and a widening of the earned income tax credit "(has) allowed business to offer rock-bottom wages, while shifting onto taxpayers the cost of alleviating the poverty of even those holding full-time jobs." In sum, the overall conditions of life for America's poorest households may have worsened during the Clinton administration.

So much for the destitute. What of working people and the poor? Both the average wages of non-supervisory workers and the earnings of those in the lowest 10th percentile of wage distribution remain not only well below those of the Nixon-Ford and Carter administrations, but are actually lower than those of the Reagan-Bush years. Wage inequalities have also shot up. "If low rates of unemployment have been a positive feature of the 1990s," Pollin writes, "it is still quite possible that the overall condition of the poor will prove to have worsened in Clinton's final years of office."

Pollin concludes that the core of Clinton's economic program has been global economic integration, with minimum interventions to promote equity in labor markets or stability in financial markets. Gestures to the least well-off have been slight and backhanded, while wages for the majority have either stagnated or declined. Wealth at the top, meanwhile, has exploded.

In eight years, working people got virtually nothing out of the Clinton-Gore administration except what Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan termed exultantly in 1997: "subdued wages" and heightened job insecurity. There are now 45 million instead of 35 million beings without health insurance. Many of them are ready to rebel. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader is doing well not only up and down the West Coast, but also in the Rust Belt states. In Connecticut, Nader's now polling 11 percent. If Nader starts edging up toward 15 percent, he'll be able to make a strong case for getting into the debates. Once there, he'll be able to tell voters facts they won't ever hear at either convention or from the mouths of either George W. Bush or Al Gore.

(Note: For the record, Alexander Cockburn is on the editorial board of New Left Review.)

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor July 31, 2000 (

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