If you didn't have time to watch Hillary Clinton's big economic address on Monday, she presented an economic vision that was rich with irony.
Or perhaps rich with projection. Because in the final analysis, the maladies Clinton identified in the modern economy seem to be more products of her own very unique experience making money than anything bad that is happening in the real world right now.
To give one example, Clinton complained that the current economy tends to reward "quick trades" in the stock market above "longer-term investments." But the day-trading days of the 1990s are a distant memory today. The vast majority of investors — and 55 percent of American households who own stocks in some form — are just saving for retirement, and some additional people own it indirectly it through their pensions.
Clinton, on the other hand, as Arkansas' first lady in 1978, miraculously turned a 1,000 percent profit day-trading cattle futures, with a little help from friends at Tyson Foods. Is this where her conception of investing comes from?
Another example: Clinton dedicated part of Monday's speech to excoriating one bank by name, HSBC, for "misconduct ... allowing drug cartels to launder money." This is true — it actually happened. It also happens that the Clinton Foundation received between $500,000 and $1 million from HSBC for its annual meeting just last year. Prior to that, when it was under investigation, HSBC paid her husband $200,000 for a speech in Key Largo.
Never mind whether the Clintons plan to give the money back — the more interesting question is why banks like HSBC start dishing out money to the Clintons when they find themselves in hot water.
Together, these two subtle references almost make it seem like Clinton was arguing that she understands corporate corruption because she is so closely tied to it.
But she had a message beyond that — again, one rich with irony, because it is as at odds with the optimism of her husband's early Internet-era presidency as one could imagine.
Clinton complained in her speech that short-sighted, short-term corporate decision-making drives companies to pay too much back to their owners (again, a majority of Americans own stock) through dividends and stock buybacks, and not to put enough into higher wages for their workforces.
"Workers are assets," she said. "Investing in them pays off."
Her statement is correct, as any competent corporate executive has known for years. But Clinton's hubris is to think she or any government official can understand what the optimal level of workforce investment is better than the people who actually run these companies.
In fact, many recent high-profile examples of short-sighted corporate management failures have taken the form of management investing more than it should have in their workforces — placating workers or union bosses in the short-run by making promises that compromise their companies' long-term health. As with the Big Three automakers, this has often led to disaster for workers, who suffer from layoffs, massive pay cuts and underfunded pensions, to say nothing of the taxpayers who might be called on to bail them out.
Also, as promised, Clinton had a few words about modern innovations in business and labor created by what she called "the gig economy." Most people look at companies like Uber or AirBnB and see an unqualified good — a sharing-contracting economy that creates consumer savings and convenience, as well as opportunities for ordinary people to take what little capital they have (their car, their home, etc.) and make it work for them inexpensively.
Clinton, however, spoke of such arrangements as a double-edged sword, "raising hard questions about workplace protections and what a good job will look like in the future." Translation: The sharing economy threatens the high prices that have long sustained entrenched interests — in this case, the hotel and taxicab unions, which along with their fellow labor allies are sure to shower Clinton's campaign with money and muscle.
In short, Clinton wants to retreat from the Uber economy toward a more General Motors future. And she bristles at the idea of being called the candidate of yesterday.