Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Captains of industry and practicality

The snapshot of a political meme the Republicans have lived and ruled by — more spending cuts are needed to free up the job creators to go out and hire new people — has become GOP holy writ. Now, some of those job creators, titans of industry for real, have begun to emerge to undercut that austerity-at-all-costs meme, and with it much of the rationale for Republican obstructionism.

In almost back to back interviews, the CEOs for two of the nation’s more indispensable corporations have offered rejoinders to the reflexive No of the GOP on spending and new taxes. That No was most recently distilled by House Speaker John Boehner, who called the president’s entire $447 billion measure a “short-term gimmick.” The phrase “Ponzi scheme,” of course is currently being rented by another politician.

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Doug Oberhelman would beg to differ. Oberhelman, chief executive office of earthmoving and construction-equipment manufacturer Caterpillar (market capitalization $54 billion, 132,239 employees was interviewed tonight by Scott Pelley on the CBS Evening News.

Responding to the infrastructure-related dimensions of the American Jobs Act presented to Congress on Sept. 8, Oberhelman said “it’s an investment in our country. ...

“Any politician that says no to tax revenue or zero spending … does not deserve re-election … Our hole is so deep in this country with the debt and the debt service … that everything has to be on the table.”

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Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of consumer-products, industrial and media giant General Electric (market capitalization $170 billion, 287,000 employees), made much the same point to Fareed Zakaria of CNN, in an interview airing in full on Sunday night.

“I believe in balance,” Immelt said. “Does the deficit need to be reduced? Absolutely. Is government too big in many ways? Absolutely. But does the country still need to invest in education, does the country still need to invest in infrastructure, does the country still need to invest in the kinds of R&D that are gonna make this country competitive in the 21st century? Yes, we do.”

Not to let either company off the hook on other matters: Caterpillar has come under fire in the past for outsourcing parts production and ramping up production in right-to-work states, undercutting the role of unions. General Electric has a long history of environmental protection violations, and a reputation as a polluter that still tarnishes its legacy.

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Setting aside for a minute the obvious vested interest each of these corporate major-league hitters has in saying what he said — infrastructure spending’s good for Caterpillar? Imagine that — in this matter at least, both Oberhelman and Immelt are speaking with the kind of cold practicality that rejects the prevailing economic-policy gridlock in government on the grounds of common sense.

An investment in infrastructure is central to the nation’s health; that unemotional conclusion gains currency in the current debate precisely because it’s not from the president; it’s from two of the job creators the Republicans have been flying the banners for. That’s a problem for the GOP.

And it’s to Immelt’s credit that he apparently included education as an infrastructure concern. Makes all the sense in the world: In a rapaciously competitive world, education may be the infrastructure issue that matters the most.

What’s obvious in the excerpts of their interviews is that how Immelt and Oberhelman voted in 2008 or how they’ll vote in 2012 doesn’t matter. They’ve set aside assessments of the benefits of one party or another in order to take on what they can do, or at least what they can recommend, to mend a country approaching the vortex of a dangerous decline. It’s a safe bet they’ll have a lot of company from other boardrooms before long.

Image credits: Oberhelman: CBS News. Immelt: From GE's corporate Web site. Corporate logos used herein are the properties of their respective parents.

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