Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Yes, we ought to be able to work with GOOD CEOs -- if we could just find some


by Ken

There aren't many writers about whom I would say this, but from Washington Post E. J. Dionne Jr. there isn't any argument I wouldn't be prepared at least to entertain. Unlike most of the thumb-sucking class, he's used his long years of opinionizing to establish a track record for credibility and seriousness. Certainly there aren't many columnists who could serve up a column called "Even progressives need CEOs," as E.J. did yesterday, and arouse my curiosity rather than relexive apprehension. I mean, can you imagine such a thing from, say, "Chucky the Chiller" Krauthammer?

And I wasn't surprised to find that E.J. made a pretty good case for his point, though his point seems to me more limited than the title would suggest.

This, I would argue, is vintage E.J.:
Because the president has spoken occasionally about the irresponsibility of Wall Street and the very wealthy, these poor suffering multimillionaires and billionaires have hurt feelings. Obama is being told he needs to feel their pain, to show he truly understands why they are so aggrieved.

Progressives bristle at this, and why not? Many among the best-off - particularly on Wall Street - were grossly irresponsible stewards of the power surrendered to them through deregulation. They wrecked the economy, Obama bailed them out, and most are now richer than ever. Yet they have the arrogance to complain about the president pointing to their misdeeds. Many liberals want Obama to tell the wealthy where they can go.

If this were only about gut reactions, you could count me as a fan of the latter approach. And more should be done to investigate and publicize the transgressions and dumb decisions that helped crater our financial system.

But, E.J. points out, in our market economy,
Businesses create jobs, and a healthy business climate is one key to a healthy society. It's a conclusion that progressives sometimes reach grudgingly. Former New York governor Mario Cuomo ably captured this feeling in 1977 during his unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City. "You must be good to business," he declared, "even if you hate rich people, even if you don't like pinkie rings, even if you can't stand Scarsdale and Rolls-Royces."

Here's where the column seems to me to go into realms that are true -- I wouldn't expect anything less from E. J. Dionne Jr. -- but not necessarily descriptive of our present reality. it's important to recognize, he says, " that there is no single business class or corporate model." True enough. And then:
Obama doesn't need to coddle CEOs so they will say warm things about him at parties in the Hamptons. He should figure out which parts of the private sector share an interest in reducing the dreadful inequalities that have metastasized over nearly four decades and in creating an economy that produces well-paying jobs.

Indeed he should! And perhaps that's just what he was doing when he made his secret deal with Big Pharma guaranteeing that no effort would, could, be made to rein in the skyrocketing cost of prescriptions drugs. Or when he sold out the public health insurance option to protect the interests of the insurance industry. Or when stacked his "deficit reduction" commission with people committed to the agenda of the megacorporate interests whose long-term goal is to destroy whatever remains of the American social safety net. Or when he put together an "energy plan" that did little or nothing to get our energy needs under control and nothing meaningful for the environment; mostly, as far as I can tell, it would have provided some jolly windfall paydays for pollluters. Or . . .

The point is that the president has shown roughly zero interest in identifying "which parts of the private sector share an interest in reducing the dreadful inequalities that have metastasized over nearly four decades and in creating an economy that produces well-paying jobs." His attention seems confined to the parts of the private sector that are getting ever more filthily rich precisely by promoting and exploiting those "dreadful inequalities."

Next E.J. takes an interesting stroll down Memory Lane which once again doesn't have anything I can see to do with present-day reality. "There have been moments in our history," he writes, ?\"when important elements of business were 'progressive' in the sense of recognizing that social reform was in capitalism's long-term interest." Once again, absolutely true. But once again, this isn't one of those times. Again, there is certainly truth to E.J.'s quote from John Judis, the during the Progressive Era ""business leaders and organizations played an indispensable role in developing and promoting the social legislation that first blunted the sharp edges of laissez-faire capitalism." it's kind of misleading in suggesting that those business leaders and organizations suddenly rose up in support of the progressive agenda out of their inborn commitment to economic justice.

Also, the Progressive Era ended some 85 years ago, to make way for the Roaring Twenties that laid the groundwork for the Great Depression. And so Judis's case the "without a business community moderately supportive of social reform, little is possible in the present era" has a nice ring to it, but not much hint of how we might transform the business community we've got into that kind of business community. Because remember, the standard argument of CEOs of publicly held corporations is that they are legally bound to put profits ahead of all other considerations, or they're betraying their fiduciary responsibilities to their shareholders.

Once again, I couldn't agree more when E.J. quotes former Intel CEO Andy Grove as asking "exactly the right question": ""What kind of a society are we going to have if it consists of highly paid people doing high-value-added work - and masses of unemployed?" What kind indeed? If the point is that we have to find some way of changing the American way of doing business, I don't think there are many progressives who would disagree.
Government policies, no matter how often we use the words "free enterprise," through design or inadvertence, inevitably affect the private economy. Why not choose policies that specifically encourage sectors that create good jobs for Americans? Why not ally with companies and CEOs whose interests lie in doing just that? I, for one, would not begrudge them their pinkie rings or their Rolls-Royces - though I'd hope they would consider a luxury car made in the U.S.A.

Wow! Absolutely! But as far as I can tell, there isn't any significant part of the American corporate or political establishment that would support this proposition in substantive terms, and there are large segments of our corporate and political establishments that spend significant money and efforts to making sure it never happens.

So yes, I would be happy to support good CEOs. I would even be understanding of a free-ish pass for CEOs whose price for not standing in the way of "policies that specifically encourage sectors that create good jobs for Americans" is pinkie rings and Rolls-Royces. But the reality is that our megacorporate culture seems pretty powerfully invested in making sure that this doesn't happen.

I hate to keep coming back to the example of the first Henry Ford, who was a horrible man in many ways but who has a corporate chief grasped the basic principles that his workers were also customers. Our current generation of CEOs is so greedy that it sneers at this common-sense lesson: that they can't sell stuff if their potential customers can't afford to buy stuff. Maybe the problem is that their business is no longer making stuff to sell. What they make is deals, and the only people they can make them with is each other. Which means that they just can't afford to let more than a bare minimum of dollars slip out of the control of their elite circle -- the circle that controls the money that controls our political system.

Which, according to the Roberts Court, is just exactly what the Constitution has in mind for us.



At 2:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Krauthhammer is the hunch back of the village.


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