Illustration by Honest
Illustration by Honest

It is easy to imagine President Barack Obama’s delight upon hearing that former President Bill Clinton was writing a book of analysis and solutions for all of our current problems.

Since leaving office, Clinton has been surprisingly good in following the maxim about what you should do if you can’t say something nice. (He was even pretty good about it during the George W. Bush era.) Clinton does take a bit too much pleasure in reminding us that “in my administration we had four surplus budgets” -- so much pleasure that he repeats the point in the book at least nine times, by my count. But who can blame him for that? About Obama, Clinton is tact itself, saying only that he disagrees with the incumbent’s policy on nuclear power. (Obama is for. Clinton is agin.) Oh, and he thinks the administration’s mortgage refinancing policy could be simpler.

Clinton’s book is called “Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy.” In it, he settles once and for all the question of which of our most recent Ivy-educated presidents is the biggest policy wonk. It’s George W. Only kidding. The prize clearly goes to Clinton, whose riveting discussion of the various options for repatriation of income earned by American companies in foreign countries (characteristically, he has a third-way solution that should appeal to reasonable people on both sides of this vexing issue) could drive millions to say, “Where’s the remote? I wonder if President Obama is on Anderson Cooper.”

A Shiv

So if you’re looking for gossip, stick to the recent Republican offerings (Rumsfeld, Rice, Cheney). Here there is only policy. The one shiv I detected is inserted into the tender flesh of Vice President Joe Biden. It’s short and easy to miss. “Vice President Biden -- whose speeches provided much of the same information and made many of the same arguments mine did.” This totally superfluous aside, in a chapter on the 2010 campaign, can only be a veiled reference to Biden’s withdrawal from the 1988 presidential race after Maureen Dowd of the New York Times noted the similarity between his stump speech and a speech given by British Labour Party head Neil Kinnock. This episode is largely forgotten. Or it was until Clinton reminded us of it. Maybe it’s true that the Clintons are angling for a job switch between Biden and Hillary, although Bill specifically denies it in the book, and I don’t see how this helps in any event. “I’m always glad to be in Joe Biden’s company,” Clinton writes. Maybe not this week.

Actually, if you’re looking for a tour of the economic landscape -- debt, trade, mortgages, taxes, banks, bailouts, Social Security, Medicare and (have I mentioned?) four years of government surpluses under President Bill Clinton -- you could do a lot worse than reading this book. Clinton is a good teacher, an excellent explainer of complex subjects. And he tells it pretty straight.

His solutions, though, are something else. They tend to be small-bore (some of them a big bore, too, yuk yuk) and suspiciously win-win. We can reform health care in ways that improve care and save money, too. We can increase foreign aid in a way that will please both liberals and “well-intentioned” conservatives. And so on. For example, what should we do about the Tricare health insurance program for veterans? Easy: “We could switch to a sliding scale based on income ... as long as we do it without putting more burdens on veterans returning from combat with bleak job prospects or disability conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and other wounds sustained in service to our nation.” Next problem? “Now let’s look at Social Security. Is it broke? Technically, no, but there is a cash flow problem.”

Clinton’s Weakness

Even the best-intentioned conservatives may smirk at Clinton’s weakness for a tax credit. Has he ever seen one he didn’t like? Immediately after a high-minded discussion of how “Democrats and Republicans should work together to amend the corporate tax laws ... by broadening the tax base through the elimination and tightening of credits and deductions,” Clinton writes: “I think we should keep the research and development incentive and increase it.” Needless to say, “It will more than pay for itself.” I incent. You deduct. He has loopholes.

Post-presidency, Clinton may be spending too much time hanging with CEOs. That may explain his apparent fascination with the repatriation of foreign profits. He would permit U.S. corporations to bring profits earned overseas back to the U.S. with no tax at all, provided they spend the money on creating “new jobs” in the U.S. (To be fair, President Obama also proposes trading favors for new jobs. Defining a “new job” and enforcing the distinction will itself create many new jobs.) Companies that don’t want to play can pay a 15 percent or 20 percent tax instead, “with the money going to seed an infrastructure bank.” I don’t know what an infrastructure bank is exactly (although I can guess), but it sounds like self-parody.

Elsewhere, if I read him right, Clinton seems to be advocating evasion or outright violation of our solemn commitments under the treaty creating the World Trade Organization. “Do we seriously think our competitors wouldn’t find a way” to weasel out of these obligations? If that’s his attitude, why did he sign the agreement creating the WTO in 1994?

In a chapter titled “Why We Need Government,” Clinton has an excellent list of what he believes are the purposes of government, starting with national security and ending (fearlessly) with tax collection. No. 2 and No. 3 are helping the poor (or those who would be poor if we didn’t help) and guaranteeing opportunity for all. Then No. 4 is “economic development,” which includes tax breaks and subsidies to certain people and institutions, and incentives for certain kinds of behavior that Clinton is so fond of. It seems to me that government is very good at No. 2 and No. 3, and lousy at No. 4. It should stick to what it’s good at.

But never mind all that. Did you know that the Clinton administration ran four years of budget surpluses?

(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this article: Michael Kinsley at mkinsley@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.