Some time ago I separated myself from the virulent anti-business attitudes most of my progressive friends and so-called liberals hold. My post-college career started with a high-profile business start-up in the airline industry, and after that experience I spent time in the executive management program of one of the nation’s largest retailers. Even much earlier, while still in college, I worked for two of Maryland’s largest banks at the time and had been encouraged to enter the management training program of one of them. My political science training made me aware of the dangers of corporate excess but my work experience gave me real insight into the important role the private sector plays and the value of work to individual self-worth and economic independence.
During his State of the Union address, President Obama focused much of his attention on the need for innovation in the American economy and the role that government can play to stimulate business development and job growth. It is an important message and one that the President will be conveying for months to come as the White House works to revive the nation’s anemic economy. He is right on target, of course with safeguards, but the bottom line is that the private sector is in the best position to create the millions of jobs that are needed to get the economy churning and put Americans back to work.
The President’s message does not win him many friends among his liberal supporters. Many are so intent on casting business as the Evil Empire that they miss the point. While we have many examples where corporations, or more correctly business leadership, has acted in an unlawful manner or skirted the law in a way that was not criminal but morally and ethically offensive, we would be foolish to think that we can get out of this mess without business – small and larger scale – playing the principal role in job creation. Too many progressives condemn corporate America but fail to acknowledge the role the private sector has played in widening economic opportunity. The not-for-profit sector cannot equal the job creation capacity of business, and government is ill-suited to create jobs beyond those necessary for the administration of public sector functions. Even the suggestion of infrastructure projects means that private firms will be engaged to do the necessary work to repair our nation’s tattered network of roads, bridges, tunnels and rail lines. The not-for-profit sector can play a limited role in job training but only if it is informed by the needs and nuances of the emerging economy.
Should business get a free pass given its centrality to economic stability? Of course not. Government must play an important and necessary role to protect the public and prevent abuses that could cripple the economy. The public health must be protected from errant corporations that show little regard for product safety or environmental protection, and workers must be protected from occupational hazards and discriminatory treatment. The government must also make certain that businesses operate within the law and that regulations keep pace with technological change and new instruments of commerce. At the same time unions, particularly those in the construction trades must be held accountable for diversifying their membership and ending decades-old practices that have limited Blacks and Latinos access to union jobs. It is a proper role for government and one that we must demand lawmakers insist upon as the President works to facilitate job creation.
We need jobs, plain and simple. Work is the best weapon against poverty; it is the best tool to enable individual advancement and family stability. There is no government program or public assistance benefit that matches the power of a good-wage job or career. Liberal criticism of the President for appealing to the business community is self-serving and misses the point. Jobs will not magically appear. They have to be created and can only be sustained if opportunities for commerce exist in domestic and international markets. Government can set the conditions for an economic expansion while also setting the rules of engagement. It is not a zero sum game. I am hopeful that this President is now properly focused on job creation and that the White House and Republican leadership will put the interests of American families first, and work in a collaborative manner to “win” the “future” President Obama described earlier this week before a joint session of Congress.