I've been on a mission for several years to right the wrong done to Charles Erwin Wilson, the president of General Motors from 1941 to 1953. He later served as Defense Secretary under President Eisenhower, a man with a keen interest in the well-being of the military. You know Engine Charlie: He's the one who said, "What's good for General Motors is good for America." The very epitome of the selfish, imperious chief executive. Except he didn't actually say it. His real words were, "for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa." In other words, the interests of big business couldn't be divorced from the well-being of the nation. This represented the best ethos of our business leadership when America stood at its zenith.
James Cash Penney, founder of the department store chain, operated not by exotic swindles cooked up by his Ivy League MBAs, but by the golden rule. The vinegary head of National Cash Register, John Henry Patterson, turned his factories into boat-building plants to save residents of Dayton during the 1913 great flood. Henry Ford, crackpot and anti-Semite though he became, established his business on this foundation: "I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one." In doing so, especially paying good salaries, he made one of the seminal steps to create the modern middle class. Ford also said, "A business absolutely devoted to service will have only one worry about profits. They will be embarrassingly large."
Now we have a different breed of cat running our largest companies. Their model is not J.C. Penney or even Henry Ford, but Jack Welch and the moguls of Wal-Mart. And they may be on a mission to sabotage the chief executive of the United States.
This was the topic broached by Fareed Zakaria in the Washington Post, entitled "Obama's CEO problem — and ours." He notes that the 500 largest non-financial companies are sitting on "an astonishing" $1.8 trillion in cash, and this could be the most effective stimulus if they would only spend to create jobs. But they won't. In addition to uncertainty about the economy, they are concerned about "myriad" new laws and regulations from the Obama administration. Among the president's public critics is Welch's hand-picked successor at GE, Jeffrey Immelt.
Most of the business leaders I spoke to had voted for Barack Obama. They still admire him. Those who had met him thought he was unusually smart. But all think he is, at his core, anti-business. When I asked for specifics, they pointed to the fact that Obama has no business executives in his Cabinet, that he rarely consults with CEOs (except for photo ops), that he has almost no private-sector experience, that he's made clear he thinks government and nonprofit work are superior to the private sector. It all added up to a profound sense of distrust.
I'll take Zakaria at his word that these are CEOs who initially supported the president. But the transnational corporations they run no longer see their interests running parallel to those of the United States or the average American. The latter is merely a "consumer" and, if an employee, a cost center. As for the former, they expect the kid-glove deregulation treatment they've received for 30 years and more. Even a rhetorical tilt to an agenda that might help most Americans must be met with this shot across the bow. Or worse: A conscious agenda to bring Mr. Obama and the Democrats down. The same agenda may be true of the very rich, who fear even minor increases in their taxes and want dynastic wealth enhanced by permanently killing any estate tax. According to some reports, they've slowed spending, endangering the recovery. This, even though they increased their share of national wealth during the recession, a virtually unprecedented event.
To be sure, the Obama agenda has produced the worst of all worlds. The health-care "reform" is incredibly complex and who knows how it will really affect businesses or individuals. The same is true of the financial "reform." In both cases, the simple progressive solutions, such as universal, single-payer Medicare for all and restoration of Glass-Steagall would have been both (much) more effective and crystal clear.
And yet the masters of the universe protest too much, with their profits hitting records or doing quite nicely, thank you. The administration (and Fed) committed at least $1 trillion of our tax money and future living standards to save the old order on Wall Street that caused the crash. For-profit health insurers received a huge windfall thanks to the Obama "reform" and the Democrats shiver at even the thought of forcing pharmaceutical companies to compete to provide the lowest prices in Medicare Part D. The United States continues to spend more on defense than all other nations combined, providing enormous profits for the defense industry and the growing privatization of intelligence. With more than $1 trillion spent on the "war on terror," somebody's cleaning up. The White House is "free trade" all the way.
New rules and regulations? Why would anyone even consider such a thing? What's a little catastrophic well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico or dead miners in West Virginia or hundreds of instances of corporate "regulatory capture" from the Bush/Cheney presidency...
Are these threats coming just to stop the unlikely passage of cap-and-trade legislation? Or is this about joining the Gentleman from South Carolina in his goal regarding the president: "Break him"? Pace Zakaria, Mr. Obama does not need to scramble to appear more "pro business." In a functioning democracy, Mr. Immelt and his compadres would need to scramble to be pro-American.
Too many of their business plans are built around the destruction of the American middle class. Chief among them is the offshoring of jobs, a move pioneered by the lionized Jack Welch and now standard practice. For example, Apple employs 25,000 people here — and another 250,000 in China actually manufacturing its products at a company notorious for conditions that contributed to a rash of worker suicides. I've talked to so many American workers who were training their replacements in China or India. The Midwest and Southeast have been decimated by offshoring of manufacturing, textiles, apparel and furniture-making. But this is just the start. American wages have been stagnating for years, especially because of the "Wal-Mart way" in employment practices. And was it "pro business" when Wal-Mart destroyed local Main Street retailers coast to coast? No matter. Pensions have been scrapped for, if one is lucky, risky 401(k)s. Benefits have been eliminated or severely scaled back. Temp jobs have become a staple, if one is fortunate enough to even have a job. Communities exist to use up and throw away, as NCR shamefully did to Dayton.
The country is falling apart, in some cases quite literally. Our schools are dreadfully underfunded and teachers are being fired, among the many cuts deep in the bone of what once constituted the basics of our civil society. Libertarians may celebrate this, but the reality will be a mean, brutish America. The nation is utterly unprepared for the future of higher energy prices, more intense global competition for resources and climate change. We can't even fund our existing transit systems while China spends $100 billion this year on high-speed rail. Meanwhile, most major corporations pay no taxes (contrary to their propaganda) and the rich pay a fraction of the taxes they paid when America was strong and the benefits of prosperity were spread widely.
Worthy exceptions exist, among them Bill Gates. But too many big-business leaders are corrupt economic royalty, completely disconnected from their fellow citizens who must work for wages. Far too many loot their companies for obscene compensation and engineer mergers that kill jobs. Far too many are clueless egomaniacs (Carly Fiorina nearly wrecked Hewlett Packard, and destroyed thousands of good jobs. Yet she sees herself as senator material). They imagine themselves more than just the smartest guys in the room. They have been worshiped so long they seem to actually believe they are heroic characters from an Ayn Rand novel. That they hold the world on their shoulders, "trembling" under the weight of all the losers who would dare ask for jobs or raises or maintenance of the commonweal.
In reality, the great American middle class is Atlas. It does the work and bears the burdens — and they are only increasing. Chief among them is seeing its living standards erode and its society cracking under "austerity" — all to sustain this "pro-business" agenda for the parasite economic royalists. To sustain the looting and destruction of their living standards, economy and society. To be the losers in class warfare they didn't start or ask for. After the crash of 1929, with the old order discredited and in a different America, Atlas rose up, broke his chains and supported the New Deal. Not this time. Millions of working Americans just keep sweating and groaning, blaming blacks, Mexicans, unions, gays and liberals while listening to Fox, Rush, Sean and Sarah.
Something's gotta give. Actually, it has been giving for three decades. Slow, like boiling a frog, and now faster, more painfully, but we're stuck in the pot. Now, given the hold of extremism and ignorance on so much of the American population, what comes next could be quite ugly. Somehow, though, it will be "pro business." But not the way Engine Charlie meant.