Clinton Promises Economic Growth, Sanders Says It’s Overrated

Hillary Clinton attends the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting at The Shertaon New York Hotel on September 25, 2013 in New York City.

Hillary Clinton used the word “growth” 30 times in her speech at the New School in New York City on Monday. “I’m proposing an agenda to raise incomes for hardworking Americans: an agenda for strong growth, fair growth and long-term growth,” she said in the introduction to the here’s-what-I’m-going-to-do segment of her speech.

Clinton has accepted the idea that employment is not a sufficient measure of a healthy economy, not when many workers are on erratic schedules (with paychecks that fluctuate week-to-week) and see much of their incomes eaten up by rising health care, child care, and education costs. But she is unwilling to give up “growth” as the primary objective of national economic policy. Clinton may not echo Jeb Bush’s promise of 4 percent annual GDP growth, but she is not challenging the idea that the bottom line is how we should judge a presidential administration.

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“I believe we have to build a growth and fairness economy. You can’t have one without the other,” Clinton said on Monday, bringing to mind Frank Sinatra’s dictum about love and marriage. “Fair pay and fair scheduling, paid family leave and earned sick days, childcare are essential to our competitiveness and our growth. And we can do this in a way that doesn’t impose unfair burdens on businesses, especially small businesses.”

Clinton’s strategy for growth depends on getting more women into the workforce, and getting more of them into full-time jobs. (In this sense, she agrees with Bush that “people need to work longer hours,” even though she has pretended not to understand what he meant.) In her speech, Clinton pointed out that the United States has dropped to 19th in women’s labor force participation among “advanced countries,” adding, “That represents a lot of unused potential for our economy and for American families.” Slate’s Jordan Weissman sees the logic: “If you want to increase growth in the long term, getting more people into the labor force is one of the most straightforward ways to do it.”

Promoting economic “fairness” by encouraging more women to work outside the home could get some resistance from traditionalist Republicans (perhaps Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum), but they’re unlikely to come up with any better ways to help working-class families get by. (In the neighborhood where I grew up, there were lots of families where just one parent worked. In most cases, that parent belonged to a labor union. Those days are not coming back.)

Still, the idea that any worthwhile effort to reduce income inequality will also lead to economic growth may be the biggest distinction between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, her main opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination. The Washington Post’s Jim Tankersley writes that Sanders is breaking one of the “very few unspoken rules among major-party candidates for president” by saying that economic growth is not desirable if it only benefits the wealthiest Americans.

Tankersley quotes Sanders from a recent interview: “Unchecked growth—especially when 99 percent of all new income goes to the top 1 percent—is absurd…. Where we’ve got to move is not growth for the sake of growth, but we’ve got to move to a society that provides a high quality of life for all of our people. In other words, if people have health care as a right, as do the people of every other major country, then there’s less worry about growth. If people have educational opportunity and their kids can go to college and they have child care, then there’s less worry about growth for the sake of growth.”

There’s a limited audience for this kind of talk, even in the Democratic Party. “Even FDR wouldn’t have said that, in the depths of the Depression,” says a Democratic political consultant in the Washington Post story. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton revived the Democratic Party by promoting economic growth above all else, implicitly accepting the premise that the 1 percent had to enjoy income gains before Washington could even consider sneaking in improvements to the country’s general welfare. (Yet the 1990s economic boom did not lead to universal access to health insurance; instead, Barack Obama pushed the Affordable Care Act through Congress in the wake of a major recession.)

But Sanders’s reservations about growth at any cost have echoes in the recent papal encyclical “Laudato Si.’” In that document, Pope Francis quotes Pope Paul VI from 1971: “the most astonishing economic growth, unless they are accompanied by authentic social and moral progress, will definitively turn against man” (No. 4). Francis later writes, “by itself the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion” (No. 109) and “the time has come to accept decreased growth in some parts of the world, in order to provide resources for other places to experience healthy growth (No. 193).”

While “Laudato Si’” is focused on the negative effects of unchecked growth on the environment, it also reaffirms skepticism that whatever makes the rich richer will eventually benefit society as a whole. Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, dependent on contributions from Wall Street and fearful of being painted as too far to the left, cannot voice this skepticism too loudly. Clinton’s electoral fortunes depend on her pitch for a “growth and fairness economy,” but she is sure to insist that “growth” comes first.

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