Let’s first review Bill Clinton’s legacy before offering the White House to another Clinton, says Richard Wagner. His though provoking Afterimage Review looks at Clinton’s years from 1993 to 2000.
Bill Clinton was generally a popular president, and is praised for the booming economy of the 90s. However, he had little to do with it. When Reagan and Tipp O’Neal reformed the tax code in 1986, they made it much easier for new businesses to emerge and pay a more modest tax rate in the mid 20 percentages, rather than nearly 70%. The Tech Boom that created all that 90s prosperity was possible in part thanks to Reagan and O’Neal working together.
Bill Clinton’s “free trade” policies have hurt America’s working class.
When Clinton ran in 1992, America was at an economic crossroads. In short, do we protect our thriving manufacturing sector and unique blue collar middle class; or do we open ourselves to free trade in pursuit of cheaper goods, with the intention of maintaining that middle class by allowing cozy office jobs to replace the old manufacturing jobs? Bush wanted the later, Perot wanted the former. Clinton presented himself as a centrist on this issue, supporting freer trade with some protections for working people at home and abroad. Clinton won the White House in part on that platform.
How Bill Clinton crippled America’s manufacturing sector
NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, was implemented in 1994. Many manufacturing jobs went to Mexico, but the American economy thrived. Many economists, therefore, believed it was a success. I may lose my job at the factory, but I can learn some new tech skills, put on a short sleeve white collared shirt and a tie and become Dilbert! Not bad, eh?
As Ross Perot noted, you can show me all the numbers you want, but if you look at what was happening on the ground, the people suffered. I don’t mean Americans (not yet anyway) but Mexicans. Where factories popped up in Mexico, so did poverty. So did pollution. So did long hours for low wages. There were few, if any, protections for exploited Mexican workers, and the profit margin for CEOs massively increased. We were told we’d get cheap stuff in America, but most of the cost savings of cheap labor was eaten up by upper management and shareholders. But that’s OK, we’ve got our tech jobs, right?
We might have survived NAFTA anyway. Mexico’s government is far from perfect, but it isn’t a dictatorship. They do have a Constitution, they do have rights, and the people were demanding better. Wages were starting to increase in Mexico over time. Their economy was picking up. In time, their living standards likely would have come close enough to American living standards that CEOs would no longer stand to make too much profit from outsourcing, and if anything would redevelop manufacturing in America to save on shipping.
They needed cheaper labor so Clinton signed a bill to “normalize trade” with China
In 2000, Clinton’s last year in office, he did something much, much worse than NAFTA. Clinton signed a bill to “normalize trade” with China – to permanently lower tariffs and phase out quotas. Unlike Mexico, China is run by a strict oligarchy – the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Elections are but a rigged formality where the candidates are chosen by the CCP, and the people “vote” for them. There is an official constitution, but it’s a joke. The people of China have as much rights as the CCP will allow them to have. Therefore, whereas Mexican workers can vote for better laws, form unions, etc. Chinese workers have no such recourse. Chinalaborwatch.org provides a wealth of information on the plight of Chinese workers.
But for US, this was particularly harmful and couldn’t have come at a worse time. The tech bubble was bursting, a recession was beginning, and just when we needed to fall back on our manufacturing base, Clinton was handing it over to the Chinese Communist Party. As it currently stands, our trade deficit with China is astronomical. As you can see from the US Census, we import from China about 4 times as much as we export to China. They’re beating US 4 to 1!
Meanwhile, the American middle class is crippled. We were told that “free trade” would improve our standard of living. The only people who benefit are the uber-wealthy in both China and the US. CEOs these days are paid on average over 200 times what their employees are paid. In 1965, CEOs usually made about 20 times their employees. Ya know, back in the old days. Today, average wages in manufacturing are above $19 an hour, but these jobs now. Manufacturing made up nearly 40% of GDP when Bill Clinton took office, but that has dropped to under 17%, so by more than half! Meanwhile, the average retail associate earned just above $9.50 an hour.
Clinton’s Trade Legacy
The legacy of free trade is much as Perot predicted. Higher paying jobs have largely been outsourced to developing countries, wages for American workers have declined, and the wealth inequality has grown substantially.
Some will defend Clinton’s legacy on NAFTA by pointing out that he made efforts to protect workers and the environment. Even if you believe these protections were enough, consider this. NAFTA was nowhere near as devastating as “normalized trade relations” with China, and Clinton included no such protections when he signed that bill.
Fortunately for Clinton, the harm of his trade policies would largely be felt over the following decade. So essentially, he came out smelling like roses while Bush Jr. and Obama took the blame from the public.
Mainstream Republicans say “It’s all Obama’s fault”. Mainstream Democrats retort, “No, it started at the end of the Bush era! Don’t you remember?!” But few have bothered to dig into the underlying causes, one of which was the trade policies implemented by Bill Clinton.