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Commentary

America’s Leadership Divide Is the Nation’s Biggest Enemy

Right now, a new Administration and Congress are struggling to resolve public policy issues that are crucial to the well-being of the American people. And the struggle is all the more challenging because of extremes divisions between and even within the political parties. Not only is our nation’s level of consensus low, but also the trend line is stuck steeply in the wrong direction.

Clearly, however, continued American economic success, and “exceptionalism,” is impossible without social cohesion and a sense of broadly shared public purpose. It is time for the business community to point out and build upon all of the fundamental values that all Americans share. Before our countrymen drain all of our energy fighting among ourselves, we all need to wake up and remember that we are on the same team, and that we need to succeed together.

Although U.S. business itself is under widespread scrutiny, business supplies the jobs and the incomes and the growth that all Americans need. And business leaders need to step up and engage with elected officials regarding public policy. They must put their native skills to work in public debate over the crucial issues of the day that can make the difference between prosperity and stagnation. This role dates back to the era of business statesmanship, where respectful dialog allows thinkers to disagree but in the process to find and agree upon a better way.

In recent years, particularly during and since the financial crisis, the U.S. economy has not grown the jobs and the incomes that people want and expect. Our nation’s business leaders have the expertise to address these concerns. But they cannot point the way from the bottom of the fox hole. Sure, stepping forward and speaking out publicly is a risk, but so is business. And so is the future of the nation.

Business leaders need to speak up to educate the public about the policy issues that hold the key to job and income growth and how business and markets can help to set the stage for growth and prosperity.

For example, the rising cost of health care is draining both government – federal, state and local – and private – business and household – budgets. In particular, dollars that businesses pay out for health insurance premiums cannot be used to pay higher cash wages – or for R&D, or for other investments that create innovation and jobs. Market-driven incentives can make the provision of health care more cost-effective. But people want assurances that they will still have coverage, and that the quality of their care won’t suffer. If our policymakers face up to the issues and talk straight to the American people, there is an answer.

Businesses want to generate jobs and pay good and growing wages, but taxes and regulations can get in the way. Still, government needs to pay its bills – which it is hasn’t done in many years – and regulations can level and smooth the business playing field, not just tilt and block it. Business leaders can respond to popular concerns and make government tax and regulatory systems work better at the same time. We need an adult conversation about how to do that.

We need to put business expertise to work to find solutions – publicly acceptable solutions – to these pressing public problems. But perhaps even more important these days, business leaders can also demonstrate how to work with others who have the same love of country but different political views, and how they can find common ground to build a future where everybody wins.

Competition and markets can drive our economy forward. Sound public policies can build the system to reward everyone who plays by the rules and puts his shoulder to the wheel. Anything short of a combination of both of those ingredients leaves our nation vulnerable in today’s globalized economy, and therefore threatens our leadership in every phase of geopolitical life. America’s unique form of capitalism is too good to lose. Let’s engage, and ensure its sustainability.

Steve Odland and Joe Minarik are coauthors of the book, Sustaining Capitalism: Bipartisan Solutions to Restore Trust & Prosperity. Odland is CEO of the Committee for Economic Development (CED), a nonprofit, nonpartisan, business-led public policy organization that delivers analysis and solutions to our most critical issues. He is also former CEO of Office Depot and AutoZone. Minarik is senior vice president and director of research at CED. He was the chief economist of the Office of Management and Budget under the Clinton Administration.

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