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Clueless CEOs at the Top

US business honchos fearful of populist backlash

Chuck Collins

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that “Populist Tone Rankles America’s Executives.”

Apparently the CEOs and board members of big American companies are “increasingly frustrated” by the anti-business rhetoric of both parties, and concerned such sentiments might translate into meaningful public policy change after the election.

“The precipitousness of the political debate is a little scary right now,” Boeing CEO Jim McNerney told The Wall Street Journal. General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt informed investors that relations between government and big business is “the worst I have ever seen.”

Former Republican U.S. Senator Judd Gregg, currently a board member of the Honeywell, complained that the GOP has “been captured by a large number of people who basically do not like big.”

Bernie Sanders has shined a bright spotlight on Wall Street greed and millions of voters are cheering him on. With GOP candidates Cruz and Trump both opposed to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agenda on free trade, corporate mergers, and immigration, the corporate elites are running scared.

How clueless can you be? Our imperial CEOs need a little populism 101. Here are a few clues on what the public is demanding:

Clue #1: Pay Your Taxes: General Electric, Boeing, Verizon and 23 other profitable Fortune 500 firms paid no federal income taxes from 2008 through 2013, according to Citizens for Tax Justice. Show some love to the country that pays for the infrastructure upon which you transport your products, protects your intellectual property in global tribunals, and educates your workers and takes care of them when they are sick or retire.

Clue #2. Stop Squeezing Us. Your global business model seems to be focused on squeezing your workers, your customers and the communities where you are based. Verizon is hammering their workers for another health care cut. General Electric just squeezed $151 million in tax breaks in their relocation to Boston.

It seems like what passes for “innovation” in corporate America is an experiment in “how hard we squeeze customers and workers until these push back?” So are you really surprised that people are pushing back?

Have any of you luxury jet flying CEO’s been on a commercial airline flight in the last ten years? Talk about squeezing your customers, physically in seats and literally for every nickel and dime. This is the capitalism we are living through. Big corporations take things away (like legroom, checked bags, and snacks) and sell them back to us.

Clue #3. Support Young Workers. Have you talked to any college students lately who don’t have daddy CEOs to pay their tuition? Do you know what it’s like to graduate from college with $100,000 in debt? Imagine entering a workforce where, thanks to corporate lobbying, the minimum wage is insufficient to live on.

This populism isn’t anti-business. But people are enraged with disconnected business elites at global companies that use their considerable clout to shape the rules of the economy –like trade policy, minimum wage, deregulation – and don’t pay their fair share of taxes to continue basic services.

Many small and medium-sized businesses in our communities are appreciated and valued. They are rooted in place and understand that you can’t keep squeezing your customers, workers and communities before no one comes to your door. It’s the big boys that squeeze the hardest and then wonder, “why are people upset?”

The chairman of a medium-sized steel company, Jim Philipsky, tried to explain rising populism to his CEO brethren. He told The Wall Street Journal, “The establishment has been at the wheel for a long time, and the system has worked well for them, but not for everyone else.”

There’s a CEO who’s been paying attention.


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Chuck Collins

Chuck Collins

Chuck Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies where he co-edits Inequality.org, and is author of the new book, "Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good."  He is co-founder of Wealth for the Common Good, recently merged with the Patriotic Millionaires. He is co-author of "99 to 1: The Moral Measure of the Economy" and, with Bill Gates Sr., of "Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Fortunes."

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