Where is Marlon Brando when we really need him?

Our View - December 2011

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier

Hopefully, it’s a temporary condition, but many things I see or hear about haven’t been making a lot of sense lately.

Take, for example, tax credits for job creation.  As a businessperson, I would never create a job as a result of a tax credit.  I would hire someone only if his or her contributions would make the business more profitable.  Tax credits don’t make up for lack of consumer demand.

Similarly, what’s all this stuff about “1 percenters?”  Not that long ago this moniker was applied to members of outlaw motorcycle gangs (see Marlon Brando in “The Wild Ones”).  Now we’re supposed to believe these are the people responsible for virtually all job creation or, depending on who’s talking, the miscreants of financial markets and the banking world.
When it comes to job creation, I suspect that most of those in the top 1 percent don’t even hold jobs.  Many of them are probably retired.  Wealth at that level is often the result of inheritance, coupled with subsequent investments in the financial markets.  I really don’t think these are the same people who are purportedly holding up job creation because their taxes are too high.

And just what is all this stuff about cutting government spending?  It seems like we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t.  After entitlement programs, like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. there really isn’t enough discretionary money in government budgets to provide essential services like education and transportation.  Then the kicker is, if we cut government jobs, income tax revenue falls,  consumer spending declines, housing foreclosures increase,  and demand for government services — like unemployment compensation — rises.  Sounds like a downward spiral.

In Virginia, we pride ourselves on fiscal responsibility; but the commonwealth’s economy has become a one-trick pony.  Our prosperity during the past several decades largely has been the result of higher government spending for military and technology needs.  Our biggest economic development wins have come from attracting companies who want to be closer to their main customer — the federal government.

Virtually every political candidate runs on a platform of reform, yet once in office, they find it is almost impossible to make changes.  Take Herman Cain’s “9-9-9” tax plan; even if it was the perfect answer, do you think that such a major reform would have a chance of being passed?  One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned in business is that being right is less than half the battle.  The bigger challenge is creating the organizational alignment that is required for a successful change.

Who says government should be run like a business?  Businesses have competition, businesses start and businesses fail.  We certainly don’t want government to fail, do we?  Business leaders deal with boards of directors, but unlike government, different constituents from disparate geographies with competing agendas don’t elect each director.  Corporate boards also are very small in comparison to the coalitons required for consensus in the political world.  There are few examples of great businesspeople becoming great politicians.  If fact, the reverse may be more true.  Thomas Jefferson, for example, was a business failure.

When I went to the polls last month, the ballot in my district didn’t offer lots of choices.  The candidates for the Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates ran unopposed. Most of Virginia’s political contests this year were hardly contests at all.  Only a third of the district races for House seats were competitive.  The Senate did a better with opposing candidates running in 60 percent of the districts.  With all the complaining about the results we are getting from our politicians, you’d think there would be more challengers to the incumbents.

I’ve seen the “Occupy Wall Street” crowds while traveling in Boston and New York, and I’ve even seen a similar group in Richmond.  The first thought that struck me was how nice it is that they want to be like their parents who led the charge for social change in the 1960s and 1970s.  The second thought was that their numbers were pitifully small; nothing like the hundreds of thousands of protesters that our generation put on the Washington Mall back in the day.  Maybe it’s just that the baby boomers are always bigger in their numbers.  Maybe its just that the “1 percenters” just aren’t as upsetting as racism or the war in Vietnam.  Maybe it’s some of both.  The irony is that now we are the ones in charge.

So some of what we see these days doesn’t make a lot of sense.  Nevertheless, Virginia continues to have high business ratings and tremendous success in attracting businesses from California, where they’ve had Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger with varying results. Where is Marlon Brando when we really need him? 

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