Saturday, January 28, 2012

Back in the Future Business: My GoodReads Review of Bill Clinton's Back to Work

Back To Work: Why We Need Smart Government For A Strong EconomyBack To Work: Why We Need Smart Government For A Strong Economy by Bill Clinton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1992 I voted in a presidential election for the second time. My candidate was Ross H. Perot; having graduated from college into a fumbling economy in which I couldn't find gainful employment, I remember telling people that I thought a president with good business sense would be worth four years of disregard for civil rights.

Based at least partly on the sway of weird voters like myself toward Perot, Bill Clinton was elected to his first of two presidential terms, and the United States enjoyed an eight year run of a pretty good economy, which President Clinton spends a great deal of ink reminding us in the early part of his book Back to Work. He does so in that slick, casual, ole buddy way that he always has, which translates into print pretty well and manages to demonstrate his superiority over those who preceded and followed him in office without directly insulting them. It's pretty brilliant, actually.

With the benefit of time, and with his own freedom post-presidency to speak relatively freely, it's easy to see what made President Clinton a good president, and to actually get a little excited about the proposals he's putting forward in Back to Work--excited in the face of a still-limping economy, oddly enough. Clinton's premise here is that modern malaise is a result, in large part, of an anti-governmentism that ushered in Ronald Reagan's two-term presidency and, to be fair, yielded its own economic resurgence. "Government isn't the answer to your problems," Reagan famously declared; "Government is the problem." With that he deregulated industries, marginalized the work of many government programs, and generally subverted the legitimacy of federal government as an institution.

Clinton doesn't quite offer the opposite premise, but he rightly confronts the absurdity inherent in the claim: a world in which democratically elected representatives whose mandate is for the well-being "into remotest futurity" (my new favorite phrase, from Thomas Jefferson, I believe) are inherently dangerous to taxpaying people trying to get by in a free economy managed by unchecked giant multinational companies with obligations only essentially to shareholders and an inherent responsibility to exploit natural resources to their fullest extent and to get as much energy out of employees for as little cost as possible . . . I guess I'm a little worked up. As Clinton puts it, "Big corporations don't get hurt by the current system. They just put plants in other places, create good jobs there, and leave their earnings there" (p. 133). Governments are like family: they have to love you. Corporations are like, well, corporations: everything is negotiable.

Clinton confronts the premise of anti-governmentalism in a winsome way, making a brief positive case for government (in reality, anti-governmentalism doesn't merit a long response) before getting down to how government, collaborating creatively with business, can create environments where truly amazing things can happen.

There are as many problems with Clinton's worldview as there are with Reagan's, of course: government collusion with megabusiness has as many pitfalls as government subservience to megabusiness, if the larger vision of what makes for a good society isn't kept in place. But it is actually pretty energizing to see the curtain pulled back on a creative approach to governmental economic policy, which this book effectively is. Clinton offers forty-six preliminary ideas for getting people working again, dealing with bank jitters, and revitalizing American innovation. They all sound both good and plausible, based again largely on Clinton's unique delivery: he makes the novel seem normal and the normal seem novel. The Secretary of State, for example, is praised for her ongoing work in "commercial diplomacy," which strikes me as a task more appropriately managed by the Commerce Secretary and which seems like it would distract from the State Department's important work in cultivating democracy and human rights overseas. Meanwhile, many of the examples of corporate innovation for the public good held up by Clinton have a long history, and some seem to be pretty widely accepted business models. Clinton showers such relatively mainstreamed business-government collaboration with praise; their practitioners are Edison and Einstein and Mother Teresa rolled into one. You forget that they've been doing what they're doing for twenty or thirty years now, throughout the Era of Anti-Government. Again, this is part of Clinton's leadership genius, why some call him beloved and others call him slick. To affirm one, I'd suggest, is not to deny the other.

I would have greatly appreciated some endnotes in this book; the claims Clinton makes about his and others' presidencies, as well as the outcomes of his proposed best practices, are rosily enough presented that my "He's a politician" skepticism did occasionally kick in. And yet, I found myself inspired--much more confident than I had been in alternative sources of energy (wind and solar, in particular), in the potential contained in government-corporate collaboration, and ultimately more knowledgable about the role of government in both navigating economic downturn and, more importantly, stimulating innovation and prosperity. The reality is that government isn't a problem; government simply is, and it is what we the people make of it. Clinton's vision for the short term is undergirded by his strong faith in the possibility of creative governance; that faith and vision is actually quite contagious.

This book continues, for me, the Year of Overdue Books. It's an odd inclusion, since the idea for what I'm reading this year is "books I should have read long ago," and Back to Work only came out a few months ago. But resolution to the current economic troubles is long overdue, as is a cogent confrontation of the "Government is bad for you" bias of too many people. President Clinton provides both effectively here. As he puts it, America needs to get back in the future business. If we accept his premises and pursue his recommendations, to quote a song of my childhood from the great Timbuk 3, "the future's so bright, I gotta wear shades."

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