CEOs literally can’t believe they have to deal with the debt limit again

September 27, 2013
Mr. Camden is exasperated. (Kelly Services)
Mr. Camden is exasperated. (Kelly Services)

A couple years ago, the upstart Campaign to Fix the Debt called together corporate leaders to help push Congress toward a long-term solution for our underwater U.S. government. They didn't quite get there, and now we're careening toward another showdown, with little more reasoned analysis to go around. Some CEOs are doing the rounds again, but it's hard to fight a feeling of futility.

Wonkblog checked in with Carl Camden, who runs the global temporary staffing firm Kelly Services, about what it feels like to hear the same song over and over.

Lydia DePillis: So how are you feeling about having to gear up for another fight? 

Carl Camden: Each of the permutations leads to a greater sense of disbelief that anything's going to happen, and a sense of fatigue. In Washington, it's very much a whack-a-mole topic. You stick your head up on one thing, and they smack you down. So I see an increasing silence of the broader business community. I'm not certain that anybody's listening.

Most of us are global companies, so we have lots of options as to where do you invest and where do you grow your business. But most of us are American citizens, and we would like America to do well. We actually would like to see America be a winning economy. This battle over what are actually not the consequential issues are symptoms of the problem. No one's really talking about the longer-term issues that need to be addressed. If it were us, we'd be fired. If you kept trying the same things over and over, the board would come to a conclusion that you need a new CEO. It's like a Groundhog Day effort. We're just repeating the same conflicts, saying the same soundbites.

LD: What happened to get us to the point where it's so hard to make progress? 

CC: In my eyes, we've been on the front lines for a long time. What's happened is both parties have consumed their middles. You have stronger ideologies emerging in both parties, and increasingly you have this win-lose rhetoric, where the wins and losses aren't defined by what's good for the country's business. I think the loss of the middle, and when 'primarying' someone has become a verb -- we're going to primary someone because they're not progressive enough or conservative enough -- that's a long-term symptom.

LD: But was there ever really a golden age when businesses were able to get what they needed on broader economic growth issues, beyond their narrow agendas? 

CC: During the Clinton administration, it was a solid combined effort between the business community and the various arms of the government to produce positive pro-growth outcomes. It used to be that you could campaign that you could grow jobs, grow the economy, and while you might disagree on the best ways, it's kind of a paramount concern of the centrist middle under Bill Clinton and the sizable middle of the Republican party.

We now whip our way though administration after administration where economic mobility declines, where we've become satisfied if the unemployment rate comes down to seven percent. This is not an America, a land of opportunity, where you want to grow a business.

LD: You're in the temporary staffing industry, though. Tell me if I'm wrong, but don't you do well when companies can't employ full-time workers and pay benefits?

CC: The temporary staffing industry never outgrows the GDP. All the major staffing firms in the U.S. have showed negative growth. It's not like it's been boom times for temp staffing. There's a longer-term trend toward the old fashioned world of work where we grew up in that's slowly disappearing. The free agent mode of independent contractors, consultants and so on, that will become a majority way to work. And that's the way it's been in America for all of our history. Only after World War II did it shift to a new model. We're quickly drifting back to the way employment has historically been in this country, a nation of craftsmen, tradesmen, independent workers. Younger people are mostly independent contractors, they work two or three jobs, and they like to. I was talking to a young business owner, and she said nobody does just one thing anymore.

LD: A lot of this fight is over Obamacare. Is the Affordable Care Act good for you, or would you also like to see it repealed?

CC: Kelly, in 2007, along with the SEIU and Wal-Mart, started a campaign called Better Healthcare Together, to try to push forward the debate that ultimately led to the Affordable Care Act. We needed health-care opportunities for the new style of American workers. We're the one country in the OECD -- in every other country, health-care insurance comes as a function of being a citizen, or not tied to an employer. A better solution would've been single payer. But to the extent that the exchanges work, that other aspects of the program work, including bending down the cost curve, it will make it easier for temporary workers to overcome the discrimination they face. It's just appalling, if this were happening to women or minorities, it would be world-class headlines. But nobody writes about the particular difficulties our country puts forward for the new employment styles.

LD: What's your level of confidence that Obamacare will work?

CC: I don't know. Typically, when a bill like this passes, the differences are forgotten, and you figure out how to strengthen the bill. In this case, we're locked into 42 votes to defund the Affordable Care Act. So there's not been a whole lot of work on fixing the obvious flaws, we're just trying to keep it alive.

LD: Have you personally talked to legislators about why it's important to fix this problem?

CC: There's not a whole lot of people who're particularly caring at the moment. They listen to us because they have to listen to the CEOs, and then they move on and do what they were going to do. When was the last time you heard a legislator say, 'My god, we've got to do something different, I just talked to a CEO!'

LD: Lots of companies talk about shifting operations out of the U.S. if it doesn't get its act together. But is that actually possible? 

CC: It's not a question of shifting operations, it's a question of where do you grow new business. The secular trend toward free agent labor is happening most in the U.S. But right now you have faster growing GDPs, more interesting employment opportunities, in China and Brazil -- they're slowing down to GDP growth rates that the U.S. hasn't seen in 20 years.

LD: So why are you still trying so hard to put the U.S. back on a firmer footing, if you could grow elsewhere? 

CC: You do it because you're a good citizen, but you also do it if you're a company like Kelly, your biggest market is still the U.S. So there are both economic incentives as well as citizenship incentives.

LD: In your discussions with lawmakers, how detailed do you get about what needs to be done? 

CC: The Committee to Fix the Debt is putting the same path forward as in 2007 that we used for Better Healthcare Together. We tried to create an umbrella of concern, trying to provide the air cover to say 'it's alright to talk about things like entitlements, it's alright to talk about things like reforming the tax code,' etc. It would be both irresponsible and arrogant for me to tell you what's best, and I don't. The Committee for Economic Development has its points of view, but what we really need is a general commitment to a solution, which you're not seeing, and to get to a solution even if someone's absolute favorite path isn't going to work out.

LD: What's the most important thing you think is getting ignored because of all the air being sucked up by the debt limit? 

CC: We don't have a growth agenda in this country, and we're not addressing income inequality and social mobility. What does a growth agenda look like? What does education need to do? We have an economy where various aspects of the tax policy and trade policy are serving as inhibitors to faster growth. we have schizophrenic attitude towards development of our own energy. We need a consensus formed as to what is the business plan for the country for the next couple decades.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.
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