For business leaders: a Hobson's choice

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AMERICAN business leaders increasingly feel they face a Hobson's choice in the next election. Most polls show that chief executive officers of corporate America and entrepreneurs running new businesses strongly favor President Reagan over any of his Democratic opponents.

But many of these same leaders are worried that if they renew their contract with Mr. Reagan they may be avoiding the fire only to land in the frying pan.

This undercurrent of worry does not stem from the 1984 economic picture. Most of the business leaders, and their chosen economists, see the second year of the Reagan recovery as being generally another good one. Profits are expected to be sharply up again. A modest increase in the unusually low national savings rate appears likely. If so, that savings increase would add a note of puritan ethic to the recovery - but not so great a swing as to end the consumer-spending spurt that fueled the beginning of the sharp 1983 recovery.

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So 1984 is not the source of worry about Mr. Reagan's policy of stimulus through tax cuts and defense spending.

What mounting numbers of top executives are worrying about is not the next year but the next decade: specifically the impact of superdeficits, the treadmill effect of sharply expanded interest payments on the national debt, and a drastic erosion of exports.

All this comes under the general heading of ''mortgaging the future.'' And its central symbol has come to be the superdeficits projected for 1984-1988.

Given the magnitude of those deficit estimates - even if they are off by 10 percent or more - surveys of the business community show a growing feeling that even the President's ''down payment'' budget reduction of $100 billion is not nearly enough to dent the problems for trade and capital formation caused by deficits.

The President and the party most business leaders choose are authors of one of the most remarkable recoveries in this century - a recovery that is leading all other countries in the world except Japan by at least a 3-to-1 margin. And yet that same administration is perceived as threatening to drive the recovery into a wall. The obstacle is created in large part by White House determination to pay a far greater share of Western world defense than any other industrialized democracy. Result: a potentially remarkable switch from America as a net investor in the rest of the world to America as an investment colony.

On the other side of the Hobson's choice, business sees a Democratic Party leaning more toward fiscal conservatism than at any time in 21/2 decades. But its candidates are still unwilling or unable to curb federal health care, social security, and government pension spending even though the baby boom generation is moving toward its rendezvous with all three.

Can hope be extracted from this pessimistic scenario? Can the rainbow of 1984 be extended through the rest of the decade and beyond? As economist Otto Eckstein recently said, ''We are positioned to have a marvelous 10 years, but we're trying to throw it away.''

The answer may be starting to come from the American public. The dangerous long-term impact of the projected superdeficits appears to be sinking in on voters. For months pollsters believed that the lulling effect of repeated warnings about deficits was leaving the public paying mere lip service to decrying the deficit policies. Debates between the Regan and Feldstein wings of the administration added confusion to public perceptions. But now there is some evidence that political Washington is beginning to feel heat from voters.

If so, such congressional leaders as GOP Sens. Pete V. Domenici, Robert Dole, and Howard Baker may gain more leverage as they struggle to support such White House allies as Martin Feldstein, James Baker, and George Shultz. Those GOP leaders of fiscal orthodoxy can expect aid on key issues from Democratic economic specialists such as Jim Jones, Russell Long, William Roth, and Lloyd Bentsen.

Together with the President's own bipartisan commission, these congressional and White House pragmatists can still swing the American rudder in time. But they will need to convince the President and Treasury's Regan that the growth stimulated by tax cuts and defense contracts is not enough to counteract the erosion those steps create. The public is beginning to help with that convincing job. So are American business leaders.

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