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Bill Clinton Q&A: Taxing the Rich Is Not ‘Anti-Wealth, It’s Pro-Fairness’

·Editor in Chief

Bill Clinton wants to put America back in the "future business". And he's hitting the trail with a new book offering 46 specific policy recommendations to do just that. Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy packs a lot into less than 200 pages, including his take on three decades of U.S. economic policy.

I caught up with Clinton at the Barnes & Noble on 5th Avenue in Manhattan Tuesday following a book-signing event that featured overflowing crowds, a testament to the former president's continued popularity more than a decade after he left office. (Editor's note: The interview below has been condensed and edited.)

Q: "Back to Work" hinges on a seemingly radical premise, as you write: "Government doesn't always mess everything up. It can be worth what you pay for it." How do we combat the popular notion that 'government is not the solution to the problem, it IS the problem', as Ronald Reagan declared.

A: I think that's the central battle I'm trying to fight here. I think we need a Republican-Democrat, conservative-liberal debate on a lot of these issues. But I don't think we'll put America back in the future business as long as we're arguing like Grover Norquist does that the only way taxes can ever go is down.

My taxes were cut a lot in the last decade and my income went up a lot. I believe people like me should pay, not because it's a bad thing to be successful, but because the country's made us successful and we're in the best position to help do something about the debt and invest in the future of the young people to give them a better future.

Q: You support allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire in 2013 which would disproportionately hit the wealthiest Americans. What do you say to those who believe this is class warfare?

It's not class warfare. We've had the biggest increase in income inequality since 1981 in our history. It isn't class warfare. It's class warfare if we're saying 'rich people plundered the middle class and if we just brought them down to our level everything would be wonderful.' That's not what I'm saying.

One of America's best traits is most Americans really like it when other people succeed. They don't resent it.

I was thinking about it when Hillary, Chelsea and my son-in-law Mark went to memorial for Steve Jobs. He was a friend and very nice when Chelsea was at Stanford. Even before people knew he was ill, nobody really resented him that he did well when we gave us the personal computer, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad. We thought it was great.

We resent it when we think people are taking advantage of us unfairly and ripping us off. But we resent that whether somebody's rich or not.

My argument is it's not class warfare for asking for higher revenues to deal with the debt and to invest in what we need to. It is that we're about the only people whose incomes have gone up in last 30 years and we're in the best position to pay a little more so that America can get its books in order. The middle class has already paid and paid and paid in terms of stagnant income, losing healthcare coverage.

This is not an anti-wealth position, it's pro fairness. You can't preserve a wealthy island amid a sea of declining prosperity. You can't. Everyone worth a couple million or more should want the middle class to start rising again, people in poverty to move in the middle class; that's the best protection for my daughter's generation and the future. You can't maintain a democracy where virtually all the gains go to just a few people.

Q: That sentiment has clearly given rise to the Occupy Wall Street movement: What do you think of the movement? Do you support them?

A: Very sympathetic to what they said and with highlighting income inequality. One of the reasons I ran for President in 1991. I've been giving speeches about this since late 1980s. I'm thrilled.

Ever since I left the White House I've been talking about how the whole world was too unequal, too unstable and not sustainable. I like that about Occupy Wall Street.

But you know, the difference in Occupy Wall Street and Tahrir Square is they were against President Mubarak and wanted him to go. They had a built-in agenda and a box they could check. Even after that then they had to say 'Now what? What's our program? What are we going to do? Can we be competitive politically?'

I think that's where Occupy Wall Street is now. They have to decide what's next; you can't sleep on the street forever. Sooner or later you've got to try to do your part to help change things. That's not a criticism but a natural progression of their movement.

Personally I believe on balance it's a very positive thing people were finally saying 'this country did not become the greatest middle class country in history after WWII; this country did not overcome the Depression and win that war. It didn't send a man to the moon first by basically shoving 90% of the income gains to the top 10% and most of that to those of us in the top 1%. That's not how we became a great country.'

Back to Work: Clinton's Solutions

Q: "Back to Work" details 46 policy solutions. Which ones are the low-hanging fruit, the ones you think can get bipartisan support?

A: I think that we could get some bipartisan support for rewriting the corporate income tax law and in the meanwhile repatriating hundreds of millions of dollars of money that American companies are keeping overseas.

When we tried in 2004 it didn't work, but we learned a lot. A lot of people said we tried that and it didn't work, we let people bring money back and all they did was put money into stock buybacks and cut tens of thousands of jobs.

What you could do is let them bring it back for free if they create jobs and that portion not dedicated to job creation, let them pay the capital gains rate and put money in an infrastructure bank and create jobs directly.

If we did that, we'd get a couple $100 billion, maybe more, in capital from American citizens, American pension funds and foreign sovereign wealth funds.That's low-hanging fruit.

Setting up some way to accelerate the resolution of the home mortgage crisis should be low-hanging fruit. If we don't do it it's going to be hard to return to a full-employment economy.

I believe in having all the states do something like what Governor Cuomo did in New York. Signing this on-bill financing for building retrofits for energy efficiency. Essentially you keep paying the same electric bill, some money goes to pay off to make the building more efficient until you pay it off; then the bill drops a lot.

If we did that in every state it could put a staggering number of people back to work. Those are kind of low-hanging fruit that I think are important.

Q: In the spirit of what you're doing with the book and the Clinton Global Initiative Yahoo! is dedicated to highlighting not just the problems in our society, but also talking about solutions. We're seeking feedback from our audience and I'm wondering what you're hearing from Americans when you're on the road and the kind of action they want to see.

A: They're looking for solutions that essentially put America back in the future business. That create businesses and jobs and that give people hope.

They're looking for solutions that both will help us compete with other countries in a modern way with modern technologies, but also provide hope for people in their 40s and 50s with a high school education who've been out of work for more than six months. It doesn't make sense to them if you're a good, hard-working person and you're willing to go to work that you can't find work. Not after all this time.

I was amazed how many things I've done for a living in my life. I never doubted in all my career that I could support myself. They want America to be something they look forward to when they get up in the morning.

Q: In the book you say Democrats lacked a central message in 2010. The party failed to say what they did right. What should Obama's message be in 2012?

First of all, he is trying to bring us out of this economic crisis faster than countries have historically gotten out of it. If you have a financial collapse, it typically takes between 5-10 years to get out. If there's a housing crisis with the financial collapse it's normally closer to 10 years. He needs to say 'you have to understand, this takes a while. But I want us to beat the odds.'

Secondly, the only way to get out of it is if we have shared prosperity. You can't have all income gains going to top 1% of us. He's not trying to be anti-wealth. He wants more millionaires and billionaires but he wants a growing middle class most of all and poor people able to work their way into it.

Third, when you look all around the world, countries now doing better than we are -- in terms of technological advances, infrastructure, job creation, rising income, education levels, college grads -- they have economic policy characterized by cooperating, not conflict. You've got to have a strong [private] economy [and] smart government working together. Every successful country in the world that's what the rule is. That's what we have to do in America.

I think if that's his message I think he'll win, almost no matter what happens between now and then.

Aaron Task is the host of The Daily Ticker. You can follow him on Twitter at @atask or email him at altask@yahoo.com