On Wednesday, September 29 — one day after he unveiled his far-reaching health-care proposal at Los Angeles Valley College — former senator and current presidential candidate Bill Bradley talked with the Weekly’s Harold Meyerson at St. John’s Well Child Center, on the south edge of downtown. Bradley had just spent an hour in discussion with doctors, nurses, community activists, and parents who bring their children to the center, in one of L.A.’s poorest communities.
At the conclusion of the interview, the onetime New York Knick took a wadded-up piece of paper and tossed it in the direction of the wastebasket across the room. On his third try, it went in.
Q: In crafting your health-care plan, were there lessons you drew from the failure of the Clinton Plan in 1994?
A: There are some lessons we learned from the Clinton Plan. One is that the American people don’t want health care provided by a government bureaucracy; that they don’t want the cost of health care loaded on the backs of small business; but that they do want to have nearly all Americans covered. That’s why the government has to stand up and state exactly what it’s going to cost, put it out there for debate, and I think once you do that, then you have the chance of building the coalition you need to make something pass. And by raising it in the middle of a political campaign with specifics, people have a chance to get accustomed to this, as opposed to saying you’re going to do something this big, and then springing the specifics on people after you’re elected.
Q: Any specific thoughts about indexing the minimum wage, or some other kind of intervention to deal with the issue of working poverty?
A: Providing health care for people is a big part of it . . . As we heard today [in the discussion at the Well Child Center, the poor often have to make] a choice between food and health care.
Increasing the minimum wage makes sense. Making it easier for people to be represented by unions makes sense. And I will make a major proposal for investing in the community colleges of America, which are the sources of training for much of the immigrant population.
Q: You’ve talked about some proposals to make it easier for people who want to join unions to do so. Can you flesh them out a little?
A: I’ve suggested we ought to make it easier for organizers to organize. And I think that the way that we do that is by toughening the laws against firing organizers. Right now, it’s illegal to fire an organizer, but if you fire the person, that person’s got to go through [up to] a two-year process. And at the end of the day, their [maximum] remedy is [to receive their] back pay.
So it’s in the interest of the company to get rid of anybody who has a hint of organizing about them, to avoid a successful organizing effort which would result in higher wages and better benefits. What I would do is put some teeth in that, and say that if somebody was organizing and is fired — and can prove that he was fired because he was organizing — then it ought to be three times back pay plus punitive damages. That would create an environment where you could have organizers organizing — without fear of retribution.
Q: Free trade does increase wealth, but it can also exacerbate economic differences and undermine the kinds of protections that were created when there was a national economy. There are efforts to ensure higher labor standards and worker rights in WTO documents. What’s your feeling about that?
A: What has to happen is that the governments of the countries have to allocate more money to education and health care for their population, and less money to the excessive subsidies of corrupt industries. I think that it’s a resource-allocation question within a particular country.
Open trade produces the greatest growth and wealth creation in the world, and has the capacity of raising hundreds of millions of people to middle-class status. But for that to happen, you not only have to have a government that manages the foreign economy well, the fiscal and monetary policy and the exchange rate, but also manages its social investment well.
Q: Was the shock therapy that we proposed for Russia and other nations coming out of the communist era a good idea?
A: What happened was, instead of seeing our national interest clearly, we became confused. In the Cold War, our national interest would have been [to foster] dramatic drops in the number of strategic nuclear weapons. It would have been to work with the Russians to destroy existing nuclear weapons. In other words, the Nunn-Lugar bill [which funded the dismantling of Russian nukes] should have been funded at much higher levels and moved much more aggressively by the administration earlier. And there was [in the years immediately following the end of the Soviet Union] receptivity on the part of Russians to do virtually anything.
[Our next priority should have been] to reduce the fissionable material that could leak out and become terrorist fuel. Next, replace the Chernobyl-style nuclear reactors that threaten the Western European environment even today. And finally, [institute] an international exchange program that would allow our countries to get to know each other.
Instead of doing these things, what did we do? We expanded NATO. And when the Russians came over, we didn’t say, ‘What is your own view of how you move yourselves forward?’ We laid out an economic plan, gave them the money, the money stayed about two weeks, and came back out to [Swiss banks]. The result is, they’ve been in the middle of the deepest depression of the 20th century, where they’ve lost 50 percent of their GDP. At best, they think we are now irrelevant; at worst, they blame us for this circumstance. We came in and superimposed our views without the vaguest idea of the politics behind them.