September 9, 2011

Mr. President, I Have a Few Questions

Job-creator in-chief?
Mr. President, please allow me an audience for just a moment. I was intrigued by your speech to Congress last night, where you introduced your American Jobs Act. I realize that we come from two very different worlds, and these backgrounds have caused us to adopt some very different opinions and worldviews.  This is where I come from:

I lived the first 40 years of my life in the city of Los Angeles, arguably the world’s second capital of capitalism (after New York). It’s the land where millions have heeded Greeley’s call to “go west,” in search of endless dreams and opportunities. But as they say, there’s a broken heart for every light on Broadway (yes, we have one of those here, too).

In the aftermath of World War 2, the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley began to take shape. Land speculators came from far and wide, and in 1945 even the mighty General Motors staked a claim. In the subdivision of Van Nuys, they built a plant that served as an economic engine for the area; countless houses, businesses, and shopping malls were built on the strength of GM paychecks. Other industrial companies (Hughes Aircraft, North American Aviation, others) followed, just down the street.

For generations, any young kid fresh out of high school could walk into the lobby of the GM building on Van Nuys Boulevard and get a job, raise a family, buy a house and a car, and enjoy a comfortable retirement. It was a privilege to, as went the lingo, "work at Chevy." At some point along the way the union came in and raised their expectations, indeed winning them generous benefits, pay raises, and job security. Even the great Cesar Chavez came out to plead their case. It seemed like the gravy train would never stop.  Until it did.

Beginning in the early 1980s, beset with foreign competition and continual labor strife, GM tried to close the Van Nuys plant. The UAW protested. Nevermind that their Camaros and Firebirds weren’t selling, and that most of the company’s plants already had too much excess capacity; the union expected them to continue building cars anyway. Finally the company grew a backbone and closed the plant in 1992, granting full pay and benefits to all workers for a year.  Some even managed to whine loudly enough to extort a second year of gold-plated leisure.

Nice work if you can get it.

GM in Van Nuys, 1945. Bastion of Capitalism!
A large part of this problem was that the UAW had no understanding of how the business world works: there’s no point in manufacturing a product you can’t sell. But so what? Local 645 President Pete Beltran, and others like him, truly believed that the factory existed for the purpose of giving jobs to his people.  The business of actually making cars? Oh, that’s just a sideline. Mere details, a necessary evil.

Permission to speak freely, sir. Your speech betrayed the same attitude of entitlement, the same disdain for entrepreneurship, the same hatred for the capitalism that made our country prosperous in the first place. I’ve heard enough of your speeches to figure out that you truly believe the corporations of America exist for the purpose of giving people jobs.

Mr. President, I must respectfully disagree. No, no, a thousand times, no. The reason why people go into business, is to chase a dream and make a buck to provide for their families. If they happen to succeed enough to require a few helpers around the office or shop floor, then that’s a happy accident that was never assured. For as long as I've known you, you've been hostile to commerce and wealth and profit, the very things that create jobs and generate tax revenues. So please forgive me if I'm dubious as to your motives and tactics now.

Please, stop – immediately – reminding us that China has better railroads. Things get built in a Communist society, not because of a genuine need, but because their unelected and unaccountable leaders decide it should be so. I don’t live in a Communist country. Or at least, I didn’t before your arrival.  Is there something you’re not telling us?

All due respect, sir, you have it precisely backwards.  The solution to our long national malaise is not to set out to create jobs. This simply isn't within your power; for if it was, then an executive order from you would have fixed everything long ago. Rather, the best thing you can do, is to get out of the way and allow American companies to prosper in such a way that they have no choice but to hire someone new. Which means more money in more pockets. Which means they buy more stuff, and put more money in more pockets.  And so on. Everybody wins, without a pushy government to tell them what to do.

If you want to help American workers, then I urge you to cease – this minute – reinforcing their attitudes of entitlement. Instead, exhort them to rise to the challenge and become the kind of worker that some employer needs.

I beg of you, Mr. President: Quit – this instant – your overheated rhetoric of class warfare. The rich folks among us are not, as you continually tell us, “fortunate.”  Notwithstanding the few that inherited their money and remain content to waste away their days on the slopes or shores, they got there through hard work and risk-taking. They’re the ones who build factories, incubate small businesses, and pay most of the taxes around here. (As for the layabouts, they're not earning taxable wages anyway.)

Believe it or not, I really want to believe that you have my best interests at heart. But when you speak of having everyone "pay their fair share," what does that mean? You demand that the wealthy among us pay more and more, yet under our current tax code, about 50% of our citizens pay no federal income tax at all. None. (I trust that someone has informed you of this by now.) I heard nothing in your speech to indicate that you desire to remedy this imbalance. Do you really believe that "fair share" means that half of us owe NOTHING?  We deserve a free ride? Tell me. Right now.

Mr. President, I was very pleased to hear that you want to speed up payments to government contractors.  And eliminate thousands of needless laws and regulations that choke the productivity of our companies.  I’m gratified to hear that you want to streamline the patent process, and negotiate new trade deals that create opportunities for American industries.  These kinds of things are indeed within your power, and – quite possibly – could help us prosper and pay more tax and -- hey! -- actually hire a few new workers.  Still I remain profoundly disappointed that these steps, which actually work in perfect sync with our free-market system, seemed to be a grudging afterthought.

In the meantime, please tell me: Why is it my responsibility to bail out the mortgages of people who bought houses they couldn’t afford? Why do you demonize big companies for failing to pay taxes that no law says they should? Why won’t you tell me how much this plan will cost, and what other government program will have to suffer for it? I really want to know.

You should pass this bill. Today.

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