Bill Clinton’s Legacy: The Inconvenient Irony

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechThey say the ironies never cease, and last week the EPA headquarters were named the “William Jefferson Clinton Federal Building.” But irony and legacy are not always good bedfellows. Before the history writers get carried away and bestow upon Clinton the label of Environmental Protector, let’s look at the rest of the story…

The most notable thing about Bill Clinton is that he had what it took to get elected, in spades. A passion for greatness, photographic memory, talk-show voice — the political package was perfect. If anyone was ever destined to be president, it was Clinton.

That’s not the same as being destined for an honorable legacy.

Something stands squarely between Clinton and the west wing of the political hall of fame. That’s the wing reserved for wise, dignified statesmen. The likes of Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt reside in the west wing.

We’re not talking about little vices standing in the way. McDonald’s hamburgers and the occasional cigars (the ones for actually smoking) just made Clinton seem at once more like us and Winston Churchill. But Churchill makes the west wing; Clinton doesn’t. Not yet at least.

Was it the “other cigar” and sex with an intern, then? That’s definitely not good, but Thomas Jefferson (allegedly) had children out of wedlock. FDR consorted with a mistress and possibly several. Yet Jefferson and Roosevelt are squarely in the west wing, because they handled profound social issues with deep and nuanced dignity, not with cheap rhetorical tricks.

Take Jefferson, for example. If you stop by his Monticello home near Charlottesville, Virginia, you’ll find the bust of Francois Quesnay at the entrance. Next to Jefferson’s upstairs bedroom with the telescope, you’ll find Quesnay’s Tableau Economique adorning the shelves. In the Tableau, Quesnay described in great detail how agricultural production had to be – physically, scientifically had to be – the foundation of the economy. It wasn’t information, it wasn’t pixie dust, it was agriculture at the foundation, feeding the human body and ultimately the body politic. Jefferson developed a deep understanding of that as he honed his vision of American society and its economy.

In a happy coincidence, Jefferson was taken with the agricultural arts, as also evidenced at Monticello. In a masterful expression of agricultural and engineering savvy, he also helped lay out the University of Virginia. So Jefferson’s legacy is on the land, rooted in the recesses of a studious mind. He knew a lot about the environment; his name would have given more gravitas to EPA headquarters than Clinton’s.

But while Jefferson loved the earth, he was no tree hugger. He got the big picture, too. Without agricultural surplus, there was no division of labor, no jobs in the manufacturing and service sectors, and no increase in the standard of living.

When Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to discover the West, he knew there was a limit to what was in the East, and for that matter the West as well. He knew the frontier would get homesteaded and farmed, with the nooks and crannies eventually filled in with manufacturing and services. He knew the growing economy would use up the land and resources and pollute the environment in proportion.

In other words, Jefferson knew there was a limit to economic growth. But he wanted that limit to be met with the virtues of a democratic republic. It was left to future statesmen to adapt the constitutional democracy to a full-world economy.

Thomas Jefferson, with whatever personal weakness, was a brilliant, studied man of immense civic virtue. Now can you imagine Jefferson uttering nonsense like, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”?

How about Abraham Lincoln on the stump? Can you imagine him tarnishing his legacy with, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment!” Of course not. He wasn’t called Honest Abe for nothing.

But Clinton.. who doesn’t remember the old win-win rhetoric that permeated his presidential oratory as well as that of his Cabinet (probably at his beckoning). No one on earth, with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton, is more associated with the slippery salesmanship, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment!”

For Jefferson or Lincoln, limits to growth and environmental protection weren’t yet major, pressing issues. That’s why you won’t find clear quotes about the relationship between economic growth and environmental protection in their transcripts. But Roosevelt, half a century before Clinton, saw the writing on the wall and was already calling for a steady state economy:

Our last frontier has long since been reached, and there is practically no more free land… Clearly, all this calls for a re-appraisal of values. A mere builder of more industrial plants, a creator of more railroad systems, an organizer of more corporations, is as likely to be a danger as a help… Our task now is not discovery or exploitation of natural resources, or necessarily producing more goods. It is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand.1

Unfortunately for all, Roosevelt’s steady statesmanship was interrupted by the exigencies of World War II. After that, thanks partly to the Keynesian revolution in economics and the establishment of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the politics of economic growth took over in domestic policy making and international affairs.

This was all conducive to Wall Street and Madison Avenue taking over in American cultural affairs as well. Then along came Clinton, master politician, and Americans were all too ripe for, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.” We wanted to have our cake and eat it too, and Clinton wasn’t truthful enough to tell us we couldn’t.

Actually some folks, especially in the natural resource professions, knew from the get-go something was wrong with the win-win rhetoric. Yet Americans by the beltway were led astray. City folks weren’t paying enough attention to the land; likewise country folks hadn’t studied the environmental pressures emanating from the urban sectors.

Most environmental problems build slowly, almost imperceptibly as the economy weaves its way through the ecosystem. It takes a savvy society to connect the dots from environmental degradation to the economic causes before the problems are pronounced and obvious to all. Think ozone hole, climate change, and ocean acidification. It helps immensely to have a president — like FDR — connecting the dots for us and reminding us of the connection. Unfortunately his successors failed to follow suit.

Wherever the lack of awareness, city or country, Clinton exploited it by claiming we could have our cake and eat it too. As a whole — public, private, educational and non-profit sectors — the American body politic was vulnerable to this corruption of the truth.

The legacy is insidious, systemic, and disastrous. Look around and you’ll see it everywhere. The president of The Nature Conservancy, with a blurb from Clinton, thinks there is some kind of natural capitalism that will overcome the trade-off between growth and conservation. In the midst of a 90% fossil-fueled economy, the self-proclaimed “Independent Business Voice for the Environment” tells us that “Addressing Climate Change Grows Our Economy.” Even the National Wildlife Federation, despite heavy activism on climate change, has a president who denies there is a conflict between economic growth and wildlife conservation.

With attitudes like that in the “environmental” community, what can we expect from the hard-core corporate community and politicians dealing with endangered species and climate change? They all expect environmental protection to accommodate growth as usual. Where are the checks and balances?

Bill Clinton cutting a cake

He can’t have his cake and eat it too! Photo credit: Hazir Reka.

Thanks in no small measure to the win-win legacy of Clinton, these days it seems everything good for the environment has to be premised upon economic growth or it won’t even be considered. No one wants to deal with the reality that environmental protection — biodiversity conservation, climate stabilization, clean air and water, sustainable fisheries, ecological integrity — cannot be reconciled with perpetually more production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate.

And yet, if you want a handy indicator of biodiversity loss and other environmental impact, nothing can beat GDP. GDP up, biodiversity down. GDP up, green space down. GDP up, Mother Nature down. Environmental impact? “It’s the economy, stupid!” And nothing can beat your common sense in recognizing that. It doesn’t take the Tableau Economique to understand that growing the economy means growing the ecological footprint. All you have to do is connect the dots. It helps if the president does likewise.

Regarding Clinton, the “rest of the rest” of the story is yet to be told, because Clinton is still alive and well. That could be a good thing because, lo and behold, here and there are cracks in the rhetoric. Just last week, according to The Guardian, Clinton “warned that the US needs to cut its consumption of natural resources if it is to stave off the threats of climate change and rising prices.” So there’s some leadership consistent with environmental protection, which in turn is the first prerequisite of economic sustainability. (Not growth, but sustainability.)

At the same time, Clinton was stuck in his stubborn past, obsessed with economic growth and not able to get over the hump, onto the path of truth. He was still hedging, still trying to have his cake and eat it too. As a corollary to the old win-win rhetoric, he said, “We can grow even faster if we use less energy.”

Can you believe that?

Mr. Clinton, there is something seriously wrong with your approach to environmental protection and economic sustainability. Not only is it scientifically fallacious, it is roughly akin to telling a drug addict, “You can get even higher if you use less dope.” This approach will keep you somewhere near the Richard Nixon Room in the political hall of fame.

Nixon, too, had all the political tools. He was clever as could be, and boy could he get elected. He just couldn’t come clean on some crucial issues. He cannot sit with Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt in the west wing. Never.

Mr. Clinton, you don’t have an election coming up. You don’t have to ride the fence any more. Why not come right out and say that growing the economy in the 21st century is causing more problems — big problems — than it solves. You’ll have plenty of backing, including from E.O. Wilson, who you credit for some of your thoughts on sustainability. There’s also the likes of Jane Goodall, David Suzuki, even Chris Matthews from MSNBC to back you up. No doubt Jimmy Carter too would support the transition to a steady state economy.

But frankly you’re the important one, Mr. Clinton. You’re on the circuit, you’ve got media coverage, and you’re in the limelight/twilight of an extremely powerful run. Imagine the possibilities if you tell it like it like it is!

If you can do this, then Wall Street and the Fed will act a little differently, along with the Council of Economic Advisers, Congress, the Cabinet, the World Bank, and all others involved in fiscal and monetary policy matters. Instead of pulling out all the stops for growth, these policy makers can gradually start setting the levers and buttons back toward a sustainable, steady state economy. They can point to you and your leadership; you’ll empower them to do the right thing. And one day posterity can point to you in the west wing of the political hall of fame with Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR.

Who wants to sit there with Nixon? Clever but cynical, and very much discredited.

1See Czech, B. 2013. Supply Shock: Economic Growth at the Crossroads and the Steady State Solution. Page 228.

Bill Clinton, The Nature Conservancy, and The Old Win-Win Rhetoric

by Brian Czech

BrianCzechWhen The Nature Conservancy decides to talk, the environmental community listens. Even some of Wall Street listens. Despite TNC’s low-key approach, no other conservation organization is remotely close to TNC in political connection and resources. Therefore, one of the most influential environmental books of the year is likely to be Nature’s Fortune by virtue of the fact that the author is none other than TNC’s president, Mark Tercek.

It’s easy to like Mark Tercek, or at least to suspect he is likeable. His preface alone suggests this ex-investment banker from Goldman Sachs has become a passionate conservationist. The criticism to follow has nothing to do with Tercek or the true content of Nature’s Fortune. The problem is that the production of the book and the way it is being portrayed could have the ironic effect of doing more environmental harm than good.

It helps book sales to have a blurb from a past president — “William Jefferson Clinton” in this case — proudly displayed on the front cover. Yet for serious scholars of conservation, the blurb undermines the book like a rash blurting of Rush Limbaugh would undermine serious scholarship on balancing the budget. While a Limbaugh blurb is largely bluff, Clinton’s blurb is largely fluff.

It’s interesting that TNC’s own website for Nature’s Fortune does not include Clinton’s blurb. Evidently there is a tension with regard to the use of Clinton’s name vs. the spurious content of the blurb, which flies in the face of ecological economics and sound science.

One also has to wonder if Clinton really read the book, or simply used the opportunity to roll out one of his most famous win-win shibboleths. For those of us in sustainability science, some of the most reckless rhetoric of the 20th century was Clinton’s fallacious, “There is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment!” If you were paying attention around the turn of the century, you would have heard this zany zinger uttered by one political appointee after another. Word in the DC beltway had it that appointees were instructed to issue this pap when it came to discussions about the environment and the economy.

For appointees on the side of sound science and integrity in public service — and for those with common sense — such political puppeteering must have been odious. But as they say, power corrupts, and appointees uttered the odious awkwardly and often.

So what is the most recent version of Clinton’s win-win happy horsey that disgraces the front cover of Nature’s Fortune? “By breaking conservation down into dollars and cents, Mark Tercek shows that economic growth and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive goals. Nature’s Fortune takes a pragmatic approach to an important issue, and turns the conversation from ideology to arithmetic.” Yet Tercek shows no such thing.

Bill Clinton

“Economic growth and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive goals… but that depends on your definition of ‘environmental’.”

It’s true that Tercek breaks conservation “down into dollars and cents,” and he does take “a pragmatic approach to an important issue.” He does avoid ideology and he does utilize arithmetic. But no way does Tercek show “that economic growth and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive.” In fact, Tercek avoids the phrase economic growth, and certainly doesn’t define the term or describe the process of economic growth. He simply traverses the world, pointing out the essential economic values of natural resources. The fact that corporations, cities, and municipalities are capable of capitalizing on such value gets nowhere near a proof that economic growth may be reconciled with environmental protection.

It’s easy enough to see why politicians and even conservation organizations talk about reconciling economic growth with environmental protection. Economic growth is a long-sought, primary domestic policy goal, partly because it was indeed so appropriate for so much of the 20th-century world when nature wasn’t so scarce. Politicians are still so wedded to economic growth that we can forget about hearing from them about the trade-off between economic growth and competing goals such as environmental protection, long-term economic sustainability, national security, and international stability. Most conservation organizations won’t touch the conflict between growth and conservation with a ten-foot pole, either. TNC is no exception, and in fact would be one of the last organizations to acknowledge the conflict, with its close ties to Wall Street.

But let’s remember (since you won’t find it in Tercek’s book) that economic growth is simply increasing production and consumption of goods and services in the aggregate. It requires increasing human population and/or per capita consumption. It is measured with GDP. It is a rock-solid indicator of environmental impact, and there’s no way to reconcile it with environmental protection. “Green growth” is the oxymoron of the decade; less-brown growth is the best that could happen. Scientific, professional societies have taken the time to clarify this for the public and policy makers. And some of us have written extensively on this topic. We won’t get the imprimatur of Bill Clinton, though, because Clinton is the consummate win-win politician who will go to his grave as such. However, we will set the record straight with support from scientists such as E. O. Wilson, Jane Goodall, and David Suzuki, as well as the likes of common sense and integrity.

Having spent much of the past 14 years writing a book on the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, on the heels of Ph.D. research on the subject, I have learned plenty about why and how the win-win rhetoric is promulgated. Books such as Supply Shock and Enough Is Enough should be leading the way in educating the public and policy makers about the real costs and benefits of economic growth. These are serious books by serious scholars of sustainability science. These are books that deal forthrightly with the fundamental conflict between economic growth and environmental protection, and they should be complemented by the likes of Nature’s Fortune, which helps to reinforce the primacy of natural resources in supporting economic activity.

Instead, serious sustainability scholarship in today’s bookstore is supplanted by titles gallivanting with presidential rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment!” The win-win rhetoric makes for plenty of bookstore dollars, but only some cynical sense.

More People, Less Unemployment?

by Max Kumerow

Bill Clinton took a welcome step toward reality. In his Democratic Convention speech, he pointed out that cutting taxes on rich people and fighting endless wars increased federal debt, and more of the same would make things even worse. Tax cuts and deregulation during the Bush administration failed to bring prosperity and helped cause the global financial collapse and widespread joblessness.

The Chicago School of economics has been preaching for decades, with lots of money from rich people adding to the volume of their message, that low taxes, small government, and deregulation are the road to nirvana. But the last time we had low taxes on the rich and little regulation was called the Great Depression. Clinton, at least, has come to understand that America made a mistake in believing the fairy tale that “government is the problem, so let’s cut rich people’s taxes.”

Clinton still remains bamboozled, however, by the neoclassical nonsense that sees economic growth as the solution to unemployment. On the Daily Show Clinton offered a demographic path to prosperity. He opined that because most of America’s competitors — Russia, Japan, China, and Europe — have low birth rates and aging populations, we will have a younger workforce with a lower old-age dependency ratio, so growth will solve our unemployment and debt problems.

But the notion that population growth cures unemployment is false, just like the idea that cutting taxes on the rich raises revenue and cuts the deficit. The immigration and higher birth rates that keep the population younger also guarantee a higher young-age dependency ratio and a growing population. In a world constrained by high commodity prices and other symptoms of reaching the limits to growth, a growing population leads to high unemployment, rising cost of living, and falling wages. If a young population leads to prosperity, why aren’t places like Nigeria, Rwanda, and Uganda thriving? Why has China gotten so much richer since starting its “one-child” policy?

The fertility rates in all the Asian tiger economies dropped below the replacement level during the decades when their economic output increased dramatically. Hong Kong and Singapore, places with no natural resources and aging populations, have a higher per capita income than the United States. Hong Kong’s 0.97 children per woman and Singapore’s 1.26 are two of the lowest fertility rates in the world.

Birth rates that low mean each generation inherits twice as much as the one before, and a future economy can have full employment with half as many jobs. Scarcer labor means higher wages. New technology and rising productivity can be used to raise incomes instead of what happens with a growing population (i.e., society treads water as the benefits of increasing productivity are canceled out by more people consuming more resources). Low fertility is the path to high incomes and abundance. High fertility is the path to poverty and scarcity.

America’s ongoing population growth has played a role in causing higher unemployment rates, more difficulty funding education, falling real wages for workers, and the incarceration of two and a half million people. You would think that in a country where oil production has fallen by 40% since 1972, a country responsible for so much of the global climate change problem, where forests have been burning, cities have been wrecked by hurricanes, and crops have been withered by drought, we would have learned that more growth is not the answer to unemployment and budget deficits.

Bill Clinton should read ecological economists like Herman Daly. He should pay attention to systems thinkers such as Donella Meadows and Bill McKibben, and consult Al Gore about our ethical responsibilities to future generations. Growth cannot be the solution to unemployment. If all countries decide to grow their populations and their economies, ice will melt, putting cities under sea level, oil will run out, food prices will rise, wages will fall, and human welfare will be reduced, not increased. We will be poorer and fewer people will be able to find jobs.

Common sense says that continuously increasing population makes it harder to keep everyone employed, not easier. The problem is not too few jobs; it’s too many people. There are already too many people consuming too much and diminishing the earth’s long-run carrying capacity.  Economic growth is running into the wall of limited resources on a finite planet. The trends created by economic growth and population growth include higher carbon emissions and climate change, loss of forests, depleted fisheries, soil erosion, species extinctions, toxic contamination, and the possible negative effects of technologies like fracking and genetically modified foods. The path the world is on — economic and population growth — is just as unsustainable as the subprime mortgage market and trillion-dollar federal deficits and will lead to collapse.

Long-run prosperity on a planet with limited land and water and air requires a transition to a steady state economy — a transition which in turn requires a transition to a smaller global population. The higher fertility rates, immigration, and economic growth that Clinton described as the path to prosperity turn out to be the path to collapse.

Do the arithmetic, starting with this year’s federal deficit, the short crop in the Corn Belt, the number of Americans in jail, and cuts to education budgets. Growth has not been the path to full employment or deficit reduction. If Romney was right about tax cuts, we wouldn’t have a federal debt crisis. If Clinton was right about population growth, we wouldn’t have unemployment. It’s time to try something beyond politics as usual.

Max Kummerow has a Ph.D. in urban and real-estate economics. This semester he is a visiting lecturer at Lincoln University in Canterbury, New Zealand.