Friday, July 1, 2011

Dispatches from CGI America

As I mentioned, I've been attending the Clinton Global Initiative America conference the last two days, in a press capacity, and it's been a very interesting experience. If you don't know anything about the Clinton Global Initiative, it's an outgrowth of the William J. Clinton Foundation, which is an organization founded by former president Bill Clinton with a mission to "strengthen the capacity of people throughout the world to meet the challenges of global interdependence." CGI is the economic component of that vision, and its objective is to convene international leaders in the public and private sectors, as well as NGOs, to strategize innovative ideas to solve urgent global economic problems and to find commitments (financial donations) to fund those ideas. This conference was the first CGI meeting to focus on the United States.

I was really glad to have had the opportunity to attend; my thanks to Peter Daou. I also had such a good time meeting and having a chance to shoot the breeze (and breezy it was, sitting along the Chicago River!) with Vanessa Valenti, who is really warm and so nice.

Frequent guest contributor Shaker BrianWS came with me, and he'll have his own follow-up on the educational session we attended on Wednesday afternoon. I'm going to do a broader overview, with some specifics about Wednesday morning's session about "Jobs Jobs Jobs" and Thursday morning's session on "American Success Stories."

* * *

The conference is expertly branded and is generally very well organized. It definitely has the feeling of a place where Important Things are happening. When Clinton takes the stage at the opening plenary session on Wednesday morning, he is a total rock star. His charisma is legendary—and what you've heard about how he's even more electric in person is absolutely true. The guy is unbelievable.

And he is, of course, just the smoothest smooth talker in all of smoothdom: He has a way of saying things that allows everyone in the room to hear exactly what they want to hear: If you lean left, and want to hear him talking about improving the economy for the betterment of workers, that's what you'll hear, and, if you lean right, and want to hear him talking about improving the economy for the betterment of corporations, that's what you'll hear—and you're both listening to the same damn sentence. Guy's a fucking wizard.

Even a wizard has his limits, though, and, despite Clinton's ability to project concern for people who are struggling across this nation, it becomes evident very quickly that what is meant by "the public and private sectors working together" is "let's figure out what the government can do for corporations." This is not the typical theme of CGI meetings addressing global needs, but, this ain't the globe: This is America.

And, in the US, it's taken as read that capitalism trumps socialism, that everything has to be run through corporations, that every investment has to be profitable. Even investing in education, in healthcare, is framed in terms of a better educated workforce, healthier employees.

I remark to BrianWS that the difference between CGI Global and CGI America is like the difference between socialized medicine and Obama's healthcare reform: Elsewhere in the world, the government just guarantees and provides its citizens healthcare; here, we've got to run it through the insurance companies and make sure corporations still have the opportunity to profit.

* * *

I took a lot of detailed notes during the open session, intending to share them, but now I've got so much to pass on that I'll just note a couple of quick things:

1. Clinton noted that the US can't be scared to measure itself against the global competition and see if someone's doing something better than we are, which I thought was a very good point. So much of the "USA! Number One! USA! BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD!" rah-rah patriotism favored by the rightwing is really born of fear and insecurity, and refusing to self-reflect and explore the rest of the world with humility really does stand in the way of innovation.

2. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who also spoke during the opening session, made the point that investment in cities requires confidence in those cities, which I also thought was a good observation. One of the reasons Chicago has always done well is because its mayors are absolutely ga-ga for their city: There's plenty of criticism to be made of Emanuel (and Mayor Daley before him), but when Emanuel says he believes Chicago should be the capitol city of the world, lol, he actually believes that shit.

(The difference between Daley and Emanuel is that Daley believed the city was its people; Emanuel believes the city is its industry.)

3. Emanuel introduced the idea that the government's role is not to create jobs; the public sector's role is to create the circumstances in which the private sector can best create jobs. The public sector's role, he argued, is to create an educated workforce and to build the roads and the public transportation and the infrastructure so they can get to work. This would be a recurring theme throughout the conference.

4. Clinton, who spoke again after Emanuel, noted that China spends as much as 9% of its income annually on infrastructure investments; the US spends about 3%. We need to invest to be competitive, he said.

5. Laura Tyson spoke after Clinton. She had many interesting facts like median wages have not increased since 1973 (holy shit!), and some less interesting facts like how the recession has been "particularly hard for men." (Nope and nope and nope and nope and nope! And there's way more nope where those came from.) But she was very insistent on this point. BrianWS passed me a note with his artistic interpretation of her address:

a photo of a note with a stick figure saying 'where's all the menz jobs?' and labeled 'The Great Recession (in photo)'

6. There followed a panel discussion (about which I observed in my notes: "Clinton reclines in his chair like Bacchus"), and during which I was struck how much less this CGI conference focused on empowering individuals than have others. Here, the focus was empowering businesses, because the US is so corporate-focused, so intractably certain of the infallible nature of The Market, that even the private sector must be designed to serve corporations.

* * *

After the morning session, we were sitting in the press room when Republican presidential candidate Fred Karger introduced himself to us. Karger is not the typical Republican presidential candidate: For a start, he is openly gay. For another, he supported Hillary Clinton in the last election. He is pro-choice, pro-marriage equality, pro-legalizing weed, pro-energy independence, pro-immigrant, and anti-war. He is to the left of Democratic President Barack Obama on virtually every social issue—and his "fiscally conservative" economic policies are essentially the Democratic Party's current economic platform.

"Fred," I asked him, "why are you a Republican?"

He laughed and told me that he wanted to change the Republican Party from the inside, to move it back to a party that actually believed in privacy and freedom and civil rights and individual choice.

Fred Karger is the sort of candidate people call a crank. I don't know if he's a crank, but I'm pretty sure he's one of the nicest and most earnest politicians I've ever met—and I'm really glad to have met him.

And Dudley really likes the Fred Karger Frisbee he gave me.

BrianWS holding up a Fred Karger-branded Frisbee

The afternoon session was "Education in America: Regaining Our Edge." As I mentioned, BrianWS is writing a more detailed piece on that session, so again I'll just quickly note a few things:

1. Someone on the introductory video whose name I didn't catch observed that, although we wouldn't put up with our Olympic teams being 24th or 25th, we seem to be content with our students being 24th or 25th in maths and sciences. Oof. It hurts because it's true!

2. Again, Clinton's star power is remarkable and everything he says sounds like what everyone wants to hear. Do you want to hear this is good for workers? Do you want to hear it's good for business? Done and done.

3. The unemployment crisis is an education crisis: 62% of Americans without high school diplomas aren't working.

4. Stephanie A. Burns, chair of the Dow Corning Corporation (because no doy that's who should be involved in education reform), explains that manufacturing has changed not just in that it demands more technical competency, but also in that workers make "critical decisions" on the floor. Good observation. I write in my notes: "Sooooooo...undermining the type of education that gives students critical thinking skills is pretty fucking stupid. And yet Corporate America almost unilaterally supports the GOP, which treats hostility toward intellectualism as a sacred oath."

5. There is discussion of social deficits in "soft skills," like the abilities to understand what's written in front of you, stay focused, finish tasks, control anger, and work well with others on a team. Roger Ferguson, CEO of TIAA-CREF, says that such social deficits are already evident as children enter school. Kaya Henderson, Chancellor of the DC Public Schools, notes that achievement gaps don't get closed in part because we still do school like we did 100 years ago.

6. Ferguson and Henderson, who are the only two people of color on the panel, seem more focused on educating individual people, as opposed to educating "a workforce." They make observations like how empathy and communication are important job skills.

7. During the debate about poverty not being "an excuse," I'll give you one guess which two members of the panel are able to successfully navigate the space in which poverty is not an excuse, but an explanation that creates disadvantages that need to be accommodated.

At the end of this session, BrianWS and I are depressed by how little focus there is at this conference in helping individual people, except as a by-product of creating a populace who can best serve corporations. It's not surprising, but it is nonetheless depressing how nakedly indifferent most of the participants are toward anything that isn't demonstrably profitable.

In good news, I note the diversity of participation. There are a lot of women here, many of whom are women of color.

* * *

Thursday morning, ugh, I wake up with a cold. One day among the humanoids and I'm sick!

The morning session is the one I've been looking forward to—my garbage governor Mitch Daniels is on the panel, which will be discussing "American Success Stories" over breakfast.

Former Democratic Governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm, is the moderator. She explains they'll be sharing "replicable and scalable success stories" that created job in their region.

Antonio Villaraigosa, Mayor of Los Angeles, starts the session, noting that the economies of the biggest 3 US cities—NY, LA, and Chicago—approximately equal the GDP of France. The 10 biggest cities combined form an economy which is only surpassed by the US as a whole and China. Thus, investment in US cities is important. Currently, he says, there is a $2.1 trillion need for infrastructure investment currently in the US—and, by the way, it's a good return on your investment!

Mitch Daniels is next. I can barely hear him over the sound of my head exploding as he waxes proudly about the fifth anniversary of the privatization of the toll road, resulting in the "best toll road we've ever had." Barf etc. He explains that his government's primary goal has always been to write regulations and rewrite law to make Indiana as attractive as possible to business. (Except, of course, where it is unattractive to businesses to not be able to extend same-sex partner benefits and trans* protections and know that their employees can get an abortion to save their lives if they need one.) "We do everything we can to make it attractive and profitable to do business in Indiana." Yep. Like undermining workers' collective bargaining rights.

Granholm says: "I think we all agree that small businesses are sparkly unicorn farts" or whatever.

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com, says very interesting things about building an arts community and a tech community and urban gardens. It's the first thing that's been said about investing in culture. But he then immediately argues that the best thing to replicate their success in Las Vegas is to deregulate and get rid of red tape and make it easy for private sector innovators and entrepreneurs to do what they want to do. He jokes how he doesn't pay attention to politics, which is maybe why he doesn't understand that deregulation tends to come at the expense of worker and/or consumer protections. Or possibly he doesn't care.

He wraps up by saying one of the best phrases he's heard is that failing to deregulate to allow speed to market and also speed of expansion, etc. "slows down the metabolism" of a place. Great fat metaphor. This is getting better by the minute.

There is a lot of talk of private and public partnerships, but it's basically just private enterprise wanting the public sector to deregulate everything to maximize profitability.

Tanya Fiddler, Executive Director of the Four Bands Community Fund, who works with tribal communities in the poorest county in the nation, tries to inject some humanity into the discussion: "I know a lot of the focus here is on urban environments, but what do you do with the rural 70% of the rest of the country? We have value, too." There need to be meaningful jobs to move people out of "chronic and persistent" poverty, she notes.

No one responds meaningfully to what Fiddler says. Hsieh immediately follows by saying something about how entrepreneurs need to follow their passion, not money. Follow your passion and money will come. Granholm: "How can government grease the wheels for passion?"

It's painful at this point.

Michael E. Porter, Bishop William Lawrence University Professor at Harvard Business School, says government has to invest in infrastructure, invest in establishing R&D at local universities, facilitate connecting like-minded businesses regionally, but then get out of the way so that they can do business. Robert J. McCann, CEO of UBS Wealth Management Americas, says government needs to provide the sandbox for the natural creativity and entrepreneurship that exists in this country.

Et cetera.

This morning session seems to sum up the overarching theme of the conference: Government's role, it seems, is to build a business-friendly environment most conducive to for-profit enterprises and then get the fuck out of the way.

And, in theory, that sounds pretty good. But, in reality, deregulation and the subversion of both consumer protections (predatory lending) and worker protections (union-busting) is one of the contributing factors to the shitty economic situation we're in. We don't need more of that; we need less.

The whole premise of government providing for corporations so corporations can provide for the people also seems predicated on a fantasy that corporations give a fuck about the quality of life of its workforce. This has not been proven to be the case. In fact, the precise opposite has been demonstrably true for 40 years and counting. We're a long, long way from Mr. Ford and his philosophy about building cars his employees could afford.

I have no doubt that some very good ideas for genuinely progressive innovations will emerge from this conference, because there are many progressive policies that are also profitable.

But I did not walk away feeling optimistic about this nation's future. I walked away feeling more than ever that our democracy has been replaced by a corporatocracy—and I'm profoundly cynical about our ability to reclaim ownership of this state.