Bill Clinton is uniquely qualified to offer perspective and potential solutions for bolstering the American economic system. His eight years in the White House have been followed by global volunteer work in places like Haiti, while his wife, Hillary Clinton, attends to her duties as Secretary of State.
"I'd like to give you framework for which I view the world, including the current economic crisis, not so you can agree with me but so you can form your own framework," the former president offered at the 2011 World Business Forum last week. "We're experiencing the political equivalent of chaos theory in physics. It's inherently confusing and in need of clarity."
"One thing no one can change is our growing interdependence," he continued, "a world of nets instead of brick walls. What happens in one place can affect another."
As an example, Clinton pointed out a recent chain reaction: European banks have Greek sovereign debt, and many American banks have investments in European banks. He said, "Whether we like it or not, we're all in this together. No one can reverse the growing interdependence of world. It can be positive or negative -- or both."
Speaking to the live audience at the Javits Center, and thousands by webcast including 40,000 students watching remotely in 14 countries, Clinton ticked off a roster of ills faced by the world's poor:
- Half the world's people live on less than2 per day
- 2.5 billion people don't have access to clean sanitation
- 1 billion people without access to clean water
- 1 billion people go to bed hungry at night
- 100 million kids don't attend school
- 1 in 4 die from "diseases of the poor" that come from dirty water; others die from "diseases of near-poor" in rich countries, like heart attacks, obesity and food-related cancers; Diabetes is becoming a problem in India, as countries trade healthy diets for Westernized fatty foods.
It's an interdependent world with a lot of inequality, and it's also highly unstable, in the form of organized crime, narco-traffickers, militant Islamic groups and the financial crisis.
Additionally, Clinton said, the world we live in is not sustainable because of how we consume natural resources. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record occurred in the last 13 years; "Tornado Alley" has expanded to places such as Queens and Massachusetts; Glacier National Park is threatened by pine beetles that never lived that far north before.
"The modern world is too unequal, too unstable, too unsustainable. It's the job of every thoughtful person to figure out how to live a responsible life and pursue your business career in a way that build up the positive forces and reduce the negative of our interdependence," Clinton implored.
The former Commander-in-Chief pointed out problems other countries face and their work toward mitigation: Haiti is building new systems in education, healthcare, government, finance, infrastructure and sustainable agriculture. The Chinese are managing environmental strains against their economic explosion. Brazil is burning more biofuels from sugar cane than they are using gasoline, while reducing greenhouse gases and eliminating rainforest cut down.
Rich places like Japan, Europe and the U.S., Clinton said, will have a harder time changing because "whenever a country gets wealthy their systems get rigid. People running things are benefiting and are more committed to keeping than losing or taking risk. That's what's happening now."
He called for America to "get back to basics" and look at our assets first. The U.S. is younger than major competitors, with more immigrants, diversity and innovation, but other countries are catching up in every way.
Clinton quickly summarized the government's actions right after the recession to lay the foundation for next steps. "What's happened since 2008? We saved the financial system from collapsing. We restructured the auto industry, saving two million jobs. The stimulus put a floor under the recession but couldn't lift us out of it."
"We need to make the systems work better by getting the money flowing again," he said, "There's lots of money in American based corporations." Clinton said there is some two trillion dollars in cash not yet dedicated to overseas operations, executive and employee compensation and stock buybacks.
"We need to make the corporate tax rate more competitive. Some pay 35 percent income tax and some pay 17 percent because of uneven deductions and credits available."
Clinton pointed out that our economy is largely driven by consumer spending, but most of the wealth is in the housing market, which has significantly decreased. He suggested government refinancing, whereby those with perfect credit would get four-percent mortgages. "Let's stop houses from being dumped on the market and driving down values. Rent them out for the cost of maintenance, utilities and taxes and stop the downward spiral," he recommended.
The crowd of thousands of World Business Forum delegates applauded when the former president said the government should loosen credit for small businesses. "Forty percent of small businesses would hire more people if they could finance an expansion."
All good ideas, but what stands in the way of progress is politics. "Our politics is dominated by conflict. The government would mess up a two-car parade."
"Every success story is characterized by cooperation, not conflict. What works in real world is cooperation, and what works in politics is conflict. Politics is messing us up," claimed Clinton.
He reminded that the countries doing best are the ones where people are working together, and he was hopeful the U.S. would correct its current course of conflict.
"Be positive about the future. People have been betting against America for more than 200 years and they have all lost money. We always found a way to work together and put our country back in the future business. Be entertained by the conflict, but be relentlessly focused on the future. We might get out of it in less than five years but we need to work together."