This year’s startling election poses a real risk of touching off an American Brexit. In other words, there is a meaningful chance that 2016 could begin a retreat of the United States from the mix of economic policies and the global engagement that U.S. businesses have regarded for decades as central to their success – unless business leaders can move decisively to redefine their goals as harmonious with those of working- and middle-class families.
The key question is how we rise up in more muscular defense of the interests of U.S. workers and industries without doing permanent damage to our economy. We must also demonstrate that government can function and that business can be a constructive partner to it.
Every four years, we learn something new and important about our huge, complex, heterogenous and dynamic country. And every generation, we seem to witness an election that startles us, triggering tectonic shocks that change our politics and policies for decades to come. This could be one of those elections. Very much like the realignment revealed by the vote in Britain to leave the European Union, U.S. politics might be transforming into a debate less between right and left and more between those voters who are advantaged by globalization and those who are not.
For decades, the United States has led the way as the world’s markets for manufacturing, labor and capital have become increasingly interconnected and interdependent. This has benefited poorer nations around the world – most prominently China – as well as large multinational corporations with the reach and balance sheets to compete globally. It has also contributed to a surge in the incomes of well-educated professionals with globally competitive skills.
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Since the Reagan years, our leaders in business and government have offered up a consensus view that chief among the gains from open trade is a small financial benefit – reflected mostly in lower prices for a host of imported goods – spread in a thin layer over an enormous number of people, which in the aggregate offsets the narrowly focused devastation wreaked on discrete industries, workers and communities.
While this still may be true in theory, today’s practical lesson is much simpler: The deal on offer to the U.S. working and middle classes from globalization is in tatters. We have ignored at our peril the dislocations and the uneven distribution of the benefits. No matter who wins in November, this stark message coming from voters is likely to alter fundamentally the United States’ stance toward the world by undermining the prevailing wisdom about the virtues of globalization. We need a new agenda promising fairness and growth in equal measure.
The business community’s agenda for accelerating economic growth is straightforward. It includes making our corporate tax system simpler and more globally competitive; subjecting regulations to rigorous cost-benefit criteria; reforming our immigration laws to admit more highly educated and skilled workers, particularly in the technology and engineering fields; and adopting more free-trade agreements, most notably the Trans- Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, to stimulate global flows of goods and services. Corporate leaders (and many economists) are convinced that this is the clear path to accelerated growth and job formation.
However, in order to create the social circumstances necessary to make this commercial agenda at all politically feasible, the business community must find a way to support – and especially be willing to pay for – an array of policies designed to foster economic fairness that are traditionally opposed by the business lobby.
This list is long but would include increasing the minimum wage, expanding the earned-income tax credit and reforming unemployment programs; investing in early-childhood education, vocational training, prison-to-work assistance, apprenticeships and college affordability; financing a large-scale infrastructure building program; implementing robust transition assistance for workers dislocated by foreign competition and technological change; and ensuring health-care and retirement income for aging citizens in need.
The cost of all of this would be, of course, high. But the price of inaction is certainly far more dear. One of the best ways to finance it all might be a national sales levy along the lines of a progressive value-added tax.
Our nation’s business leaders must prove that we have listened to the message from the voters. To restore credibility to the business community’s agenda, we must work to set in motion the policies necessary to stimulate growing incomes and rising equality. In actuality, growth and fairness agendas are compatible and mutually reinforcing because a stronger middle class – and healthier consumer – would be as good for business as it is for society. If we are willing to invest in fairness, we can also harvest growth.
Glenn Hutchins is co-founder of the Silver Lake technology investment firm and vice chairman of the Brookings Institution.