Every man (and woman) a CEO

September 03, 1997|By Ben Wattenberg

WASHINGTON -- It's nice to have Labor Day. But now, at the dawn of the New Economy, we also need a Business Day. With such a perspective, the summer of 1997 could have served as the first session of New Economics 101, a course we all need.

The AFL-CIO did its part. When the Teamsters struck UPS, the national labor confederation pledged money and moved to the front lines of the public-relations war. The unionistas made a stark ideological case: The greed of the business class, coupled with the New Economy, was creating a ''part-time America'' where working men and women who played by the rules couldn't get a full-time job or earn a living wage. On the night of the settlement, Teamsters President Ron Carey gave a marathon press conference declaring victory and vindication.

No UPS spokesman appeared. Where was the business equivalent of the AFL-CIO? (What is the business equivalent of the AFL-CIO?) Where was the ideological counter-case?

Ever-principled, the business community did not demagogue its case. It didn't even make it. Too bad. By the summer of 1997, proponents of the New Economy finally had something big to offer.

In the early 1980s American business preached ''lean and mean.'' Downsizing, restructuring and outsourcing became household words -- bad ones. Big American corporations seemed to compete with themselves to see which could lay off more workers.

The scythe cut a swath through blue and white collars. It was said that businesses were abandoning their loyal workers. Unions were dying. All this traveled under the worker-unfriendly flag of ''Flexibility,'' the catchall of the New Economy. Not to worry, we were told. However painful the process might be short-term, flexibility would pay out. Just let business do its thing.

What happened? Since the early '80s, the gross domestic product has grown smartly. Twenty-five million new jobs were created. There is full employment. Income is up. Poverty is down. Inflation is down. America leads the world in exports. A trip through America looks like continuous passage through a town called ''Now Hiring.''

Arguably, the macro-economy is humming thanks to Flexibility and the competitiveness it yields. But what about the micros? What happened to all those downsized and outsourced workers?

The New Economy is giving birth to a new politics. As the paternalism of business and labor diminishes, the politics of ''social security'' are being gradually replaced by the politics of ''self-security.'' Consider some examples and some related trends:

If new rules of the road for employment meant workers were going to bounce from job to job more often, how could they save for their retirement? The feds offered a fuller variety of individual tax-deferred pension plans and extra-favorable tax treatment of ''defined contribution'' pension plans, making more portable from job to job than ''defined benefit'' plans.

Worker's control

Such investments are under control of the worker, and often parked in mutual funds. As the stock market rises, the employee gets wealthier -- not the company, not the union. (From 1975 to 1997 the number of participants in defined-benefit plans fell by 7 percent to 25 million participants, while defined-contribution plans grew by 272 percent to 41 million, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute.)

What about health care? Legislation passed in 1996 made medical insurance portable and did away with turn-downs due to ''previously existing conditions.'' The 1997 budget bill provided for a large experiment with ''medical savings accounts,'' controlled by employees -- not insurance companies, not unions, not employers.

With such new conditions, more Americans feel they can work for themselves, often telecommuting from home offices. Greater availability of part-time work helps many women who want to both work and tend their children. Employers offer more profit-sharing and stock participation.

In the 1930s, Huey Long, the radical populist from Louisiana, demagogued on the slogan ''Every Man a King.'' Today, the goal is ''Every Man a CEO'' (women, too). The idea is to put individuals more in charge of their economic future (with government providing a safety net for those who can't make it on their own).

This makes every man the master of his ship and the captain of his soul. It offers just the sort of advance in worker dignity that unions championed for so long.

That's the kind of demagoguery we will hear someday, when there is a Business Day, allowing us to hear both sides of the story.

Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist and the host of the weekly public television program, ''Think Tank.''

Pub Date: 9/03/97

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