ST. PAUL LEGAL LEDGER CAPITOL REPORT
And a call for responsible business leadership, from General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt
The all-time standard for iconic villains in Christmas stories - Ebenezer Scrooge - was a greedy lender who redeemed himself after an introspective nightmare revealed the human impact of his behavior (and his own funeral, with no sad people).
Perhaps the best hero in all Christmas lore was also a businessman, the community-minded banker George Bailey in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Bailey was also treated to a vision, revealing that he hadn’t been foolish after all to value generosity as well as personal gain.
That stereotype of the former, the avaricious CEO and business executive, got reinforced in every imaginable way through 2009, from Bernie Madoff to Tom Petters to the more conventional (and legal) greed displayed in the national banking scandal.
In the face of some of the worst private-sector malpractice and business failures in modern history, it’s rather astonishing to witness the bald-faced audacity of conservative ideologues blaming our governments and taxes for what ails us. These conservatives scarcely utter a word about CEO performance and pay, rising inequality, and the conduct of Wall Street and the private sector on a broader front.
If I were a conservative ideologue, I’d feel betrayed by many of these captains of industry.
After years of conservative ideologues proselytizing about how tax cuts and deregulation are all the economic policy we need - and after wealthy investors and other individuals were given a decade of relaxed regulation and huge cuts in capital gains and income taxes - conservative theorists were treated to the biggest economic collapse since before the New Deal.
Where did all those tax savings go?
In fact, there is growing, if grudging, consensus that our federal government’s power and credibility saved the day. Our governments generally have been effective at such moments, and the spending authority provided through taxes and borrowing - first by President Bush and then by President Obama, both at the urging of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke - may very well have saved Wall Street from itself, once again.
At the same time, we can’t overlook the fact that there are tens of thousands more business leaders who all through this nightmare have been more Bailey than Scrooge, responsible and generous with their communities, aware that their success or their failure is not theirs alone.
Our own Minnesota Business Partnership, comprised of the 100 largest businesses in the state, is peopled with dozens of conscientious leaders who understand they don’t do it alone and that business success depends on a larger community and public investments.
For example, at its recent annual dinner, the business partnership focused its message on public-school success stories and mostly refrained from attacks on the public sector and taxes.
On the national stage, Jeff Immelt, CEO and president of General Electric, is emerging as a strong voice for a new kind of business mentality.
GE is one of the nation’s oldest and largest companies, producers of jet engines and wind turbines; ironically, GE was instrumental in hiring and converting Ronald Reagan in the 1950s from New Dealer to free-market ideologue.
But this is what Immelt said in a speech he gave Dec. 9 at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.:
“I think we are at the end of a difficult generation of business leadership, and maybe leadership in general. Tough-mindedness, a good trait, was replaced by meanness and greed, both terrible traits. Rewards became perverted. The richest people made the most mistakes with the least accountability.
“In too many situations, leaders divided us instead of bringing us together. As a result, the bottom 24 percent of the American population is poorer than they were 25 years ago. That is just wrong.”
But Immelt wasn’t finished. He challenged business leaders everywhere.
“We do have to compete to be great,” he said. “We must improve training and education. … Leaders do share a common responsibility to narrow the gap between the weak and the strong.”
And, looking back at the ghosts of both business past and business future, Immelt added:
“The residue of the past was a more individualistic win-lose game. The 21st century is about building bigger and diverse teams, teams that accomplish tough missions with a culture of respect.”
If we in Minnesota and people everywhere could adopt a resolution to show more mutual respect for each other - business for government, government for business, and between and among the advocates for both - that would be a great way to jump into a new year and a new decade.
A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on December 22, 2009.