I ran across this Huffington Post article today and had to read it twice to be sure I was reading it right. Evidently a bunch of CEOs with big names met in Montana at a conference organized by Max Baucus. Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric gave me whiplash with this:
Immelt said angry political rhetoric is not helpful and headlines are too focused on finding negative indicators. He said business at GE, one of the world's largest companies, is improving.
Immelt was one of Obama's big business cheerleaders in 2008, but presumably fell into the disaffected CEO category earlier this year, as evidenced by his remarks in early July (which he walked back right away):
Mr Immelt also had harsh words for Barack Obama, US president, lamenting what he called a “terrible” national mood and expressing concern that over-regulation in response to the global financial crisis would damp a “tepid” US economic recovery. Business did not like the US president, and the president did not like business, he said, making a point of praising Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, for her defence of German industry.
Despite the denials and claims of being quoted out of context, Immelt's remarks were remarkably similar to off-the-record complaints by top CEOs about how "let down" they felt by Obama. And now, just two months later, we have Steve Ballmer and Warren Buffett waxing optimist, practically singing "Happy Days Are Here Again". Why?
Immelt's remarks in a letter to shareholders lock the puzzle pieces in place when placed against his remarks at the Baucus conference. Here is a little more of what he said:
Immelt said the country is going to need to adjust, though. The economy since the 1970s has been driven by consumer credit and a misguided notion in building a "lazy" service economy, he said, and manufacturing, with an aim to reduce the trade deficit, is the key.
"It was just wrong. It was stupid. It was insane," Immelt said of the push for a service-based economy. "The future of the economy has to be as an exporter."
Of course, in order to be an exporter, we have to be willing to trade on a global market. This is the point Immelt made in his shareholder letter:
General Electric's CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, offered a clear-eyed appraisal of the stakes in a letter to shareholders this year: "When citizens distrust big business, governments will follow suit," he said. "We can find ourselves in a sort of 'dark cycle,' where the people who can make our economy better are considered its worst enemies. The rallying cry becomes, 'Why can't you clowns just create some jobs?'…I fear that if we don't improve the mood in our country, populism will turn to protectionism, to the great detriment of us all.''
He's right. This isn't an apologetic to big business, but facts are facts. We have to make things to pull the economy out of the ditch. When we make things, the service pieces of the economy will revive too, because people will spend for services they've cut back or foregone.
When looked at as a whole, these remarks by CEOs are purely self-serving and not particularly political other than this: The campaign of fear and loathing waged on this country by teabaggers and stoked up by corporate media looking for the clicks and eyeballs not only affects our mood, it affects our economy in deep and scarring ways.
Strangely enough, the way out of this recession requires some optimism, which the Baucus group was certainly willing to provide. Unfortunately, their optimism may not be infectious if they continue to sit on big piles of cash while the unemployment rate stays high.
If I were to have a conversation with Jeff Immelt, I'd tell him that optimism is best served with a job offer or two. If he needs any evidence of that, he should consider what the Gallup polls have to say about big business these days:
The Gallup Poll last year found that 82% of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military. For small business, it was 67%. For churches, 59%. For newspapers, 25%. For Congress, 17%. And for big business, 16%, lower than at any time since Gallup began posing the question in 1973.
When Americans' confidence level in big biz sinks below Congressional disapproval ratings, it's definitely in their best interests to start looking for some silver linings.