July 24, 1997
Rub a dub dub.
For all the agitated sloshing and thumping in the turbid tub which is Washington this summer, one would expect a salutary and imminent benefit to be forthcoming. Since the campaign finance hearings reveal Democrats and Republicans alike to be drowning in soft money, we no longer have to leave to the imagination our suspicion that below the waterline both parties are inseparably joined at the hip.
Addiction to the slush funds of corporate globalism permits no egress, but that certainly isn't of much concern within the political milieu. The country's macroeconomic posture remains unquestionably ordained, and the merging vitriol of recent weeks is little more than acknowledgment that the system's abuses require better camouflage.
All to the good, for those of us who would rather have our battle lines drawn lucidly. The failure of the attempted putsch against Newt Gingrich presents a complementary sideshow to this circus exercise in plausible accountability. The speaker's hard-line membership, intent upon reviving the excesses of two years ago, has effectively been subsumed by the party's moderates; the charge against Gingrich that he has been too obeisant to Clinton has thus become academic. In America at present, there is but one constant -- the center does hold. Any hopes that the public might perceive that corporatist government can be sanitized is reliant, at minimum, upon that fact; should the curtailment of Gingrichian messianism provide impetus for increased citizen pressure for campaign spending reform, these Senate hearings will receive their due as the apex of intramural back washing.
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The swirling vacuum of the middle has become a permanent encampment, and no one since Eisenhower has established a more unassailable bivouac than has Clinton. Ike, comparatively lacking in lacrimal talents, would be less likely than would pain-feeling neoliberals to advance the interests of capital today, and the budding disposition in Washington is resigned to relinquishing to Clinton the tasks of chief publicist for the nation. (The caring crowd, after all, is so much better at keeping the populace off balance.) Palpably tumescent for the Republicans is the ongoing reminder of the public scorching Gingrich endured, and the Dick Armey raiding party's attempt to reinstitute The Contract, had it not been checked, would have left Clinton not only as the only viable Republican leader, but as the country's potentate. You can imagine the effect that would have on future campaign contributions to the Republicans. Gingrich himself, obviously by default, has accepted this de facto reality as he immerses his wounds, convening his membership and counseling it to sit back and let Clinton execute its agenda. The new Newt, now chary of the James Bond mantle he once assumed, is apparently sanguine that the American mandate to rescue civilization can be accomplished by an adversary whose most striking characteristic is his romance with co-optation.
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As Clinton proceeds apace, he is next off to a summit at Lake Tahoe where he'll begin a five-month education campaign on the environment. He opened the campaign today at the White House by pledging the U.S. will work for "realistic and binding" limits on the emission of greenhouse gases as a prelude to a December international conference in Kyoto, Japan and the anticipated signing of a treaty to reduce those gases. But before departing, he cemented his well-known environmental bona fides by calling for "fast-track" authority to negotiate a hemisphere-wide expansion of Nafta. The wires mention that the seven scientists at the White House environmental inaugural took turns describing a near-apocalyptic scenario if nations do not reduce emissions from autos, factories and open burning: killer heat waves, encroaching seas, longer droughts, the northward spread of infectious tropical diseases, etc. Also noted on the wires was that the administration has not decided how to handle congressional conservatives' opposition to inclusion of language designed to protect worker rights and the environment in the proposed fast-track legislation. This horse, of course, has already left the barn, in the form of 420,000 lost American jobs (and six-figure declines in jobs in Canada and Mexico), and the rampant toxicosis of Mexican cities situated on the long poison trail of border maquiladoras.
The beauty for the corporations of having Clinton as their industry-wide lobbyist is that he cavils so well, and with such high-mindedness, before capitulating. And as the Republicans are learning from the heuristic baptism they are undergoing, if they can allay their annoyance at the Clinton pathology for stealing their thunder, why, the man is nothing short of the perfect retainer.
Notice has been served on Clinton by more than 60 senators in a bipartisan resolution cautioning him against agreeing to any accord in Kyoto that could harm the economy. Accordingly, the corporations are sounding the same chime, with Ford Motors chief Alex Troutman predicting a mass diaspora of U.S. industry if the administration agrees to a European Union proposal requiring industrial countries to cut greenhouse gases 15 percent below 1990 levels by 2010. If there were any misgivings among these mavens of new world orderliness that they had chosen a less than reliable chamberlain, they were dispelled with Clinton's rejection of the EU plan as insufficiently "realistic and binding."
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As a periodic restorative, European royalty of old was partial to taking the baths, descending in caravan with much pomp upon the great spas, and there networking, as it were, with the similarly-titled. Much business of common concern was transacted and, in the bonding of these most prominent of equals, noblesse oblige necessarily prevailed. The prerogatives of the West, those very notions central to Newt Gingrich's consuming mission, largely encoded their rationalization there. Not exclusively, but far more frequently, dominion, empire, régime, dynasty and suzerainty were the preponderant conditions. This is not intended as some historical aperçu, friends, and any inference equating high-rank Baden-Baden with today's seigneurial Washington would of course be farfetched. But like me, you probably prefer your battle lines clearly limned, and even a bit overstated, if only to generate a little frisson in these disgustingly conformist times. I can offer only this consideration, and apologize for its paucity: In all the tubs in which the entitled ever gamboled, gratitude was expected of us, in perpetuity, for the privilege of effacing the rings they left behind. That much I've learned this summer.
I am reminded of a story about an old woman who was very very hungry. Throwing a faded, carefully mended shawl over her shoulders, she walked through the winter wind to the busiest part of town, where she began to approach the passers-by.
"Please, sir! Please, madam! I haven't eaten for two days. Could you spare a little change so that I can buy a bowl of soup?"
For a long time, no one seemed to notice the old woman. Then a tall, well-dressed gentleman stopped in front of her and stared intently. Smoothing his soft kid gloves over his knuckles, he said, "Are you really so very hungry? Stay here. I have just the thing for you."
The gentleman strode away down the street and returned a few minutes later with a large box of lemons, which he placed at the old woman's feet.
What was she to do?
At first, she wanted to sink to the ground and cry. How could he have treated her that way?
Then she grew angry. She thought of shouting at him for all the world to hear, "What kind of man are you, to give a person lemons when she wants -- no, needs -- good nourishing soup to keep body and soul together?" She thought of throwing the hateful lemons at him, one by one, knocking off his fine silk hat and bruising his cleanly shaven cheeks.
But our old woman was a practical sort, and she was indeed hungry. She looked up at the gentleman and said, "These won't stick to my ribs like soup. But since you have given them to me, do you suppose you could come up with a little sugar so I can make lemonade?"
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Just a story? Let me tell you another.
In the midst of a burgeoning economy that is celebrated daily in front-page headlines, 5 million American households live on no other income but their public benefits. About 7.2 million people are actively looking for work, while another 1.5 million gave up the search in the past year. And 9.5 million who do have jobs are paid so little that their families live in poverty. That's a lot of very very hungry people.
These people have recently been handed a box of lemons bearing a variety of labels, each a fantastic response to the previous one: Clinton's End of Welfare As We Know It planted the seeds for Congress's Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996, which produced the local offshoots CalTAP (Pete Wilson's California Temporary Assistance Program) and CalWORKS (the Democrats' California Work Opportunities and Responsibility to Kids). The specifics may differ, but these programs were all designed to do essentially the same thing, to pry the fingers of poor Americans off the safety net that allowed them to survive and force them, by good honest make-work, to stand on their own two feet.
The lemons were made doubly tart by the Malthusian attitude of their donors. Republican leaders in Washington quickly announced that the new workers need not receive a minimum wage, the very pay rate that Congress had recently raised to approach (but not to equal) enough to live on. California Director of Social Services Eloise Anderson combined a passionate defense of her boss's program with a backlash approach to welfare reform by implying that the Democrats' alternative was unfair to people with regular jobs. Willie Brown used poor people as chips in a game of political poker. Instead of publicly supporting the recommendations of his 180-member Welfare Reform Task Force for addressing the crisis in San Francisco, he omitted its proposals from the city's preliminary budget for 1997-98 and waited to see what Sacramento would do.
Millions of hungry people provide ample evidence that the old welfare system badly needed overhauling. In preparation for change, economists and sociologists have spent years combing government and private records, trying to determine which approaches were successful in the past and which were not. Workfare (more politely, "work experience") programs were not. Sweeping streets, or cleaning buses, or folding laundry offers little training for people trying to enter the regular workforce. The establishment of a lower-paid tier of workers tends to depress all wages. But above all, the whole system goes sour if there are no jobs for people to move on to.
No matter its shortcomings, this is the box of lemons we are stuck with, at least for the present. Luckily, we are also stuck with a box of sugar in the form of the sweetest working arrangement ever concocted by government and business. A diet of soft money contributions and corporate welfare bailouts is poor political nutrition, but the hand-in-glove cooperation that is part of it can be put to good use. Jobs can be created if corporations are so inclined, as the examples of United Airlines and U.P.S. demonstrate. Let public officials at every level from the White House to City Hall call the companies and organizations they have grown accustomed to working with and say to them, "The American people are going to eat us alive unless we can show them that our relationship is for their benefit. If you put together a job-training program or set up ten new jobs, I'll announce it as the result of our negotiations and it'll get us off the hook." Is this blackmail? Yes. Politics as usual? Probably. But it also makes awfully good lemonade.
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Which reminds me of another story. There was an old woman -- perhaps the same one -- who was very very hungry. She took her largest cooking pot to the center of town, filled it with water, and built a fire under it. When the water was bubbling merrily, she took several stones from the pocket of her apron and placed them in the pot. When the people of the town asked what she was doing, she explained, "I'm making stone soup. You may have some when it is ready."
One person peered into the pot and turned to the old woman. "I have something that will improve the flavor," she said, pulling an onion from her shopping bag and dropping it into the boiling water. Another produced small piece of meat; another, a handful of rice; still another, some carrots (or perhaps -- do I have to state the obvious? -- a child care center, a few weeks of computer training, and some jobs). Attracted by the wonderful smells that emanated from the pot, more and more people paused to add an ingredient.
At last, the old woman announced, "It's ready." She drew a ladle from her sleeve and scooped up some of the steaming broth, offering it to the person nearest to her. Cups and bowls appeared, as if by magic, as the townspeople gathered around, eager to taste what they had helped to cook.
And that stone soup was especially delicious, they say, with cold lemonade.