Musings of a Big Government Stooge

When I was growing up, my father frequently invoked the name of his colleague Daryl Brewster during conversations around the dining room table. Daryl, he would say, was the rare man who would never say anything about a person that he couldn’t repeat in his or her presence. Whoever it was, no matter what the context, Daryl could find something posi­tive to say about anyone at anytime. To be sure, this never stopped him from being critical of an individual when their performance warranted it; as a good manager, it was his job to point out mistakes and ensure that the reasoning that produced them was corrected. But even in his most exacting moments, he tempered his critiques to give a fair, yet good-natured evaluation that was constructive in its essence. To my father, this tendency made his colleague the ideal executive, and what came to be known as the “The Brewster Principle,” became a rule of thumb in my household.

As I read Bill Clinton’s latest literary abortion over break, I tried to keep this paragon in mind. Jotting down margin notes in my copy of Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy, the former president’s third book since leaving the Oval Office, I kept asking myself, “how would Daryl respond?” in hopes of softening my implacable ire. Try as I did, it proved to be too great a task; confronted with this crapulous mass of Big Government grandstanding, I watched the “Brewster Principle” disintegrate faster than the credibility of the book’s neo-Keynesian underpin­nings. Mr. Clinton’s bitter partisanship, fanciful suggestions, and unadulterated misrepresentation of reality have made a good-natured critique impos­sible. There will be no temperance here; honest indignation will have to suffice.

After picking up the book at my nearest Barnes and Noble and receiving a nod of approval from a passerby with greasy hair and all sorts of ink embedded in his neck, the first thing that struck me about the former president’s newest creation was its brevity. Not one for crafty titles, the author of My Life and Giving turned Back to Work into the slimmest pro-government manifesto since Mao’s “Little Red Book.” Tipping the literary scales at two-hundred pages of generously spaced liberal dogma, Back to Work is surprisingly brief, especially when one considers that Mr. Clinton professes to explain the origins of the financial crisis and lay out 46-specific policy points to get America “back in the future business” within its pages. Unlike much of the book’s content, its brevity is refreshing; the author does an able job of simplifying the complex in an engaging matter that is easy to read. It’s a shame then, that what his gift of clarity has left is so disagreeable.

Turning to the introduction, one finds the book’s main thrust laid out in plain terms. The brief lead-in tells a tale of numbers, presenting the nation’s predicament with an adroitly researched barrage of statistics. Deficits, infrastructure, en­ergy, and military expenditure are all touched on in his comprehensive look at our current state of affairs. The writing is fair and honest, and despite the dire picture that the data depicts, the former president manages to strike a reassur­ingly optimistic tone. Indeed, this first section is presented as a sort of call to action; always the consummate politician, Mr. Clinton uses the objectivity of numbers to scare readers into befuddled haplessness before tossing them his charismatic buoyancy as a lifeline. With his audience drawn in and their faith in him established, he moves to lay out the reasons for the financial crisis and his proposals for recovery. It is there that the problems begin.

The author barely makes the fourth page before he oblit­erates his tactfully established credibility in one fell swoop. After demonizing anti-government Republicans for their fiery campaign rhetoric of the 2010 Congressional election cycle, Mr. Clinton moves to address the charge that bad federal policy and excessive government were responsible for the financial crash. His response, copiously accentuated, provides the first indication of the former President’s tendency toward misrepresentation. Training his characteristic clarity on the issue, he concludes matter of factly that:

 

the meltdown happened because the banks were overleveraged, with too many risky investments, especially in the subprime mortgages and the securities and derivatives that were spun out of them, and too little cash to cover the risks… in other words, there was not enough government oversight or restraint on excessive leverage.

 

The crime in this statement rests not in its oversimplifica­tion, but in its author’s veiled attempts to free himself of all blame. In a 16-page chapter dedicated to uncovering the cause of 2007 financial collapse, these lines contain Mr. Clinton’s only attempt at identifying the crisis’s origins. Instead of providing a fair assessment of policy leading up to the crash, the former President of the United States continues the chapter by lobbing partisan grenades at “anti-government zealots” in a petty attempt to exonerate government of all culpability. Glaringly absent from his analysis is any recognition of the Clinton and Bush White Houses’ contributions to the fatal subprime build-up. It is no oversight that he neglects to ad­dress his administration’s repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the Federal Reserve’s easy money policies, and ten years of government-stimulated subprime lending. These omissions were a calculated attempt to misrepresent the truth behind the collapse. Under the guise of moving forward, Mr. Clin­ton launches a regressive war of half-truths in an attempt exonerate his own legacy and that of big government. But the worst is yet to come.

With the theme of blaming Republicans and their pref­erence for limited government in place, the author begins a partisan crusade that reeks of self-contradiction and fanciful ideology. Faced with the discomfort of government culpability, Mr. Clinton retreats from addressing the cause of the crisis and seeks solace in the realm of the comically unsubstantiated. He begins with the stale tactic of preying on the legacies of Reagan and the Bushes, but bungles the attack badly when he charges that no modern Republican has actually scaled back government. The gaff does not become immediately apparent until he attempts to summarize the cause of the crash at the end of the section. Having filled the first half of the book with non-answers and broad accusations, he seeks to define the issue by pegging the Bush Administration’s tendency to roll back the power of government as the cause of the collapse. Having just called the last three Republican presidents hypocrites for failing to do just that, Mr. Clinton generates a perplexing inconsistency that betrays his guilt-shifting scheme.

Beyond presenting what boils down to a long-winded self-contradiction, the first 117-pages are also rife with absurd assertions and cherry-picked facts. In making every attempt to cast small government forces as the enemy, the former President doggedly defends even the most asinine of government initiatives with painful perseverance. Perhaps the best example of this petty politicking presents itself on page 11. Arguing in defense of the recent stimulus package, the author holds up the government’s attempt to increase the domestic manufacture of electric vehicle batteries as a prime example of the power of intervention done right. With an extensive grant system in place, the Obama Administration hit its quotas by increasing the American market share from 2% to 20% in a little over two years. Looking at this statisti­cal barometer, the battery initiative sounds like a triumphant example of successful central planning. However, digging a bit deeper, one will discover that Mr. Clinton neglected to mention the ugly underside of the program. Hundreds of millions of dollars later, over 30 factories have opened… to produce a product for which there is virtually no market, where worldwide manufacturing capacity already outpaces demand by a factor of three, and whose sales will depend on the government heavily subsidizing its customers. Seems like sound policy to me.

Incredulously, it is exactly this kind of initiative that the former president holds up as the model for effective govern­mental planning. Working under the flawed belief that only the prescience of Washington bureaucrats can save the day, he concludes Back to Work with a 46-item list containing specific policy recommendations that will “alleviate unemployment, right the economy, and put America back in the future business.” While there are a few worthwhile suggestions (including abandoning the ethanol subsidy to sell surplus corn to China and Saudi Arabia), they are but the proverbial diamonds in the rough. On the whole, the list represents all that is wrong with left-wing ideology and its Keynesian underpinnings, relying upon more government to solve all of America’s problems when what we need is less. At the heart of his 46-proposals lies a deep-seated convic­tion in the preeminence of the public sector; Mr. Clinton clearly believes that a little intellectual elite in a far distant capital can solve any and all of society’s problems when applied intelligently. What he forgets is that government’s overwhelm­ing record of failure, corruption, and inefficiency renders the idea of “intelligent central planning” an oxymoron.

Escaping this fundamental reality proves impossible, particularly when the specifics of his policy proposals lack so much in the way of substance. Mr. Clinton’s list of recommendations bears a disconcerting similarity to a spoiled tod­dler’s Christmas list; it is all wants without any realistic plan of action. Not once does he suggest a way to pay for his myriad proposals. Not once does he acknowledge the shortcomings of existing programs or a way to fix what we already have. In true liberal form, Mr. Clinton simply proposes, hoping to add layers to a failing bureaucracy, with­out concern for efficacy or financial ramifications. You can forget misrepresenting the causes of the financial collapse, you can forget the self-defeating logic and partisan accusations. Above all else, this is the book’s greatest failing.

And so, at the end of the day, Back to Work appears to be nothing more than the ineffectual musings of an aggres­sively ideological retiree. Having assembled a book of bitter partiality, half-truths, and fanciful policy recommendations, Bill Clinton has proven himself to be a Big Government stooge that will stop at nothing to perpetuate conflict with the Right. In the face of such pervasive bias and shortsightedness, the criticism is more than warranted; not even Daryl Brewster himself could bite his tongue.