Tom Horner: A New Agenda for Business

Tom Horner 3With another campaign season almost in the rearview mirror, it’s too early to predict the impact on public policy. Elections always produce surprises, not just in who wins and loses, but in how those who take office govern.

One clear takeaway of this election season, though, is the growing public angst over economic instability. Candidates across the ideological spectrum competed to position themselves as champions of the beleaguered middle class. Republicans and Democrats tried to tap into the fears felt by voters of all ages and in all walks of life that in spite of doing all the right things – working hard, getting a good education, being responsible parents – poverty is one crisis away.

In fact, if Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is right, that crisis is as close as an unanticipated expense of $400 for most families. Minnesota’s median household income declined by almost 20 percent in purchasing power during the first decade of this century. The economic recovery is seeing more and more well-paying jobs replaced by lower-paid positions.

For Minnesota’s business leaders, the message of this campaign season is this: If they don’t lead on these economic challenges, they will find themselves fending off more and more legislatively-imposed solutions coming from both sides of the political aisle. Advocacy groups, building on their success in increasing Minnesota’s minimum wage, already are hard at work to pass legislation that would require employers to provide paid time off for illness and maternity, among other efforts.

Employers have a huge incentive in finding effective and affordable solutions to the economic challenges of today. Minnesota is entering a period in which there will be little or no growth in the workforce. If Minnesota is to be successful, all future workers must be educated, healthy and able to focus on their jobs. Poverty takes a lot of energy and attention away from work.

There is a growing recognition, though, that government alone can’t solve poverty and close the income gap. Tim Marx, the CEO of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, acknowledged as much in a thoughtful opinion article in the Star Tribune, saying that “we can’t serve our way out of poverty.” That is, the good work of charities and the collective solutions of government won’t be enough to stem the growing tide of poverty. The best anti-poverty program is a robust economy that is creating good jobs.

Two opportunities for the business community stand out.

First, engage early on these issues; reach out to advocacy groups in a search for common ground. The most responsible community organizers want solutions, not confrontation. Cooperation is a Minnesota business tradition. On issues ranging from education to transportation, the business community has been the innovator and consensus builder in identifying problems and proposing solutions. Now, the business community needs to focus its leadership on the economic wellbeing of Minnesota families.

Second, businesses need to be educators. The cost of doing business in Minnesota is a legitimate issue, especially in a global economy in which capital and jobs are highly mobile. Taxes and regulations matter. Business leaders need to take that message to the public, starting with their own employees. Give Minnesotans good information and you can trust them to make smart decisions.

The public is eager to embrace a broader role for business on a range of issues. The highly-regarded Public Affairs Council conducted a survey earlier this year. A key finding, according to Doug Pinkham, president of the council: “Americans want companies to provide jobs, high-quality products and services, and healthy returns to shareholders. But they also expect firms to play an active, positive role in society.”

That’s a powerful endorsement of the public’s respect for business leadership. Now, it’s up to the employers to look beyond the winners and losers in this year’s election and act on what voters of all stripes are saying.

Tom Horner is a public affairs and public relations consultant. He was the Independence Party candidate for governor of Minnesota in 2010.