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Hillary Clinton vows to give workers a raise

HIllary Rodham ClintonHIllary Rodham Clinton
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.Photograph by Seth Wenig — AP

Hillary Clinton just started the drumbeat that she aims to sustain her presidential bid and, as she framed it, her presidency itself: Working Americans need a raise. In the first major economic policy speech of her campaign, the Democratic front-runner called out a recovery that’s distributed too many of its gains to the wealthiest and promised to be a hands-on agent ensuring more profits from Wall Street and beyond end up in the pockets of employees.

“The defining economic challenge of our time is clear. We must raise incomes for hardworking Americans so they can afford a middleclass life,” Clinton told a morning crowd at New York City’s New School, a liberal university and think tank. “We must drive strong and steady income growth that lifts up families and lifts up our country. And that will be my mission from the first day I’m president to the last.”

To get that done, Clinton proposed a mix of stand-by Democratic policies — raising the minimum wage, making childcare more affordable, and ending tax breaks for financiers, to name a few — plans she acknowledged as “time-tested and more than a little battle-scarred.” But she also pledged to confront corporate short-termism, a phenomenon she said is sapping investments in research, infrastructure and training while concentrating returns among the super wealthy.

Clinton used the speech to tip her hat to the presidencies of her husband and the current officeholder, whom she served for four years as Secretary of State, saying both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama “had to come in and clean up the mess left behind” by Republicans. Yet as she sustains Republican attacks that her connections to both mean her candidacy offers little more than a warmed-over throwback, Clinton suggested her presidency would turn a page. She presented as an empathetic grandma, drawing at one point on a conversation with a nurse during her granddaughter’s birth that underlined the importance of family leave protections. And she blended that with a brand of technocratic populism she’s been honing on the campaign trail, as she seeks to convince a restive liberal base she’s attuned to their demands without aping the more acid-tipped barbs of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, her closest-running rival for the Democratic nod.

Clinton reserved her toughest talk for the financial industry. In a subtle swipe at her former boss, she declared it wrong that Wall Street executives have escaped prosecution even when their firms have admitted to crimes, “and on my watch, it will change,” she said. Funds recovered from penalties on both firms and individuals should pay for new investments in infrastructure — or be returned directly to taxpayers, she said. And despite the post-crisis reforms tackling Too Big To Fail institutions, Clinton said too many major financial firms still pose systemic risks, suggesting she’d apply a litmus test to ensure the regulators she appoints agree. And she vowed to subject firms operating in the shadow banking system to new regulatory scrutiny, as well. But she was short on specifics — a fact highlighted by a heckler who tried to interrupt to demand whether she would restore the prohibition on securities trading by commercial banks that her husband removed (Clinton ignored him).

Clinton said she will flesh out the policy proposals she previewed in a series of speeches over the coming weeks. The first of those comes Thursday in New Hampshire, where the candidate will detail her plan to incentivize corporate profit sharing with employees. “Studies show that profit sharing that give everyone a stake in a company’s success can boost productivity and put money directly into employees pockets. It’s a win-win,” she said.

Clinton was more measured in her comments about the new behemoths of the sharing economy. In a glancing reference to Silicon Valley darlings like Airbnb, Uber and Lyft, she said “the so-called gig economy is creating exciting opportunities and unleashing innovation. But its also raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future.” And she briefly appeared to return to the fledgling sector later, promising to “crack down on bosses who exploit employees by misclassifying them as contractors,” an issue recently dogging Uber, in particular.

Though the policy proposals she associated with it remain meager for now, perhaps the most provocative portion of Clinton’s address dealt with what she framed as the scourge of short-termism, an affliction challenging the capitalist system itself. “In recent years, some of our biggest companies have spent more than half their earnings to buy back their own stock and another third or more to pay dividends,” she said. “That doesn’t leave a lot left to raise pay or invest in the workers who made those profits possible or to make new investments necessary to ensure a company’s future success.” She said she’s heard concern about the trend from business leaders themselves, who are eager “to embrace their responsibilities, not just to today’s share price, but to workers, communities, and ultimately to our country, and, indeed, our planet.” But she signaled she’ll favor a carrot rather than a stick to address it, proposing a $1,500 tax credit for each new worker trained and hired and tweaks to capital gains taxes, to be named later, to encourage longer-term investments.

Teasing the speech over the weekend, Clinton’s campaign released a list of the economic brains who helped shape it. The roster — heavy with liberal stalwarts including Christina Romer, Obama’s first chair of the Council of Economic Advisers; Jared Bernstein, formerly Vice President Joe Biden’s chief economist; Neera Tanden, who runs the Center for American Progress; and Joseph Stiglitz, a Columbia University economist — itself testifies to Clinton’s conscious move to the left.