Business wants to talk business with Jimmy Carter.
With carefully coordinated signals, leaders of the business establishment are sending that message to the White House. The businessmen say they want a dialogue. They want a new pipeline to the President now that Bert Lance is gone. They want the President to give them details of his economic philosophy.
To replace former budget chief Lance as the representative of business views at the White House, the captains of industry indicated their support for either Commerce Secretary Juanita Kreps or Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal.
The businessmen want Carter to understand why they think a substantial tax cut is needed to spur the economy next year; and how the benefits to business in the administration's tax package ought to be allocated.
This message was sent last weekend by leaders of the Business Council. Its 65 active members and an equal number of alumni are equivalent to the Fortune 509 and the social register distilled to their most powerful essence.
Twice a year these business leaders gather in the Blue Ridge country to talk shop. The meetings are closed. Reporters play tennis and grouse about the $80 a night accommodations while awaiting their daily briefings.
But last weekend, the sessions were different, reflecting, veteran observers believe, a different generation of chief executives who are more open, more public, more comfortable in the roleof captains of industry.
The tone was set by John D. DeButts, the council's chairman and the chief executive of American Telephone and Telegraph, in a speech to the Richmond Chamber of the Commerce two nights before the council meeting opened.
DeButts praised the Carter administration's responsiveness to business views on auto safety standards, the $50 taxs cut and other issues. Then DeButts called on the President to make his economic philosophy and strategy clear to businessmen and urged business leaders to do the same.
Precedent was broken on the opening night of the Business Council meeting when leaders sat down for an hour-long, on the record briefing with reporters. Such sessions had been held before, but only informally, off the record, for background use only.
Additional on-the-record messages came from Reginald H. Jones, chairman and chief executive of General Electric, in a speech he said would "speak for many in the business community on the subject of the tax reform." His was the only speech by a council member that was made public and its specific prescriptions for tax law changes indicated Jones was talking as much to the White House and to Congress as to the other business leaders. In the audience were the two law makers considered most influential on taxes, . Russell Long, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and Rep. Al Ullman, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The Business Council's economic strategy is based on a forecast that growth in the economy will slow down in 1978 and that the gross national product will grow by 4.5 per cent next year down from this year's 5 per cent rate.
Economists for leading corporations see unemployment dropping from the present 7 per cent level to 6.6 per cent in the fourth quarter of next year, not as much as administration strategists hoped for.
The business prediction is that inflation next year will be less than it was in the first half of this year but will still push consumer prices up by 6.2 per cent by the end of 1978. Consumer spending will increase by 3.5 per cent next year compared with the healthier 5 per cent increase this year, and business spending for new plants will rise at only a 7.5 per cent rate, down from this year's 9 per cent growth.
All these factors, the business leaders say, point to the need for a major tax cut. They put a $22 billion price tag on the cut and said it should go into effect by next July 1 in order to bolster the economy in the second half of 1978.
Jones in his speech and in interviews, repeatedly argued that cutting taxes would spur the economy enough to more than repay the lost revenue. Nine of the last 10 tax cuts have actually increased government revenues, he said, reviewing post-war fiscal history. "In all cases but one (the 1948 reduction) tax revenues have risen to new highs with only a lag in one year or less," the GE chief executive said.
A tax cut concept was quickly endorsed by Commerce Secretary Kreps who said after meeting with the business council that she also foresees a slowdown in the economy in the last half of 1978. A $22 billion tax cut "sounds like a good number to me," added Kreps. Long and Ullman were more cautious in responding.
The $22 billion figure is too high, Long said, mentioning - without endorsing - a $15 billion tax cut suggestion made by the White House. In a $15 billion tax cut, about $5 billion ought to go to business. Long added.
Ullman said he saw "nothing in the economy at this time" to require a tax cut, "but situations cn change." Ullman vitually ruled out the possibility that any tax cut could clear Congress in time to meet the July 1, 1978, target set by the business council.
Jones later said the prospect of a tax cut alone would be enough to give some stimulus to the economy in the last half of next year.
How any tax cut business ought to be handled was spelled out by General Electric chief. Said Jones:
'The most effective way to provide business with both the means and the incentive to invest and to step up hiring through a meaningful and a permanent cut in the corporate tax rate. A reduction of five or six points would give a truly meaningful boost to business confidence." Jones called for tax cuts that would directly lead to added capital spending rather than indirectly boosting disposable income. He gave a carefully qualified assessment of the suggestion that "partial integration" of corporate and personal taxes could eliminate the doubel taxing of corporate dividents.
Business sate the double taxing of corporate dividents.
Business sadeoffs of capital formation incentives of proven values," said Jones.
Senate Finance Committe Chairman Long later noted that "stockholders might feel differently" than chief executives and would prefer lower taxes on dividends to lower corporate taxes.
Lower taxes on dividents, the Business Council, Council spokesman said, would put pressure on companies to pay out profits rather than reinvest them, contributing to the long-term shortage of capital.
If the administration is committed to taxing capital gains the same as ordinary income, Jones said, there should be a rollover provision so capital gains can be reinvested promptly and the tax deferred. On capital assets held for long periods, the tax rate should be reduced to account for inflation.
He said a top individual income tax rate of 50 per cent "would give all individuals added incentive to work and invest and should contribute significantly to the achievement of the economic objectives of tax reform." Other specific tax suggestions made by Jones as the Business Council spokesman included faster depreciation and the immediate write-off of pollution control costs, extending the investment tax credit to buildings and iincreasing it beyond the present 50 per cent of tax liability. He also said there should be no reduction in mineral depletion allowances for the mining industry, and no change in the taxation of foreign earnings of American companies.
As he coutlined a series of detailed tax provisions not unlike ones administration sources have attacked as "loopholes," Jones honed in on what he called the "red flag" in the administrations's tax plan - The Three Martini Lunch.
Administration tax reformers have hit on business lunches, first class travel and convention spending, saying they are loopholes that ought to be closed. All are now considered business deductions. The taxpayers shouldn't be subsidizing the businessman's martinis by allowing him to write them off on income taxes, Carter officials have said. Business leaders officials have said. Business leaders respond with a mixture of outrage.
"That's hogwash," said Jones.
Others suggested the three-martini lunch "doesn't exist because nobody would get any work done if it did." They said the three-martini lunch has become [WORD ILLEGIBLE] rallying point for tax reformers that would contribute little if any added revenues to the treasury.