Howard Zinn: For the Sake of Commerce
Published on May 6, 2017 by Paul Ciano
President Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996 with a distinct lack of voter enthusiasm. As was true in 1992 (when 19 percent of the voters showed their distaste for both parties by voting for a third- party candidate, Ross Perot), the electorate was clearly not happy about its choices. Half of the eligible voters stayed away from the polls, and of those who did vote, only 49 percent chose Clinton over his lackluster opponent, Robert Dole.
By the time King was assassinated in 1968, he had come to believe that our economic system was fundamentally unjust and needed radical transformation. He spoke of “the evils of capitalism” and asked for “a radical redistribution of economic and political power.”
On the other hand, as major corporations gave money to the Democratic Party on an unprecedented scale, Clinton demonstrated clearly, in the four years of his first term in office, his total confidence in “the market system” and “private enterprise.”
Clinton had become the Democratic Party candidate in 1992 with a formula not for social change but for electoral victory: Move the party closer to the center. This meant doing just enough for blacks, women, and working people to keep their support, while trying to win over white conservative voters with a program of toughness on crime and a strong military.
Those holding political power — whether Clinton or his Republican predecessors — had something in common. They sought to keep their power by diverting the anger of citizens to groups without the resources to defend themselves.
In the summer of 1996 (apparently seeking the support of “centrist” voters for the coming election), Clinton signed a law to end the federal government’s guarantee, created under the New Deal, of financial help to poor families with dependent children. This was called “welfare reform,” and the law itself had the deceptive title of “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.” Its aim was to force poor families receiving federal cash benefits (many of them single mothers with children) to go to work, by cutting off their benefits after two years, limiting lifetime benefits to five years, and allowing people without children to get food stamps for only three months in any three-year period.
The Los Angeles Times reported: “As legal immigrants lose access to Medicaid, and families battle a new five-year limit on cash benefits…health experts anticipate a resurgence of tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases…” The aim of the welfare cuts was to save $50 billion over a five- year period (less than the cost of a planned new generation of fighter planes). Even the New York Times, a supporter of Clinton during the election, said that the provisions of the new law “have nothing to do with creating work but everything to do with balancing the budget by cutting programs for the poor.”
There was a simple but overwhelming problem with cutting off benefits to the poor to force them to find jobs. There were not jobs available for all those who would lose their benefits. In New York City in 1990, when 2000 jobs were advertised in the Sanitation Department at $23,000 a year, 100,000 people applied. Two years later in Chicago, 7000 people showed up for 550 jobs at Stouffer’s, a restaurant chain. In Joliet, Illinois, 2000 showed up at Commonwealth Edison at 4:30 A.M. to apply for jobs that did not yet exist. In early 1997, 4000 people lined up for 700 jobs at the Roosevelt Hotel in Manhattan. It was estimated that at the existing rate of job growth in New York, with 470,000 adults on welfare, it would take twenty-four years to absorb those thrown off the rolls.
Clinton and the Republicans, in joining against “big government,” were aiming only at social services. The other manifestations of big government - huge contracts to military contractors and generous subsidies to corporations - continued at exorbitant levels.
“Big government” had, in fact, begun with the Founding Fathers, who deliberately set up a strong central government to protect the interests of the bondholders, the slave owners, the land speculators, the manufacturers. For the next two hundred years, the American government continued to serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful, offering millions of acres of free land to the railroads, setting high tariffs to protect manufacturers, giving tax breaks to oil corporations, and using its armed forces to suppress strikes and rebellions.
It was only in the twentieth century, especially in the thirties and sixties, when the government, besieged by protests and fearful of the stability of the system, passed social legislation for the poor that political leaders and business executives complained about “big government.”
Reduction of the annual deficit in order to achieve a “balanced budget” became an obsession of the Clinton administration. But since Clinton did not want to raise taxes on the wealthy, or to cut funds for the military, the only alternative was to sacrifice the poor, the children, the aged - to spend less for health care, for food stamps, for education, for single mothers.
Meanwhile, the government was continuing to spend at least $250 billion a year to maintain the military machine. The assumption was that the nation must be ready to fight “two regional wars” simultaneously.
The United States continued to supply lethal arms to some of the most vicious regimes in the world. Indonesia had a record of mass murder, having killed perhaps 200,000 out of a population of 700,000 in its invasion and occupation of East Timor. Yet the Clinton administration approved the sale of F-16 fighter planes and other assault equipment to Indonesia. The Boston Globe wrote (July 11, 1994): The arguments presented by senators solicitous of Suharto’s regime - and of defense contractors, oil companies and mining concerns doing business with Jakarta - made Americans seem a people willing to overlook genocide for the sake of commerce.
Similarly, American-made Sikorski helicopters were used by Turkey to destroy the villages of rebellious Kurds, in what writer John Tirman (Spoils of War: The Human Cost of the Arms Trade) called “a campaign of terror against the Kurdish people.” By early 1997 the United States was selling more arms abroad than all other nations combined.
Sometimes, it’s embarrassing to have your fingerprints on the guns.