THE BLOG
10/19/2016 03:49 pm ET Updated Oct 17, 2017

Hillary Clinton's Vow to the 99%: "Our Economy Should Work for Everyone, Not Just Those at the Top"

"Remember the 99%!" That could be Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's banner in the final stretch of this wretched "presidential" campaign. Insults and scandal loom larger in campaign coverage than any discussion of issues critical to the 99% -- the vast majority of Americans who are not super-rich or super-resourced.

Recently, Clinton made two speeches on economic reform that should warm Bernie Sanders supporters -- and, if they can hear it, supporters of Donald Trump. These two populations, wildly unlike in their solutions, share this in common: Both feel the economy works best for the 1% and not for middle- and working-class Americans.

Her message in brief: While channeling Bernie Sanders in his diagnosis of capitalism's ills, Clinton vows to radically reform the way a Donald Trump can do business. "Our economy should work for everyone," Clinton declared, "not just those at the top."

It's a powerful message not getting enough attention. Clinton delivered the speeches in Ohio, battleground state and site of economic upheaval -- one in Columbus at Ohio State University and the other in Toledo at a rally. At OSU she touched more on student-related issues, like loan debt, while in the Toledo speech she got into "kitchen table issues" -- "You know, the ones that keep you up at night."

Clinton opened with "the basic bargain": If you're willing to work, you should be able to get ahead and stay ahead. This entails, along with good schools, creating more good jobs with rising incomes. The problem is that, while most corporations are run by honorable people, "there are still too many powerful interests fighting to protect their own profits and privileges at the expense of everyone else."

And they are aided and abetted by the rules and incentives in our economy [that] actually encourage people at the top to take advantage of consumers, workers, small business, and taxpayers. That makes it tougher for the well-meaning CEOs to take the high road and it gets even harder when we don't aggressively enforce the rules.

The worst, most injurious of these "incentives" is the U.S. tax code, which "rewards corporations for outsourcing jobs, and their profits overseas, instead of investing here in the United States." It's a tax code "riddled with loopholes that let the rich get even richer and make income inequality even worse," tilting the playing field further against small businesses that can't afford lawyers and lobbyists.

What needs to happen, says Clinton, is changing those incentives and leveling the playing field -- heresy if you're a pure free-market capitalist but which, given the rage over income inequality and the widespread belief we are on the "wrong track," must happen. This means corporate behavior -- doing business -- must change.

Corporations "that benefit from everything America has to offer," says Clinton, should feel a "sense of responsibility, not just to their biggest shareholders, but to their workers, to their customers, to their communities, and, yes, to our country." If elected, Clinton would use every tool to "make the case that patriotism is profitable":

I want to send a clear message to every board room, every executive suite across America, if you scam your customers, exploit your many employees, pollute our environment, or rip off taxpayers, we will find ways to hold you accountable. But on the other side....if you do the right thing, and you invest in your workers, and your communities and our country's future, we will stand with you.

As bad corporate behavior, she cites Wells Fargo Bank, "bullying thousands of employees into committing fraud against unsuspecting customers." Says Clinton, "It is outrageous that eight years after a cowboy culture on Wall Street wrecked our economy, we are still seeing powerful bankers playing fast and loose with the law."

"And then in a category by himself, there's Donald Trump": Clinton cites The New York Times' revelation that in 1995 Trump lost a billion dollars in failing casinos and may not have paid taxes for two decades -- which avoidance he says is "smart":

While millions of American families....were working hard and paying our fair share, it seems he was contributing nothing to our nation. Imagine that. Not fair. Nothing for Pell grants to help kids go to college. Nothing for veterans. Nothing for our military.

Compounding the irresponsibility of paying no taxes, Trump "didn't lift a finger to help and protect his employees, or the small businesses and contractors he'd hired. They all got hammered." Meanwhile he used "his political connections to collect hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies and extra tax breaks" for his company and to keep "living like a billionaire." In other words, "Trump was taking from America with both hands, and leaving the rest of us with the bill" [my italics].

It's this predatory ethos of business, this allegiance not to country but company, that Clinton aims to reform, for while Trump is unique, he represents broader trends. "He's taken corporate excess and made a business model out of it." Declares Clinton: "It's time to rewrite the rules and make this economy fair for everyone."

How? By closing those tax loopholes: "We're going to make Wall Street corporations and the super-rich start paying their fair share of taxes." By imposing the Buffett Rule (after financier Warren Buffet), disallowing multimillionaires from paying at lower rates than their secretaries. By imposing a new "exit tax" on companies that leave the U.S. to avoid paying their fair share: They're going to "give back every tax break they ever received." And all that new revenue? "We're going to put that money to work creating opportunities here in America."

These are no mere technical proposals; real fire is behind them. Clinton calls it "insulting" when corporations engage in "games like moving their headquarters to a foreign country, on paper, not in reality, just to take advantage of lower tax rates." She calls it "infuriating" when corporations "take tax breaks with one hand and give out pink slips...with the other hand." Crikey, she sounds like Bernie Sanders.

Clinton also stressed consumer protection: by "defending and empowering the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau" created after the '08 financial crisis by Sen. Elizabeth Warren. By "building on the Dodd-Frank financial reforms.... because Wall Street can never, ever be permitted to threaten Main Street again." By slapping penalties on pharmaceutical companies for unjustified price hikes. And by eliminating the "fine-print gotchas" in contracts prohibiting lawsuits against corporations, forcing consumers into arbitration without court protections.

On trade -- which this presidential campaign has revealed to be a major sore point with voters across the spectrum -- Clinton expanded. In Toledo she explained her eventual opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP): "It sets up a dispute resolution system that favors large corporations over everyone else." In Columbus she cited her three tests for any trade deal: "Does it create American jobs? Does it raise American incomes? Is it good for our national security?" As president she'd appoint a new chief trade prosecutor and triple the number of enforcement officers.

Other Main Street-oriented measures include: encouraging, via new tax credits, profit-sharing with employees, "on top of, not instead of, higher wages." Appointing "tough, independent authorities to strengthen anti-trust enforcement and really scrutinize mergers and acquisitions, so the big don't keep getting bigger and bigger." Creating a $10 billion "Make It in America" partnership to support American manufacturing. Raising the federal minimum wage. And of course, launching Clinton's $275 billion infrastructure repair program.

What Hillary Clinton proposes is a radical reform -- even revolution? -- of America's business ethos. "We're going to do everything we can," she vows, "to make sure workers are treated like assets, not costs" -- the antithesis of Donald Trump's way. With Main Street suffering stagnant wages and futures, on Nov. 8 we the 99% can take America's great Capitalism-and-Democracy project and put a human face on it.

For my post, "The Speech Hillary Clinton Should Give to the One Percent on Capitalism and Income Inequality," see here.

Carla Seaquist's latest book is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death" and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal." (Archives here.)