Which Hillary Clinton would run for — and, more important, govern as — U.S. president? The onetime New York senator whom many Wall Street bankers supported and former secretary of state who gave speeches to Goldman Sachs and others for a reported $200,000 per? Or the leader of an increasingly progressive Democratic Party, who, in an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel this week, affirmed the thesis of economist Thomas Piketty? "I think he makes a very strong case that we have unbalanced our economy too much towards favoring capital and away from labour," she said.
Friend or foe of Wall Street? On the one hand, it was Clinton’s husband who entrusted the nation’s economic policymaking to former Goldman Sachs executive Robert Rubin, who, along with subsequent Treasury secretaries Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, promoted an agenda of free trade, deregulation and privileging the interests of big banks over all others. On the other, as a senator, Clinton called for tougher regulations on derivatives and said that "Wall Street has played a significant role" in the subprime mortgage disaster — and she did so in 2007, one year before the great collapse.
What makes Clinton’s predicament particularly significant is that it’s not hers alone. For decades, the default position of generations of Democrats has been to back economic policies that helped ordinary Americans — higher minimum wages, the right to unionize, spending on infrastructure — without reining in banks, corporations and the wealthy beyond the basic constraints laid down by the New Deal. They could do this for one fundamental reason: Economic growth in the United States was largely equitable; prosperity was broadly shared.
When President John F. Kennedy famously declared that "a rising tide lifts all boats," he was not merely describing how the economy worked in the pre-globalization and highly unionized United States of the post-Second World War decades. He was also, however inadvertently, explaining how the relative absence of class conflict enabled Democrats to be both pro-union and a friend of financial elites, who were not yet accruing all the proceeds of growth for themselves.
But that was then.
Today, as Clinton told Der Spiegel, capital has eclipsed labour. Fully 95 per cent of the nation’s income growth since the recovery began in 2009, University of California economist Emmanuel Saez has shown, has gone to the wealthiest one per cent of Americans. The share of the country’s gross domestic product going to profits is at a record high; the share going to wages a record low.
Under these conditions, what’s a Democrat — what’s Hillary Clinton — to do? How does she propose to re-create a United States where the gains in productivity go not only to the largest shareholders but also to the workers who make those gains?
She could, for starters, propose cutting taxes on employers who raise wages in line with the nation’s annual productivity increase, and raising the levy on employers who don’t. She could propose hiking taxes on capital gains and dividends at least to the level of taxes on work-derived income. She could propose cutting taxes on corporations that divide their boards equally between representatives of shareholders and employees, as the Germans do, and raising the tax rates of corporations that don’t, that are run almost solely for the benefit of their large shareholders and their top executives — as most U.S. corporations are.
Immodest proposals, to be sure, but in an economy in which nearly all the income growth accrues to a sliver of investors, Democrats no longer have the luxury of indulging both that sliver and everybody else. As Clinton’s proto-candidacy continues to take shape, one modest way that she could begin to address the scourge of inequality would be to follow the example of Franklin Roosevelt.
In selecting his Treasury secretary, Roosevelt opted not to choose Sen. Carter Glass, in part because Glass wanted a J.P. Morgan executive as his deputy. As Adam Cohen documents in Nothing to Fear, his history of Roosevelt’s first 100 days as president, Roosevelt told his aide Raymond Moley, "We simply cannot go along with Twenty-Three." (The Morgan bank was headquartered at 23 Wall St.)
Expanded from 23 to the rest of the street, that’s pretty good guidance for our next president, whomever it may be. Wall Street veterans aren’t likely to see Wall Street’s ascendancy over the rest of the economy as a problem. The cure for Clinton’s, and the Democrats’, identity crisis begins with a clear declaration that the nation’s economy will no longer be entrusted to the leaders of the very institutions that have brought it low.
Meyerson is editor-at-large of The American Prospect.
— Special to The Washington Post