David McCullough, Pulitzer Prize winning historian has a new book. “The American Spirit,” is a compilation of speeches Mr. McCullough has made over the last 25 years. His hope is to “remind us, in this time of uncertainty and contention, of just who we are and what we stand for, of the high aspirations of our founders and of our enduring values.” Our country has always stood for opportunity, vitality and creative energy, fundamental decency, insistence on truth, and good-heartedness to one another.
However, much of what we read in the papers these days belies our American values. Today, let’s look at two key areas- corporate America and Washington- that require substantial improvement.
First, let’s talk about today’s problem of big business focusing solely on “maximizing shareholder value.” The result has been an almost Dickens-like atmosphere for consumers and employees. Turning airplanes into cattle cars is a good example. We all saw the United passenger dragged off the flight in April. United used to have a bonus program for executives based on on-time arrivals, consumer satisfaction and profit. It doesn’t now- it’s only based on pretax income and cost savings. Same thing for American Airlines. After years in Chapter 11, AAL came out of bankruptcy by merging with US Airways in 2013. Earlier this year, after finally making a profit, management awarded its long underpaid flight attendants and pilots with a raise to bring them to industry levels of compensation. Wall Street “freaked out” that some potential shareholders earnings were being diverted and AAL’s stock price tanked.
Wal-Mart doesn’t want that to happen to them. Seven Walton family members (with a net worth of $130 billion) own ½ of WMT. In 2015, WMT made $14.7 billion and shareholders got $10.4 billion in dividends and stock repurchases. WMT’s “low, low prices” are in part made possible by low, low wages for its 1.5 million employees. Many full-time WMT employees live in poverty, without enough money to pay for an apartment, buy food, or get basic health care. And, each year, we taxpayers pay $153 billion to pay for food stamps and other welfare programs for low paid employees, with WMT employees receiving about $7 billion of it. WMT’s CEO made $21.8 million last year. The median annual pay for CEOs of the S&P 500 companies is now $11.7 million.
The real issue with low wages is the impact on the overall economy. One company’s workers are another company’s customers. Profitable companies could pay workers more and shareholders less, leading to more spending on products and services from other companies. This is turn could increase the revenue and profits of the overall economy. Treating employees more fairly, giving them more opportunity and training is good for America and the economic growth and happiness of our country. Focusing on making super products and providing excellent customer service are great. Those aspects of capitalism are good for American. The greed and selfishness parts are not.
Which brings us to Washington. In less than five months, President Trump has transformed us from leaders of the free world to whiny bullies. He pulled us out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, refused to reaffirm the mutual defense commitment to NATO and abandoned the voluntary Paris climate accord. Here’s how Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster described the President’s world view: “The world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”
Really? Is it all about self-interest? What happened to the more cooperative, rules-based vision that motivated America and its allies since WWII? Our leadership was good for the world and has been good for our country. A world of cutthroat competition and zero-sum outcomes is not.
On the domestic side, the House passed the Financial Choice Act (FCA) last week. Very disappointing. This legislation would replace the post 2008 financial crisis Dodd-Frank regulations, designed to protect Americans. FCA would repeal the “Volker Rule,” which restricts banks from certain types of trading, and would strip the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau of its power to write rules and supervise investment firms (particularly regarding deceptive practices and consumer complaints.) This, like the Health Care Choice Act and proposed tax reform, is just another Congressional attempt to give Wall Street and the top 1% unfair advantages so they can keep making more money at the expense of most Americans.
History can be a strength and an inspiration- it reminds us who we are and what we stand for. Certainly, let’s make America Great, but let’s do it the right way- working together and providing opportunities for all 321 million Americans to reach their full potential. Let’s move away from the toxic polarization, greed and selfishness we see every day and get back to the high aspirations of our founders; cooperation, vitality, energy, basic truth and decency. And, yes, let’s “Make Our Planet Great Again” and work with almost 200 countries worldwide to mitigate global warming. We 7.5 billion citizens of the world are all in this together, hopefully for centuries and centuries to come. Finally, let’s remember and promote our American Spirit and Values.