Government often played the savior with Business. Harry Truman seized control of the rail industry to avoid a crippling strike; John F. Kennedy exploded when U.S. Steel announced a major price hike, fuming, “My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of b----es, but I never believed it till now.”
Now the demon is in politics, and hope is in the land that Business can be the savior. The president’s Strategic and Policy Forum, a group of prominent chief executives, disbanded in protest over President Trump’s ambivalent response to a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville.
When a trickle of chief executives resigned from the Manufacturing Council, a similar panel, the president responded with a shiv in the side. “Now that Ken Frazier of Merck Pharma has resigned from President’s Manufacturing Council,” Trump tweeted, “he will have more time to LOWER RIPOFF DRUG PRICES!” That council was also disbanded.
Merck will be back, and so will the bankers. They all want to be in the room when tax cuts are on the table and to push on deregulation.
And denouncing racism is easy. Nobody is for it, and quitting a panel is not the same as leading. Saviors have to do more than refuse to associate.
Once we had business leaders such as Citicorp’s Walter Wriston, who seemed to legitimately straddle the interests of business and society, at least until he lent too much of his bank’s equity to Argentina. And we had financiers who moved between the public and private good, Bernard Baruch in an earlier time, Arthur Levitt or Richard Ravitch in our own.
They commanded respect and followership, which leaders do. No such leader has emerged today, and on a host of issues on which the Trump agenda is wrongheaded, chief executives have been silent.
Doug McMillon, the CEO of Walmart, forcefully denounced white supremacists, by that term, but he has not, in similar language, denounced the president’s trade agenda. Walmart is arguably the largest anti-poverty program in the United States. It sells the most goods at the lowest prices, particularly to the poor.
It would be nice to hear McMillon speak frankly about his international supply chain, and what Trump’s threatened actions against China and Mexico would do to prices on the floor. But retail executives — not just at Walmart — are cowering.
Similarly on immigration, economists are shouting the news that the United States needs immigrant workers. Wisconsin cannot produce milk without them; Silicon Valley is starved for engineers; the health-care industry needs technicians.
Trump’s mind is fixed in a win-lose world, which is an adequate representation of the two industries he knows: casino gaming and shaking down local authorities for tax breaks. Some CEO should remind him that for society at large, business is not win-lose. Individual firms compete and prosper or die, but the economic ecosystem is enriched by new entrants, new products, new accents.
As Steve Chapman of the Chicago Tribune elegantly observed, immigrant workers are a plus. “When farmers can find workers, they grow food and fiber that have to be processed, packaged, transported and sold — all of which boosts employment.”
The template for chief executives has been: Avoid saying anything that lands you on the president’s Twitter feed. I have a sneaking suspicion that many — most? — are too thirsty for tax cuts to risk calling him out.
Early in the year, Trump put the arm on Gregory Hayes, chief executive of United Technologies, which owns Carrier — which promptly decided to retain 1,000 workers in Indianapolis rather than move them to Mexico. Similarly, Ford Motor canceled plans for a project in Mexico that Trump had called an “absolute disgrace.”
No matter whether Trump was responsible for these moves, as he claimed. The CEOs should say unashamedly that they hire workers to suit not the political purposes of the White House but, as is proper, the long-term interests of their shareholders.
A few chief executives took issue with Trump on climate change. It would be good to hear from them — not just faceless industry lobbyists — on the ill wisdom of Trumpcare and on the employer model of health care generally. Ditto, McDonald’s could add, meaningfully, to the discussion on the minimum wage, for instance by pointing out there is no single minimum that can be effective in both, say, Arlington, Va., and Ashland, Ky. They could say that the federal government could accomplish more by enlarging the EITC. (But I forgot: Trump is well informed; he knows that.)
This may seem like small-bore stuff, economic policy as opposed to fighting racism. But few CEOs have the moral authority to lead on transcendent social issues. And Trump’s signature character flaw isn’t racism, it’s dishonesty.
Chief executives won’t be the remedy, because they preside over commercially correct cultures that reflexively shrink from frankness. In a pinch, they obfuscate. (Just once I would like to hear a commercial airline skip the blather about “willing and able to assist.” Just tell us your lawyers are putting us on notice, okay?)
The odd John Mackey or Mark Cuban speak their minds. Jamie Dimon is frank but, as if burned by his scrapes with the Obama administration, no longer so visible. The age of the public financier is gone.
Blackstone chief executive Steve Schwarzman, who chaired the Strategic and Policy Forum, is in high dudgeon over Trump’s taking credit for disbanding the council. Schwarzman, a man of great wealth and greater self-regard, would better channel his sense of aggrievement into an issue he could do something about, such as the shameful and unwarranted tax break, known as carried interest, that allows private-equity moguls such as Schwarzman to pay a lower rate than schoolteachers. During the campaign, Trump promised to eliminate the tax break; since then, with people like Schwarzman cooing in his ear, he hasn’t addressed the issue.
I have a fantasy that Howard Schultz, of Starbucks fame, will challenge Trump (privately he has rebuffed such suggestions). Picture a chief executive who marketed an American brand around the world taking on a three-time deadbeat whose idea of competition is build a wall. Schultz has a moral compass; he also understands profit.
Then again, Schultz may prefer hawking lattes. Regardless, there is a vacuum in the center and CEOs could fill it. Opposing Trump shouldn’t mean opposing business, nor should enlightened apostles of business consider him an ally. For executives, that would be a good message to start with. Finding a savior will have to wait.