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Hillary Clinton, liberal virtue, and the cult of the microloan

The day after International Women’s Day in March 2015, I attended a Clinton Foundation production put on by its No Ceilings initiative at the Best Buy Theater in New York City. It wasn’t a campaign event — the 2016 race had not really started at that point — nor was it a panel discussion, as there were no disagreements among the participants or questions from the audience. Instead, it was a choreographed presentation of various findings having to do with women’s standing in the world. But if you paid attention, the event provided a way to understand Hillary Clinton’s real views on the great social question before the nation — the problem of income inequality.

Hillary Clinton walks by residents of Phú Tàng village, outside Hanoi, Vietnam, where a microcredit program offered loans to rural women, November 17, 2000 © Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Hillary Clinton walks by residents of Phú Tàng village, outside Hanoi, Vietnam, where a microcredit program offered loans to rural women, November 17, 2000 © Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Onto the stage before us came former secretary of state Clinton, the Democratic Party’s heir apparent; Melinda Gates, the wife of the richest man in the world (the event was produced with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation); various NGO executives; a Hollywood celebrity; a Silicon Valley CEO; a best-selling author; an expert in women’s issues from Georgetown University; a Nobel Prize winner; and a large supporting cast of women from the Third World. Everyone strode with polished informality about the stage, reading their lines from an invisible teleprompter. And back and forth, the presenters called out to one another in tones of supportiveness and sweet flattery.

In her introduction to the event, for example, the TV star America Ferrera, who has appeared at many Clinton events both philanthropic and political, gave a shout-out to the “incredible women who have brought us all here today” and the “amazing girls” whose conversation she had been permitted to join. Then Chelsea Clinton, who announced herself “completely awed” by the “incredible swell of people and partners” who had participated in some event the previous day, invited us to hearken to the “inspiring voices of leaders, of communities, of companies, of countries.”

Those were just the first few minutes. It kept on like that for hours. When someone’s “potential” was mentioned, it was described as “boundless.” People’s “stories” were “compelling” when they weren’t “inspiring,” “incredible,” or “incredibly inspiring.” A Kenyan activist was introduced as “the incomparable.”

But the real star of this show was the Creative Innovator, the figure who crops up whenever the liberal class gets together to talk about spreading the prosperity around more fairly. In this case, the innovations being hailed seemed mainly to be transpiring in the Third World. “Every year, millions and millions of women everywhere are empowering themselves and their communities by finding unique, dynamic, and productive ways to enter the workforce, start their own businesses, and contribute to their economies and their countries,” said Chelsea Clinton, introducing an “inspiring innovator and chocolatier” from Trinidad.

Melinda Gates followed up the chocolatier’s presentation by heaping even more praise: “She is an amazing businesswoman, you can see why we all find her so inspiring.” Then, a little later on: “Entrepreneurship is really vital for women. . . . It’s also their ability to advance into leadership roles into corporations. And corporations play such a big role in the global economy.”

Roughly speaking, there were two groups present at this distinctly First World gathering. Many of the people making presentations came from Third World countries — a midwife from Haiti, a student from Afghanistan, the chocolate maker from Trinidad, a former child bride from India, an environmental activist from Kenya — while the women anchoring this swirling praisefest were former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the wealthy foundation executive Melinda Gates.

What this lineup suggested is that there is a kind of naturally occurring solidarity between the millions of women at the bottom of the world’s pyramid and the tiny handful of women at its very top. The hardship those Third World women have endured and the entrepreneurial efforts they have undertaken are powerful symbols of the struggle of American professional women to become CEOs of Fortune 500 companies (one of the ambitions that was discussed in detail) or of a woman to be elected president, which was the unspoken theme of the entire event.

What the spectacle had to offer ordinary working American women was another story.

That was my first experience of the microclimate of goodness that always seems to surround Hillary Rodham Clinton. The mystic bond between high-achieving American professionals and the planet’s most victimized people, I would discover, is a recurring theme in her life and work.

But it is not her theme alone. Regardless of who leads it, professional-class liberalism seems to be forever traveling on a quest for some place of greater righteousness. It is always engaged in a search for some subject of overwhelming, noncontroversial goodness with which it can identify itself, and under whose umbrella of virtue it can put across its self-interested class program.

There have been many other virtue objects over the years, people and ideas whose surplus righteousness could be extracted for deployment elsewhere. The great virtue-rush of the 1990s, for example, was focused on children, then thought to be the last word in overwhelming, noncontroversial goodness. Who could be against kids? No one, of course, and so the race was on to justify in their name whatever your program happened to be. In the course of Hillary Clinton’s 1996 book, It Takes a Village, for example, this favorite rationale of the day — think of the children! — was deployed to explain her husband’s draconian crime bill as well as more directly child-related causes such as charter schools.

You can find dozens of examples of this kind of liberal-class virtue quest if you try, but instead of listing them, let me go straight to the point: this is not politics. It’s an imitation of politics. It feels political, yes: it’s highly moralistic, it sets up an easy melodrama of good versus bad, it allows you to make all kinds of judgments about people you disagree with. But ultimately it’s a diversion, a way of putting across a policy program while avoiding any sincere discussion of the policies in question. The virtue quest is an exciting moral crusade that seems to be extremely important but at the conclusion of which you discover you’ve got little to show for it besides NAFTA, bank deregulation, and a prison-building spree.

For all that, the Clinton Foundation event I attended gives us a context in which to understand Hillary’s most important moment as a maker of policy — her four years as Barack Obama’s secretary of state. Although her purview then was foreign policy, we can see from her deeds at State how she intends to tackle the great economic question of our time. The themes will be familiar to anyone who follows Democratic politics closely. She cast herself as a high-minded ally of Silicon Valley. She enshrined a version of feminism in which liberation is, in part, a matter of taking out loans from banks in order to become an entrepreneur. And between these two doctrines, it seems clear that income inequality has little role in the grand sweep of her political career.

In emphasizing these aspects of her tenure at the State Department, I do not mean to brush off the conventional diplomatic triumphs that Hillary Clinton engineered, like the international effort to isolate Iran. Nor do I mean to soft-pedal her conventional diplomatic failures, like the cataclysmic civil war in Libya, a conflict Clinton worked so hard to stoke that the Washington Post in 2011 called it “Hillary’s War.” But I want to focus for a moment on one of her early initiatives as secretary of state: something she called “Internet Freedom.” This was to be the very “cornerstone of the 21st century statecraft policy agenda,” according to the State Department, and Clinton returned to the principle frequently. In a high-profile speech in January 2010, she declared that, henceforth, the United States would stand “for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” Committing ourselves to defending this unified Internet from all who would censor it, she continued, was a logical extension of what Franklin Roosevelt had been after with his Four Freedoms; it wasn’t all that much different from the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights either.

Now, understanding the Internet as a force of pure nobility is a pundit tradition in the United States, and in the days when Clinton declared humanity’s Internet Freedom, those ideals were on the lips of every commentator. In the summer of 2009, the Iranian regime had violently suppressed a series of enormous street protests — protests that, the American pundit community immediately determined, were as much a testament to the power of Twitter as they were about any local grievance having to do with Iran itself. The so- called Twitter Revolution fit neatly into the beloved idea that new communications technologies — technologies invented or dominated by Americans, that is — militate by their very nature against dictatorships, a market-populist article of faith shared everywhere from Wall Street to Silicon Valley.

Then there was the economic side of the single, unified Internet, and it, too, was all about liberation. For the “people at the bottom of the world’s economic ladder,” Hillary Clinton averred on that day in 2010, the Internet was a savior. She knew of farmers in Kenya who were using “mobile banking technology,” and of “women entrepreneurs” somewhere else in Africa who were getting “microcredit loans,” and of a doctor who used a search engine to diagnose a disease. I guess she hadn’t heard about what these same technologies were doing to the livelihoods of journalists or musicians or taxi drivers in her own country, but I quibble; as long as this technology was free, anyone could see that it pushed in one direction only, and that was up.

Clinton’s other great initiative during her State Department days was the so-called Hillary Doctrine: the recasting of the United States as the world’s defender of women and girls. Now, here was a virtue quest of the most principled kind. The single remaining superpower was no longer to be an overbearing hegemon or a bringer of global financial crisis — it was actually determined to improve life for half of the planet’s population.

The secretary described the elements of the Hillary Doctrine in 2010 at a TEDWomen conference, that great agora of the liberal class. “I have made clear that the rights and the roles of women and girls will be a central tenet of American foreign policy,” she said, “because where girls and women flourish, our values are also reflected.” It was, Clinton continued, “in the vital interests of the United States of America” to care about women and girls. Her reasoning: the subjugation of women is a “threat to the common security of our world and to the national security of our country.”

I was a little bit alarmed when I heard Secretary Clinton speak these phrases in her deliberate way. Ordinarily, the words “vital interest” and “national security,” when combined like this, suggest strong stuff: that the United States has a right to freeze assets, organize embargoes, and maybe even launch air strikes — in this case, I suppose, against countries that score poorly on the gender-equality scale.

Not to worry. Like so many high-minded Democratic virtue quests, this one turned out to be largely concerned with the personal, with foundations and private companies that would partner with the United States to do things like “improve maternal and child health,” “close the global gender gap in cellular-phone ownership,” “persuade men and boys to value their sisters and their daughters,” and “make sure that every girl in the world has a chance to live up to her own dreams and aspirations.”

The idea that unifies and explains all these disparate initiatives is the theology of microfinance. It is hard to overstate the attraction of this magical idea to the liberal class, or at least to that part of it working in the foreign-aid sector. Microlending, such people have come to believe over the past few decades, was the magic elixir for sexism and poverty, the financial innovation that would save the Third World. Foundations embraced it. Careers were built on it. Billions were spent advancing it. The United Nations declared 2005 the International Year of Microcredit. Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist who popularized microlending, won a Nobel Prize in 2006. Three years later, Barack Obama gave Yunus the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

And it was all so simple. While national leaders busied themselves with the macro-matters of privatizing and deregulating, microloans would bring the science of markets down to the individual. Merely by providing impoverished individuals with a tiny loan of fifty or a hundred dollars, it was thought, you could put them on the road to entrepreneurial self-sufficiency, you could make entire countries prosper, you could bring about economic development itself.

What was most attractive about microlending was what it was not, what it made unnecessary: any sort of collective action by poor people coming together in governments or unions. The international development community now knew that such institutions had no real role in human prosperity. Instead, we were to understand poverty in the familiar terms of entrepreneurship and individual merit, as though the hard work of millions of single, unconnected people — plus cell phones, bank accounts, and a little capital — was what was required to remedy the Third World’s vast problems. Millions of people would sell one another baskets they had made, or coal they had dug out of the trash heap, and suddenly they were entrepreneurs, racing to the top. The key to development was not doing something to limit the grasp of Western banks, in other words; it was extending Western banking methods to encompass every last individual on earth.

Microlending is a perfect expression of Clintonism, since it brings together wealthy financial interests with rhetoric that sounds outrageously idealistic. Microlending permits all manner of networking, posturing, and profit taking among the lenders while doing nothing to change actual power relations — the ultimate win-win.

Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s administration had made microloans a proud point of emphasis in U.S. foreign policy, and Hillary has been a microlending enthusiast since her first days on the national stage. She promoted it as a form of female empowerment in a famous 1995 speech she made in Beijing, and she supported microlending efforts wherever the First Family traveled in the 1990s — there’s an exhibit on the subject at the Clinton Presidential Library that shows Hillary giving a speech in the Gaza Strip in front of a sign that reads women’s empowerment through micro-lending. In 1997, she cochaired a global Microcredit Summit in Washington, D.C., replete with the usual Third World delegations. Hillary’s own remarks on that occasion were unremarkable, but those of the president of the Citicorp Foundation were well worth remembering. Here is what he said to the assembled saviors of the Third World: “Everyone in this room is a banker, because everyone here is banking on self-employment to help alleviate poverty around the world.” At the closing session of the summit, bankers joined national leaders in singing “We Shall Overcome.”

In the decade that followed, the theology of microlending developed a number of doctrinal refinements. There was the idea that women were better borrowers and better entrepreneurs than men; the belief that poor people needed mentorship and “financial inclusion” in addition to loans; the suggestion that they had to be hooked up to a bank via the Internet; the discovery that it was morally okay to run microlending banks as private, profit-making enterprises — many of the arguments that I had heard at the No Ceilings conference, expressed in the unforgettable tones of international female solidarity.

These ideas made up the core of the Hillary Doctrine. Melanne Verveer, her ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, declared in 2011 that “financial inclusion is a top priority for the U.S. government” and announced her terrible chagrin that “three billion people in the world remain unbanked; the majority of them are women.” Hillary’s undersecretary for democracy and global affairs, Maria Otero, came to State from one of the biggest American microlending institutions, ACCION International. Now, in her official government capacity, she expressed her joy at how microfinance had evolved “from subsidized microloans to a focus on self-sufficiency, to an emphasis on savings, to a full suite of financial products delivered by commercial regulated banks” — and how all this had “affirmed the capacity of the poor to become economic actors in their own right.” Hillary herself proudly recalls in her memoirs how the State Department rebuilt Afghanistan by handing out “more than 100,000 small personal loans” to the women of that country.

These are fine, sterling sentiments. They suffer, however, from one big problem: microlending doesn’t work. As strategies for ending poverty go, microlending appears to be among the worst that has ever been tried, just one step up from doing nothing at all to help the poor. In a carefully researched 2010 book called Why Doesn’t Microfinance Work? the development consultant Milford Bateman debunks virtually every aspect of the microloan gospel. Microlending doesn’t empower women, Bateman writes — instead, it makes them into debtors. It encourages people to take up small, futile enterprises that have no chance of growing or employing others. Sometimes microborrowers don’t even start businesses at all; they just spend the loan on whatever. Even worse: the expert studies that originally sparked the microlending boom turn out, upon reexamination, to have been badly flawed.

Nearly every country where microlending has been an important development strategy for the past few decades, Bateman writes, is now a disaster zone of indebtedness and economic backwardness. When he tells us that “the increasing dominance of the microfinance model in developing countries is causally associated with their progressive deindustrialization and infantilization,” he is being polite. The terrible implication of the facts he has uncovered is that microlending achieves the opposite of development. Even Soviet-style Communism, with its frequently mocked five-year plans, worked better than this strategy does, as Bateman shows in a tragic look at microloan-saturated Bosnia.

No matter. The liberal class is unlikely to abandon its romance with microfinance, for yet another reason: it is profitable. Lending to the poor, as every subprime-mortgage originator knows, can be a lucrative business. Mixed with international feminist self-righteousness, it is also a bulletproof business, immune to criticism. Naturally, the international goodness community discovered that empowering poor women by lending to them at usurious interest rates was a fine thing all around.

Other virtue quests have proven just as attractive. Companies needing a stiff shot of P.R. whitewash fell over one another to enlist in the State Department’s crusade to build “solutions for good.” Goldman Sachs partnered with the State Department in 2011 to give out business-school scholarships to women entrepreneurs from the developing world. The following year, Clinton’s old friends at the wage-crushing retailer Walmart announced a $1.5 million gift to the department’s Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Americas program. (“The effort will support the dreams of up to 55,000 potential women entrepreneurs,” the company boasted.) ExxonMobil was on board, too, helping State to register women-owned businesses in Mexico.

The figure of the female Third World entrepreneur, rescued from her “unbanked” state by Wall Street–backed organizations, mentored by her friends in the American professional class, expressing herself through social media, remains to this day among the most cherished daydreams in the land of money. Everyone is infatuated with her: the foundations, the State Department, the corporations. Everyone wants to have his picture taken with her. Everyone wants to partner with everyone else to advance her interests and loan her money.

The fantasies blend seamlessly one into another. The ideas promoted by the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women project, for example, are not really different from those of Hillary’s own Vital Voices Global Partnership, or Coca-Cola’s #5by20 initiative, or even the conscientious statements you find in State Department press releases. People move from one node of this right-thinking world to another and no one really notices, because the relocation signifies no meaningful change. They give one another grants and prizes and endowed chairs, they extol one another’s ideas and books, they appear together with their banker pals on panel discussions in Bali or maybe Davos, and they all come together to fix Haiti, and then to fix Haiti again, and then to fix Haiti yet again.

Hillary herself moved in this fashion from State to the Clinton Foundation, where she presided over a dizzying program of awards for the usual people, grants for some genuinely good causes, and the organizing of great spectacles of virtue like the one I attended in New York, a costly praiseorama featuring many of the very same people who worked for her in government.

What I concluded from observing all this is that there is a global commerce in compassion, an international virtue circuit featuring people of unquestionable moral achievement: Archbishop Tutu, Bono, Sting, Yunus, Angelina Jolie. They travel the world, collecting and radiating goodness. And in doing so, they come into contact with the other participants in the same market: the politicians and billionaires and bankers, who warm themselves with the incandescent virtue of the world-traveling moral superstars.

But let’s be clear. What drives this market are the buyers. Like Walmart and Goldman Sachs locking arms with the State Department, what these virtue-consumers are doing is purchasing liberalism offsets, an ideological version of the carbon offsets that polluters sometimes buy in order to compensate for the smog they churn out.

And at the apex of all this idealism stands the Clinton Foundation, a veritable market maker in the world’s vast, swirling virtue trade. The former president who runs the whole show is “the world’s leading philanthropic dealmaker,” according to a book on the subject. Under his watchful eye, all the concerned parties are brought together: the moral superstars, the billionaires, and of course the professionals, who organize, intone, and advise. Virtue changes hands. Good causes are funded. Compassion is radiated and absorbed.

This is modern liberalism in action: an unregulated virtue exchange in which representatives of one class of humanity ritually forgive the sins of another class, all of it convened and facilitated by a vast army of well-credentialed American technocrats, while the objects of their high and noble compassion sink slowly back into a preindustrial state.

One of the motifs of that Clinton Foundation event I attended in 2015 was the phrase not there, a reference to the women who aren’t present in the councils of state or the senior management of powerful corporations. The foundation raised awareness of this problem by producing visuals in which fashion models disappeared from the covers of popular magazines like Vogue, Glamour, SELF, and Allure. According to a New York Times story on the subject, the Clinton people had gone to a hip advertising agency to develop this concept, so that we would all understand that women were missing from the high-ranking places where they deserved to be.
There was also another act of erasure going on here, but no clever adman will ever be hired to play it up. International Women’s Day, I discovered, began as a socialist holiday, a sort of second Labor Day, on which you were supposed to commemorate the efforts of female workers and the sacrifices of female strikers. It is a vestige of an old form of feminism that didn’t especially focus on the problems experienced by women trying to be corporate officers or on the views of some megabillionaire’s wife.

What we were there in New York to consider, among other things, was how unjust it was that women were underrepresented in the C-suites of the Fortune 500 — and, by implication, how lamentable it was that the United States had not yet elected a woman president. There was no consideration — I mean, zero — of the situation of women who work on the shop floors of the Fortune 500 — for Walmart or Amazon or any of the countless low-wage employers that make that list sparkle. Working-class American women were simply . . . not there. In this festival of inclusiveness and affirmation, their problems were not considered, their voices were not heard.

Hillary Clinton is not a callous or haughty woman. She has much to recommend her for the nation’s highest office: for one thing, her knowledge of Washington; for another, the Republican vendetta against her, which is so vindictive and so unfair that I myself might vote for her in November just to show what I think of it. And she has, after all, made a great effort in the course of the past year to impress voters with her feelings for working people.

But it’s hard, given her record, not to feel that this was only under perceived pressure from her primary opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders. Absent such political force, Hillary tends to gravitate back to a version of feminism that is mainly concerned with the struggle of professional women to rise as high as their talents will take them. No ceilings.

As I sat there in the Best Buy Theater, however, I kept thinking about the infinitely greater problem of no floors. On the train to New York that morning I had been reading a book by Peter Edelman, one of the country’s leading experts on welfare and a longtime friend of the Clintons. Edelman’s aim was to document the effect that the Clintons’ welfare-reform measure had on poor people — specifically on poor women, because that’s who used to receive welfare payments in the days before the program was reformed and turned over to stingy state governments.

Edelman was not a fan of the old, pre-1996 welfare system, because it did nothing to prepare women for employment or to solve the problem of day care. But under the old system, at least our society had a legal obligation to do something for these people, the weakest and most vulnerable among us. Today, thanks to Hillary and her husband, that obligation has been canceled, and we do very little. The result, Edelman maintains, has been exactly what you’d expect: extreme poverty has increased dramatically in this country since Bill Clinton signed welfare reform in 1996.

For poor and working-class American women, the floor was pulled up and hauled off to the landfill some twenty years ago. There is no State Department somewhere to pay for their cell phones or to pick up their day-care expenses. And one of the people who helped to work this deed was the very woman I watched present herself as the champion of the world’s downtrodden femininity.

Sitting there in gilded Manhattan, I thought of all the abandoned factories and postindustrial desolation in the surrounding regions, and I mused on how, in such places, the Democratic establishment was receding into terminal insignificance. It had virtually nothing to say to the people who inhabit that land of waste and futility.

But for the faithful liberals at the Clinton Foundation gathering in New York, none of that mattered. The party’s deficit in relevance to average citizens was more than made up for by its massive surplus in moral virtue. Here, inside the theater, the big foundations and the great fashion magazines were staging a pageant of goodness unquestionable, and the liberal class was swimming happily in its home element.

They knew which things were necessary to make up a liberal movement, and all of the ingredients were present: well-meaning billionaires, grant makers and grant recipients, Hollywood stars who talked about social media, female entrepreneurs from the Third World, and, of course, an audience of hundreds, who clapped and cheered enthusiastically every time one of their well-graduated leaders wandered across the stage. The performance of liberalism was so realistic one could almost believe it lived.

wrote the Easy Chair column for Harper’s Magazine from 2010 to 2014. This is an excerpt from his new book Listen, Liberal (Metropolitan Books).

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