Jon Wiener: From The Nation podcast, this is Start Making Sense. I’m Jon Wiener.
Later in the show: Our politics today is haunted by the failures of Bill Clinton— the “centrist” who “triangulated” with Republicans, lost on healthcare, and proclaimed that “The era of big government is over.” Nelson Lichtenstein explains Clinton’s turn to the right, and the lessons for today’s Democrats – his new book on Clinton is “A Fabulous Failure.” But first: Power to the People in Maine: that’s on the ballot there next month. Bill McKibben will explain – in a minute.
Voters in Maine will decide next month whether to turn the state’s private utilities public. If that happens, it would be a huge step toward dealing with the climate crisis and a model for other states. For comment, we turn to Bill McKibben. Of course, he’s an author and environmentalist. He’s written more than a dozen books, most recently, The Flag, the Cross and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened. And of course, Bill is a founder of 350.org, a planet wide collaboration of organizers, community groups, and regular people fighting for a fossil free future. Among other things, 350.org has pushed for divestment. As a result, more than 1,500 universities, foundations, cities and churches have divested more than $40 trillion from fossil fuels. Bill teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. He writes for The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and The Nation. Bill, welcome back.
Bill McKibben: Very good to be with you. And I will add, and it’s pertinent here with this stuff we’re going to talk about in Maine, most of my work these days, isn’t at 350, but at Third Act where we’re organizing people over the age of 60 like me for action on climate and democracy and having a very good time at it. And this main public power proposal that we want to talk about that really combines around these issues of climate and democracy in powerful ways.
JW: Third Act. So who owns Maine’s Electric Utilities now?
BM: Well, there’s two big private utilities, and they’re all based out of state, and the significant number is that they repatriate out of Maine about $187 million a year in profit back to their shareholders in Calgary or overseas or wherever they’re headquartered. So that 187 million, if this was a public utility, some of that could be captured to lower rates. And then this utility would also be able, because it wouldn’t be trying to make the same 10 or 15% return on investment for its shareholders, it would be able to undertake a lot more of the necessary upgrades to really bring renewable energy fully online and help in the climate work. It’s a perfect example of just how forms of corporate capitalism have gotten us in all kinds of deep holes now.
JW: Of course, the transition to renewables wouldn’t be automatic. What would it take for public controlled utilities in Maine to make the transition?
BM: Well, look, you got to build a lot of stuff. You got to put up a lot of solar panels and a lot of wind turbines. Maine is ideally suited for this, and Maine actually just changed its law with the help of the AF of L in the state to make the development of offshore wind out in the Gulf of Maine much more attractive. And I think that’s going to be a very big deal. But Maine in general needs the same transmission upgrades and all the other things we need across the country to let us use more of this distributed renewable energy.
The big private utilities have a vested interest in slow walking all those transitions as best they can. A public utility wouldn’t have that. It would be able to move much more nimbly, even as it was producing lower rates because it wasn’t having to send so much money out of state for something else.
I think we sometimes forget about energy prices, both with utilities and with the fossil fuel that we buy to heat our homes or power our cars. Just what an extraordinary economic drain it is on almost every place in the country. Wherever we are, unless we’re in Texas or Louisiana, we’re basically sending billions of dollars a year state by state off to the Koch brothers, off to Exxon, off to Saudi Arabia. If that money stayed close to home, it would be a huge, maybe the biggest imaginable economic revitalization fund going. And I mean, the good news is that every place on the planet has sun and wind. We don’t need to rely on the Saudis or the Texans. The cheapest way to generate power on our planet now is to point a sheet of glass at the sun. So if we can just overcome some of this vested interest in inertia, we can make progress pretty fast here.
JW: Maine will vote in about a month. What kind of campaign are the private utilities running?
BM: An expensive one. They’re outspending the grassroots coalition at the latest count 32 to one. They’ve spent going on $30 million. And the young people running this campaign to take public, who’ve spent less than a million dollars, they had a lead going in the polls because everybody hates the utilities. And in Maine particularly, they shut off service to huge numbers of people a year. But I worry that that kind of money is just stoking people’s fears 24/7 on the TV, over and over again. And one of the things that’s really depressing about it is the PR and ad firms and stuff that they hired, these are people leftover from the Obama administration and things who are doing the dirty deed on behalf of the utilities.
JW: I learned from your article in The Nation that the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and with them the Maine AF of L, is siding with the bosses and opposing public ownership of utilities. Why is that?
BM: Well, the convoluted reasoning, which I think is wrong, is that if it becomes a public utility, then they won’t be able to strike as easily. But in fact, the people proposing this who are very union friendly, have put in a lot of provisions to obviate that. I’m afraid that this is just one of these cases where the union’s just comfortable with the status quo and isn’t thinking about any of the larger social or environmental factors with it. Unions are a good progressive force, but that doesn’t mean that they’re always on the side of progressive action. There’s a lot of instances in American history where they get pretty easily captured by the bosses.
JW: I saw that the Maine State Nurses Association, which represents more than 2,000 nurses in the state, has endorsed the referendum taking electric utilities public. So labor’s divided here.
BM: That’s right. And the nurses are great, it’s the nurses who were the biggest earliest union backers of Bernie’s campaigns. That’s because nurses, they end up downstream of all the other trouble gets caused. They’re the ones who have to patch people up when there’s floods and forest fires. They’re the ones who deal with all the people who get to breathe the particulates from burning coal and gas and oil. They understand in a very deep way what it is we’re doing to this planet and the bodies that depend on it. So one can always count on the nurses to be doing the right thing here.
JW: This November 8th ballot in Maine has a second related provision intended to undermine the move to public ownership of utilities. If that one passes, this other one requires another referendum to approve the funding of the takeover. So even if you win, it looks like you’re going to have to do this all over again.
BM: These guys are nothing, if not committed to preserving their business model at all costs, even if that business model is taking down the planet, which it currently is. Yeah, it’s always an uphill fight. But the people, primarily young people behind this referendum have done a really good job of informing Mainers as best they can. It’s pretty much the biggest item on the ballot. There’s no elections of candidates. It’s just a referendum. So it’s hard to predict the turnout. And it’s possible that people who are for public power are more fired up than people who are just being scared by TV ads every night.
JW: Well, I also want to talk about a related but separate topic that the transition to electric vehicles, which you’ve written about recently in The New York Review, Joe Biden spending tens of billions of dollars to fund the transition. But you point out that battery powered cars and trucks pose some of the same problems as gasoline powered cars and trucks. Namely, they still require roads and parking spaces, and it was the parking spaces that got my attention in your wonderful piece. There’s a new book called Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World by Henry Grabar. The facts you cite are amazing. How many parking spaces are there in, say, Phoenix?
BM: There’s way more parking spaces than there are people. The thing that really got me is that there’s more parking space per car in America than there is living space per person. An alien would be forgiven for believing that the dominant species on our planet is automobiles.
I will say, just to go back to where we began, that there is no question that if we’re going to drive cars, electric ones are a lot better for the world in every way than internal combustion ones. They’re more efficient, they use less stuff by far, they don’t produce the same amount of carbon and they don’t put stuff into the air that causes you to get childhood asthma. But there’s other exciting things going on right now. I mean, I think it’s possible that the most interesting emerging technology right now is less the electric car than the electric bicycle, which really is a remarkable piece of technology, Jon. It just flattens out the hills and it makes bike riding as a primary means of transport, really available to lots and lots and lots more people who don’t think of themselves as athletes and don’t want to wear spandex and so on and so forth but, are just rediscovering that this is an extremely efficient, affordable, sensible way of transit.
JW: So more bike lanes and of course more electric buses.
BM: Electric buses are terrific. And you know where the easiest place and probably most important place to begin that transition or to really ramp up that transition is with electric school buses. There’s these buses idling in front of schools hour on end. We don’t want kids breathing what comes out of the back of those diesel engines. We want nice, quiet electric school buses. There’s money in the infrastructure bill to get some of that done, and communities should be thinking hard about it.
JW: Bill McKibben, he wrote about cars for The New York Review and about Maine’s referendum on public ownership of electric utilities for The Nation. You can read him at thenation.com.
Bill, thank you for all your work – and thanks for talking with us today.
BM: A real pleasure. We’re going to get back to work organizing all this Third Act stuff that we’re doing to take on, especially these big liquified natural gas export terminals. So we’ll get ready to talk about that next time. But it’s exciting. And if you come across any old people like me, send them our way.
JW: Bill McKibben. Thanks again.
BM: Take care, man.
Jon Wiener: Our politics today is haunted by the failures of Bill Clinton. That’s what Nelson Lichtenstein argues in his new book on Clinton, titled A Fabulous Failure. Nelson is a research professor at UC Santa Barbara, author of 16 books, including State of the Union: A Century of American Labor. He writes for The New York Times, The LA Times, The Guardian, and The Nation. Nelson Lichtenstein, welcome back.
Nelson Lichtenstein: Glad to be here.
JW: I think we have to start with the fabulous title of your book on Bill Clinton, ‘A Fabulous Failure.’ Where does that come from?
NL: Well, two rather prominent economists, Janet Yellen and Alan Blinder, in the year 2000–Yellen is now Secretary of Treasury–wrote a little book, a short book called The Fabulous Decade, or A Fabulous Decade, and they did point out, correctly, that unemployment was very low in the late ’90s, so the budget was balanced, and the stock market was booming, and so they called it A Fabulous Decade. They wrote it in 2000. I’m writing this 20 odd years later, and it’s clear that many of the things that Clinton did in the world of economics sort of blew up. Maybe not right then, but of course in 2008, and then more generally, the economic hollowing out of the Midwest. Clinton was a fabulous politician in many ways, a very successful politician, the first Democrat to win reelection since FDR, so I titled it A Fabulous Failure.
JW: Now, we think of Bill Clinton as the centrist who triangulated with Republicans to move American manufacturing offshore, as you say, complete the transformation of the industrial heartland into the Rust Belt, eviscerating the American Labor Movement, adopting right-wing ideas like ending welfare as we know it. Of course, he recruited Wall Street support for the Democratic Party by deregulating banks and telecommunications, and he proclaimed the era of big government is over. Reagan himself couldn’t have said it better, but you say that’s not the program Bill Clinton campaigned on. When he first ran in 1992, he ran, you say, as a Progressive. So tell us about the Clinton agenda in 1992, which I guess begins with James Carville’s unforgettable slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.”
NL: Right. Clinton did run as a more progressive figure certainly than Jimmy Carter and anyone since LBJ, and he had a lot of ideas and people around him. The phrase, “Industrial policy,” which is now in the news. Biden’s Build Back Better, is really industrial policy. He was in favor of that. His health reform proposal was actually to the left, I think of the one that was eventually passed under Obama.
He wanted to keep his eyes focused on the economy, not on culture war issues, which some of his advisors were in favor, and of course, the Republicans were beginning to do at that time. And so part of the failure is a failure of a progressive initiative.
JW: Let’s start with healthcare, which for millions of people, was the biggest failure of the Clintons. We thought Bill and Hillary were going to transform the country and create universal coverage, health insurance for all Americans, and the plan was that they thought they had the support of some of the most powerful forces on the business side, the big insurance companies that would make a lot of money from a government program that paid them, and also, they thought they had the support of the big, unionized employers like GM, who would not have to pay health benefits to workers if the government took over. So by preserving private insurance companies, they thought, it seemed like this would pass and become law. What went wrong with the Clinton Health Care plan?
NL: That’s right. There was a big slice of American capital that was burdened by healthcare costs, usually the manufacturing sector, and they wanted something that would relieve them of that cost, and the Clinton plan would do that, and those firms would then have some influence on the Republican party. They overestimated that, for sure. Of course, it had opposition, and it wasn’t just from the right-wing of the Republican party. Newt Gingrich’s was growing, a kind of hostility to any sort of reform, but what was also happening was I think the Clintons sort of misjudged the shape of where power really lay in the economy, less with General Motors and more with Walmart.
By the way, they weren’t the only ones. The editors of Fortune Magazine had kept the retailers low wage, low benefit retailers out of the Fortune 500 until the year 1995, and then they say, “Well, I think we better put Walmart and Sears.” What happens? They come up number four or number five, and by the year 2000, Walmart’s the biggest company by sales and by employment in the country. So the Clintons kind of misjudged that.
That’s why I think the shape of American capitalism, the nature, where certain people are strong, where they’re weak in terms of trade, in terms of finance, this is essential for historians to understand why Clinton failed and why today is Biden going to succeed or fail, and I think we have to understand those things. That’s what I’m trying to get at. It’s not just the foibles of Bill or Hillary or anyone else, et cetera. It’s really more fundamental than that.
JW: Clinton brought us a lot of the economic changes that Reagan had argued for, the market ruling everything, Wall Street in command, but when Clinton became President, you point out in the book, there were other varieties of capitalism in the world, and several of those were a lot closer to what Clinton tried to do in Arkansas and what he and a lot of his advisors were interested in, to use the power of the state to boost the economy, and he brought people into his cabinet who wanted him to do that, especially Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor. So there was a big debate inside the Clinton administration, and the progressive side had some good models in the world and some good arguments, arguments that Clinton was sympathetic to.
NL: Yes. Initially, yes. I mean, one of slogans that was around, Paul Tsongas, who ran against Clinton in the ’92 primaries, but he had a phrase. He said, “The Cold War is over. Germany and Japan won.” And Clinton agreed with that basically. Germany and Japan represented these different models of capitalism, a kind of social market in Germany, and in Japan, a kind of finance, banks, big companies, all sort of much closer together in a kind of corporatist arrangement.
And Clinton, as governor of Arkansas, a very poor state, he was desperately trying to figure out how to industrialize it and get more jobs and better jobs, and he went all over the world, to Northern Italy, to Germany, Japan, et cetera, looking for models, not just sort of investment. ‘Oh, we have cheap labor, come,’ but looking for models. He didn’t really want that cheap labor argument for investing in Arkansas, and he had people he brought into the administration, Robert Reich, who today is actually much more to the left than he was in 1992, but the other figure, I think is very interesting is Laura Tyson, who was at Berkeley, she and others had this roundtable on international economics. They were very much in favor of both industrial policy at home, meaning, ‘Yes, we’re going to target new investments in the same way that Biden’s doing it now,’ and also managed trade abroad, meaning, ‘No, we aren’t going to just let the free market,’ and so when Clinton had to decide who was going to be chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, this tells you about his mindset at this time.
So who were the candidates? Larry Summers, who would go on to be kind of a very conservative figure, although his background wasn’t that, Paul Krugman, who of course, now is very famous, but at that time, he was very much an advocate of free trade, and Laura Tyson. Laura Tyson was by far a less distinguished economist than the other two, but she was an advocate of industrial policy of the same sort that Clinton and Reich, and Ira Magaziner, and many others were thinking about. So she was made head of the Council of Economic Advisers. Unfortunately, as head of that council, I don’t think she did that much with it, but she was selected because of her particular economic policies.
JW: You say the Treasury Department became the most important force in the Clinton administration. Explain that.
NL: Yes. Well, I say there were two forces that Clinton really could not control, and it was quite frustrating. One was the Federal Reserve Board, run by Alan Greenspan, which has been independent for more than half a century, and is always kind of an independent force for any president. The second is Treasury, where first, Lloyd Bentsen, a more conservative Texas Senator, and then mainly Robert Rubin, were Secretary of Treasury. The reason I say that, in theory, all cabinet positions are subordinate to the President, but the kind of the weight and authority of the more orthodox, or you could call them neoliberal, and we could define that phrase in a second, neoliberal economists at Treasury was so great, that I found time and again, Clinton would have some progressive idea.
‘Hey, can we limit executive salaries?,’ or, ‘What about the East Asian countries are getting all this hot money? What can we do about that?’ And he’d send this over to Treasury, and back would come a five-page, single-spaced, well-argued, “No.” At one point, George Soros, he was interested in structuring and managing capitalist money flows, and Clinton loved his book and underlined it and told his aides to read it, and he sends it over to Treasury, and of course, they come back with a complete denunciation of it. So this tells you something about government.
If you want to have a government that’s going to carry out a more progressive line and the presence elected on that basis, you’ve got to have the people to do it.
JW: So Clinton’s idea was that a globalized economy would give the United States the high technology, high-skilled entrepreneurial heart of the world economy, and indeed, we did get Apple, but also, in that era, we got Walmart, we got McDonalds, we got Amazon, low-wage, low-skilled retail companies that have fought unions ruthlessly. How much of that is Clinton’s responsibility?
NL: Well, obviously these things were happening independent of the President. Clinton didn’t come in with that idea that you just expressed. He was defeated, and then by the second term, very much, Clinton and the people around him are talking about a new economy. That’s the phrase, “New economy,” which meant Silicon Valley, transformations of telecommunications, all of that, and they were very excited about it. They thought, “Well, we don’t need regulation.”
“We can have deregulation. We can have free trade because we’re going to be on the top.” I think they were seduced by that idea, and really, the new economy was not just Silicon Valley, it was Walmart. It was low-wage service sector. I mean, and when you look at the number of jobs being created, the number of janitors and home healthcare workers, and retail clerks does, in fact, far outstrip the number of computer programmers and things of that sort.
I mean, I could go into this, there were still some things in the second term that they did. For example, CHIPS, the Children’s Health Insurance program, which was a kind of consolation prize for not getting health insurance. The big plan, that went into effect, very successful, and all the Clinton people were very proud of that, and they’re right to be, because it helped tens of millions of kids. But basically, the economy was much increasingly financialized and tremendous deregulation, which really were ticking time bombs, which would in fact explode in the next decade.
JW: So your argument in this book is that Clinton’s turn to the right was not, I’m quoting, “Not merely a product of defeat at the hands of corporate enemies and political foes. It was also bred by a series of illusions, his illusions.” And in some cases, the chickens didn’t come home to roost for a long time. It was eight years before we got the financial crisis in 2008. How much is Clinton to blame for that?
NL: This is the deregulation of derivatives. It wasn’t as if these things, where there were no people inside the administration saying, “This is a bad idea.” There were. Now, derivatives are kind of insurance products that are really wagers, that seemingly are safe bets, because some companies are not going to go bankrupt, and therefore, you can have a highly, highly leveraged insurance, as it were, and you’ll come out okay, but sometimes it doesn’t happen. So the idea of the deregulation of derivatives, they’re sold without any regulations.
There was a big debate about this. A woman named Brooksley Born, who was head of the Commodities Futures Trading Corporation, which had usually, in the past, “Oh, it would regulate hog bellies and corn futures.” Well, futures on stocks, futures on other kinds of financial instruments, which derivatives were, she wanted to regulate them and said, “This stuff is growing by leaps and bounds, it’s unregulated, and it’s going to explode.” Fortune Magazine had articles, “Yes,” saying that. They call them alligators in a swamp. They’re ready to snap, but Rubin, Robert Rubin and Larry Summers and others, they all, again, came down on Brooksley Born with a ton of bricks, and a financial law was passed, which completely unregulated derivatives.
These things grew by the trillions and trillions of dollars, and then they imploded in 2008 and nine. It just completely imploded.
JW: Looking at lessons that Clinton’s successors learned from his failures and disasters, Obama did pass his number one priority, a national healthcare program. Obamacare is not what we wanted, it’s not what he had promised, but he succeeded where Clinton failed. What had Obama learned from the failure of the Clintons? Why did he succeed, where the Clintons failed?
NL: Well, I think he succeeded because he did see the problems of Clinton, which was various sectors of capital, big insurance, certain kinds of insurance companies, pharmaceuticals, abandoned ship. They said, ‘No, we don’t want to do that.’ So Obama said, ‘I’m going to structure this so Walmart can be on board, so the big insurance companies will make more money.’ These deals, you think of Obama as kind of an idealistic character, they made some real crude deals in the run-up to that, and therefore, the big insurance, Big Pharma, the low wage retailers were not opposed. The Republican party, yes, was 100% opposed to Obamacare, but I think the fact that it passed anyway, that there weren’t that many defections among the Democrats, indicates it’s because the big players, the big companies, they said, “Yeah, we’re going along with this,” and they weren’t going to lobby against it, and they didn’t.
So I think Obama learned that. He also put a tax, paid for it with a progressive tax, which I think Clinton was afraid to do, and I think that turned out – that was also one of the reasons for opposition, but that turned out to make one of the most progressive features of Obamacare, is in fact, its tax system.
JW: That was eight and nine years after Clinton. 16 years after Bill left office, Hillary lost the presidency to Donald Trump, and you call election day 2016 the Clinton’s day of reckoning. Let’s talk about that. Is Trump really part of the Clinton legacy?
NL: Well, insofar as he, for a moment there, and clearly, his main appeal is ethnonationalism and worse, but in ’16, he did, in fact, win some of those Midwestern states that had been hollowed out by trade with China, and China was not a fair trading partner in any way, shape, or form. China certainly was managing its trade with the U.S. Anyway, Trump took advantage of that. And I would also say that by 2016, I mean, if you’re in politics for 25 years and Hillary was, you become a more tempered kind of figure, and so she really, she’d had no program that could really excite, and Bernie, Bernie Sanders, he didn’t have to denounce Hillary to make her look bad. He just had to say, “This is what I stand for.”
In comparison, she just looked tepid, really. And so Trump squeaks in there. I mean, she still won three million more votes than he did, but nevertheless, he squeaked in there, and the Clintons are in the doghouse, and I think they were not in the doghouse until 2015. Bill had given a very good speech in 2012, defending Obamacare at the Democratic National Convention. Hillary was kind of a popular Secretary of State, but it was when Bernie, on one side, Trump on the other, that just put the Clintons in the doghouse.
JW: You say Trump’s victory over Hillary had one salutary impact. What was that?
NL: Usually, when the Democrats get defeated, they move to the right. That was true after Carter, and I think it’s true after Clinton defeated by Bush. Usually, they move to the right, but when Trump wins, the Democrats move to the left. I think part of the reason is that the Democrats more united, the Southern Democrats were gone. The other thing, of course, is that Trump did put on the agenda, issues of trade in a way, and I think the illusions about free trade and creating, for example, democracy in China or civil society in China, I think those were coming apart, and in fact, today are, no one would make the point at either economically or politically about the virtues of free trade.
JW: Last question, what do you think Joe Biden has learned from the failures of Bill Clinton?
NL: Well, Joe Biden was a centrist Democrat, really, a kind of Clinton loyalist, but he realized that a kind of industrial policy or reindustrialization was important, both economically and politically in the Midwest, and he brought into his administration some people who would’ve been considered really radical in the 1990’s: Lina Khan at the Federal Trade Commission and others, and Brian Deese in charge of industrial policy at the National Economic Council. He has brought all these young left liberals or even radicals in, and given them positions of responsibility and pushed through some very large trillion-dollar bills involving infrastructure and the welfare state that were way beyond what Clinton could even have conceived, and I think that Biden thought, ‘Well, there’s a thirst for that, and I’m going to do it.’ Kudos to him.
JW: Nelson Lichtenstein. His new book is A Fabulous Failure: The Clinton Presidency and the Transformation of American Capitalism. Nelson, thanks for this terrific book, and thanks for talking with us today.
NL: Great to be here. Appreciate it.