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Even progressives need CEOs

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Sunday, December 19, 2010; 8:00 PM

The central question in our politics is whether we can break out of formulaic discussions that always end up in the same place. Here's one major test: Can progressives change their way of thinking about business?

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We are already seeing a dreary replay of the old argument. Self-styled centrists say that President Obama has really ticked off business leaders and urgently needs to make nice with them.

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 we live in a 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."

It's also important to recognize that there is no single business class or corporate model. 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.

There have been moments in our history when important elements of business were "progressive" in the sense of recognizing that social reform was in capitalism's long-term interest.

In a seminal 1995 article in the American Prospect about business opposition to President Bill Clinton's health-care reform, the political writer John Judis recalled that 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." Judis's conclusion still rings true: that "without a business community moderately supportive of social reform, little is possible in the present era."

Who in the commercial world might lead a push for reform? Progressives, including my Post colleague Harold Meyerson, have taken note of a Bloomberg Businessweek article by Andy Grove, who was Intel's longtime leader. Grove asked 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?"

Grove criticized "a general undervaluing of manufacturing - the idea that as long as 'knowledge work' stays in the U.S., it doesn't matter what happens to factory jobs." But over time, he argued, if we offshore the manufacturing that results from home-grown innovation, we will eventually lose our advantages in innovation itself.

Anyone who speaks of reviving American manufacturing confronts critics who hear echoes of the supposedly discredited "industrial policy" arguments from the early 1980s. But Carl Pope, the visionary who led the Sierra Club for many years, notes that through trade agreements and other policies, our government already favors certain industries that have done very well as a result: banking and finance, big agriculture, pharmaceutical companies and Hollywood. One might add oil and gas, and defense.

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.

ejdionne@washpost.com


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