Bill & Hillary's hyper-capitalist disaster: How the Clintons can apologize for a decade of deadly policies

Hillary Clinton has shown signs of a leftward turn this year. But if she really wants to make good, here's how

Published May 6, 2015 4:45PM (EDT)

  (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Hillary Clinton’s campaign should perhaps be one part apology tour and one part delivery of policy goals and ideas. She’s already walking back her hearty support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she’d previously called “the gold standard” of trade deals. Her 2007-08 primary campaign was one of mending the political damage done by her support for the Iraq war. And given the havoc wreaked by husband Bill’s policies in office, she should consider preempting attacks from Bernie Sanders and just go ahead and do a collective fessing up, her and Bill, for what that presidency wrought, how it helped shape our economic predicament. Hillary will undoubtedly rely on the master talent in Bill on the campaign trail, and having a former president in tow means a vote for Hillary is an unprecedented political buy-one-get-one-free situation. But that means that Bill’s record must be defended as well as Hillary’s. And that means apologies.

But here’s the good news, Hillary: Bill has already shown how it’s done. Granted, he was sort of forced to--the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti brought the global media to the Caribbean nation, and Clinton-era trade policies were discovered to have ravaged the country and put countless Haitians on the edge of starvation. They eat dirt cakes in Haiti because of Clinton. Dirt cakes. Haitians mix mud with margarine and salt and sun-bake the tiles as a means to stave off hunger pains. That’s how much Washington screwed up Haiti.

Clinton, as part of his “free trade” fiasco, forced down tariff barriers in Haiti, the poorest nation in the western hemisphere, so that corporate rice farmers in Arkansas (hmm...) could flood the Haitian market with their federally subsidized product, decimating domestic Haitian production so that when global food and fuel inflation hit, the country was no longer self-sustaining with domestic farming.

But after the earthquake, Bill went before a Senate committee and offered a remarkable, seemingly genuine, apology for what his policies had done. Haiti had become a textbook case of Clintonite policies gone horribly wrong, and the former president fessed up:

“Since 1981, the United States has followed a policy, until the last year or so when we started rethinking it, that we rich countries that produce a lot of food should sell it to poor countries and relieve them of the burden of producing their own food, so, thank goodness, they can leap directly into the industrial era. It has not worked. It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake. It was a mistake that I was a party to. I am not pointing the finger at anybody. I did that. I have to live every day with the consequences of the lost capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people, because of what I did. Nobody else.”

That’s how it’s done. It’s all there: Clinton admitting that his economic strategies differed little from Reaganite, “Washington Consensus” neoliberalism (“Since 1981…”); Clinton admitting that powerful corporate agricultural interests were given favor at the expense of poor people; Clinton admitting that free trade orthodoxy ruins poor nations and enriches the wealthy. And not only did he apologize, but Clinton admitted fundamental failures of that economic model. It was his Alan Greenspan moment.

Haiti was a perfect example of Clintonite economics. (Hey, let our corporations take care of feeding y’all so you can focus on making t-shirts in sweatshops for other corporations.) To become almost totally enveloped in the global corporate matrix, it turns out, is to lose sovereignty and agency. Haiti was now entirely at the mercy of corporations, banks, and the governments they influence. Rice farmers forced off their land by the cheap rice from the north might only find work in another Clintonite feature: the “free trade zone,” a hyper-capitalist wonderland carved out of Haiti, where Hanes, Levi's, Banana Republic and other multinational corporate apparel makers could employ Haitians at mere dollars a day. This was how “progress” was imagined by Clintonite Democrats (and Republicans, and bankers, and corporate boards, and the IMF, et al.).

And that’s only Haiti. That’s only one mistake made by Team Clinton. We haven’t gotten to NAFTA, through which heavily subsidized U.S. corn has wiped out millions of farmers in Mexico and forced those farm workers into the cities, or the maquiladoras, or north to the U.S.

The free trade, neoliberal experiments have been run. And they’ve failed, by virtually any measure. Since Reagan and through the Clinton years, a basic economic orthodoxy reigned, and those who presided over the experiment cannot possibly tout success. While someone like Sen. Rand Paul might be criticized for his libertarian utopian ideas, it’s difficult to argue that Haiti’s “free trade zones” are meaningfully different than Paul’s “Economic Freedom Zones.” It’s hyper-capitalism with a different PR firm and political party. So-called “free trade” may industrialize a place like Haiti, but it’s as much an industrialized plantation as an autonomous, self-sustaining actor. Deregulation might boost profits, like President Clinton’s repeal of Glass-Steagall, but it can also lead to cataclysmic financial crises. Clinton-era policies helped create a circumstance -- shocker! -- wherein the only real beneficiaries in the economy are the already-wealthy.

An apology is the least we’re owed.

By Matthew Pulver

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Bill Clinton Capitalism Clinton Foundation Economics Elections 2016 Free Trade Hait Hillary Clinton Nafta