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Actually, Hillary, It Was Not All that Hard

Isn’t this a great country? Here one can go from being “dead broke” to being worth tens of millions of dollars in less than a decade. This is the testimony of Hillary Clinton this week at the roll out of her campaign – er, I mean book tour – who described the fortunes of her family after they left the White House in 2001. “We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt. We had no money when we got there and we struggled to piece together the resources for mortgages, for houses, for Chelsea’s education. You know, it was not easy.”

Not easy indeed. The Clintons had to take whatever work was available, collecting book advances in the millions of dollars, rolling up their sleeves to hit the speaking circuit for hundreds of thousands a clip. They relied on the kindness of a friend to help them scrape together a mortgage for a little shack in Chappaqua, New York, an exclusive suburb of New York City where today the average home price is over $800,000. They set up a little fund raising operation to persuade other friends to help pay off legal debts. Still others loaned them beach front vacation cottages on Nantucket and the posh eastern end of Long Island so they could escape the heat of their suburban tenement. Chelsea had to settle for an education at Stanford and Oxford. “You know, it was not easy.”

I don’t think Hillary meant to imply that she faced the same challenges as a person who lost a job and health insurance in 2009, replacing it only after long months on unemployment with a job paying far below what he was used to earning. and whose house went into foreclosure because he couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage and couldn’t sell it since the value had dropped far below the equity he had built up. No, I think she gets the fundamentally different narrative. (And claimed to in damage control mode the next day.) But I do wonder whether the Clintons and the rest of the ruling class in this country – Democrat and Republican alike – really understand the enormous privilege that flows to them, and the ways even hard times are cushioned for some and not for others. How else to explain the crass insensitivity of her remarks?

Last month I heard Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner talk about the economic crisis in 2008 and 2009. The message was, “It was ugly, it was messy, we chose the best option from a menu of bad choices, we saved the financial system, and we feel proud of what we accomplished.” Along with it was a remarkable sense of bewilderment that the country isn’t feeling warm and fuzzy toward them! Perhaps it’s because in the presentation I heard there was no real discussion of the behavior of the financial elite that plunged the country into the Great Recession, no explanation for why no one of substance has been held accountable, no acknowledgment of the growth of income inequality during the recovery, and no mea culpa for not forcefully resisting the impulse to austerity that guaranteed an excruciatingly slow jobs and housing recovery. Maybe that’s why folk are still angry.

We did hear a lot of banter at the event about “Hank,” and “Tim,” and “Ben,” and “Larry,” and Barney and “Bob” etc., etc. (As in Paulson, Geithner, Bernanke, Summers, Frank, and Rubin) The first name familiarity of those who called the shots in Washington reminds us that the ruling class in politically polarized Washington actually shares something far more fundamental in terms of privilege and wealth. For all that Hank and Tim did for us – and no doubt many of their decisions were the right ones – a Goldman Sachs pension and a new gig as president of a hedge fund are not the rewards most Americans reaped after enduring the Great Recession. All of this makes it hard to believe with confidence that some of those decisions in the crisis and its chronic aftermath didn’t tilt toward the interests of their chummy little circle.

“You know, it was not easy.” This is not exactly the “Let them eat cake” attributed to Marie Antoinette. But it is disturbing, to say the least. At the beginning of his magisterial book in income inequality, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, French economist Thomas Piketty sets forth one of his conclusions: “The history of inequality is shaped by the way economic, social, and political actors view what is just and what is not, as well as by the relative power of those actors and the collective choices that result.” In other words, one can’t simply rely on the “invisible hand of the market” to address the inequity that abounds. It’s about the choices of our policy makers, and the values that guide those choices.

In a country where democracy is increasingly corrupted by wealth and the access it provides to those making choices for all of us, Hillary’s attempt to portray her enormously privileged family as somehow impoverished is a reminder of how difficult it will be to reverse the inequality that has grown relentlessly since the 1970s. After all, she’s a Democrat. It’s even worse on the other side of the political aisle. Given the religiosity of partisan politics these days, Hillary’s Methodist faith will no doubt be trotted out during the campaign. Let me suggest that she read the 1908 Methodist Social Creed which called “For the highest wage that each industry can afford, and for the most equitable division of the products of industry that can ultimately be devised.” And then let me suggest that, to determine what such an equitable division might look like, she listen to some folk who truly know what it means when they say, “You know, it was not easy.”

John H. Thomas
June 12, 2014


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