Business finds itself left out of the party

Politicians will see few votes in backing corporate America until its priorities change

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson

Which tribe of politicians can claim to be the party of business? Back in the tax-cutting, deregulating, privatising days of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the question was simple to answer on each side of the Atlantic. But Donald Trump and Brexit have a way of scrambling well-worn assumptions.

British executives are pondering the prospect, in Boris Johnson, of a Conservative prime minister who dismissed their Brexit concerns with the words “fuck business”. Their US peers are hearing the same message, less explicitly, from Republicans.

President Trump was not the corporate establishment’s candidate in 2016, but business has found much to thank him for as he responded to its complaints about taxes and regulations in familiar Republican fashion. Boardrooms can even put a number on that gratitude: US corporate tax payments fell 31 per cent last year, while profits hit new records, due to Mr Trump’s late 2017 tax cuts.

Chief executives have also cheered the reliably deregulatory rhetoric emanating from the White House after eight years of tighter Democratic regulation in the wake of the financial crisis.

There has been one big break from past partisan certainties: Mr Trump’s trade war with China. In the past week, the Business Roundtable has blamed ratcheting tariffs for a fifth straight quarter of declining CEO confidence; Walmart and Levi Strauss joined 600 companies in saying that they imperil 2m US jobs; and the US Chamber of Commerce warned that they could cost the US $1tn in the next decade.

As executives lose hope that the Trump administration will achieve the immigration and infrastructure reforms they seek, relations are fraying. So, too, is business support for Republicans. “CEOs are abandoning the Republican party in droves,” wrote Alan Murray, CEO of Fortune, after a recent survey by the magazine found that fewer than half the people running the country’s largest companies now identify as Republican. Yet the number calling themselves Democrats remains “minuscule”, he noted, because as Mr Trump’s GOP cedes the “party of business” mantle, Democrats show no sign of looking to seize it.

Democrats have always seen the case for talking tough about business, especially at the early stage of presidential contests when union endorsements can be critical. But there is a difference in degree this time as candidates across the crowded Democratic field vow to rein in corporate power.

Both Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have berated Amazon for its low tax bill, while Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg and other Democrats have joined striking fast-food workers who are campaigning for McDonald’s to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour.

Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union which told Democrats they must back the “Fight for $15” pickets to win its support, says that candidates are “responding more boldly” to its pressure this election.

“Presidential candidates have to speak to the growing inequality in the economy,” she argues, adding that calling out companies for paying low wages “speaks to the gut feeling that most working Americans have that the rules are rigged against us”.

There are still 500 unpredictable days left in the election campaign. But when Democrats argue for a more assertive antitrust policy, rail against share buybacks or promise — in Elizabeth Warren’s words — “economic patriotism”, it is clear they see these talking points as vote winners beyond their party’s base. Polls suggest they are right, and that should wake business leaders up.

Executives may despair of Washington’s attitudes, but they need to remember that voters (who are also consumers and employees) are closer to the politicians than to the CEOs in their beliefs about proper corporate priorities.

According to surveys by Just Capital, a non-profit funded by the investor Paul Tudor Jones, Americans of all stripes rank a company’s treatment of its employees, customers and community far above the returns it makes for shareholders: like Mr Trump and Ms Warren, they believe that US companies should focus above all on creating well-paid jobs in America.

Profound ideological differences remain between the parties, of course, not least on taxes and the environment. If the Democrats choose one of their most leftwing 2020 contenders as their candidate, it would undoubtedly scare many donors back to Mr Trump’s party.

But on offshoring, wages and jobs there is increasing common ground. Any company that has not found an answer to Mr Trump’s America First rhetoric will not find the task any easier if the pressure is rebranded economic patriotism by a Democrat.

With politicians less willing to speak up for them, US business leaders will have to make their case on trade, tax and regulation more directly. But this will ring hollow unless they can show they are sharing the prosperity they believe capitalism brings with the people they employ.

Until then, it will be easier for politicians to say “fuck business” than to be caught in bed with the corporate elite.

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