Stop Bashing Business, Mr. President
If we tried to start The Home Depot today, it's a stone cold certainty that it would never have gotten off the ground..
By KEN LANGONE
Although I was glad that you answered a question of mine at the Sept. 20 town-hall meeting you hosted in Washington, D.C., Mr. President, I must say that the event seemed more like a lecture than a dialogue. For more than two years the country has listened to your sharp rhetoric about how American businesses are short-changing workers, fleecing customers, cheating borrowers, and generally "driving the economy into a ditch," to borrow your oft-repeated phrase.
My question to you was why, during a time when investment and dynamism are so critical to our country, was it necessary to vilify the very people who deliver that growth? Instead of offering a straight answer, you informed me that I was part of a "reckless" group that had made "bad decisions" and now required your guidance, if only I'd stop "resisting" it.
I'm sure that kind of argument draws cheers from the partisan faithful. But to my ears it sounded patronizing. Of course, one of the chief conceits of centralized economic planning is that the planners know better than everybody else.
But there's a much deeper problem than whether I am personally irked or not. Your insistence that your policies are necessary and beneficial to business is utterly at odds with what you and your administration are saying elsewhere. You pick a fight with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, accusing it of using foreign money to influence congressional elections, something the chamber adamantly denies. Your U.S. attorney in New York, Preet Bahrara, compares investment firms to Mexican drug cartels and says he wants the power to wiretap Wall Street when he sees fit. And you drew guffaws of approving laughter with your car-wreck metaphor, recently telling a crowd that those who differ with your approach are "standing up on the road, sipping a Slurpee" while you are "shoving" and "sweating" to fix the broken-down jalopy of state.
That short-sighted wavering—between condescending encouragement one day and hostile disparagement the next—creates uncertainty that, as any investor could tell you, causes economic paralysis. That's because no one can tell what to expect next.
A little more than 30 years ago, Bernie Marcus, Arthur Blank, Pat Farrah and I got together and founded The Home Depot. Our dream was to create (memo to DNC activists: that's build, not take or coerce) a new kind of home-improvement center catering to do-it-yourselfers. The concept was to have a wide assortment, a high level of service, and the lowest pricing possible.
We opened the front door in 1979, also a time of severe economic slowdown. Yet today, Home Depot is staffed by more than 325,000 dedicated, well-trained, and highly motivated people offering outstanding service and knowledge to millions of consumers.
If we tried to start Home Depot today, under the kind of onerous regulatory controls that you have advocated, it's a stone cold certainty that our business would never get off the ground, much less thrive. Rules against providing stock options would have prevented us from incentivizing worthy employees in the start-up phase—never mind the incredibly high cost of regulatory compliance overall and mandatory health insurance. Still worse are the ever-rapacious trial lawyers.
Meantime, you seem obsessed with repealing tax cuts for "millionaires and billionaires." Contrary to what you might assume, I didn't start with any advantages and neither did most of the successful people I know. I am the grandson of immigrants who came to this country seeking basic economic and personal liberty. My parents worked tirelessly to build on that opportunity. My first job was as a day laborer on the construction of the Long Island Expressway more than 50 years ago. The wealth that was created by my investments wasn't put into a giant swimming pool as so many elected demagogues seem to imagine. Instead it benefitted our employees, their families and our community at large.
I stand behind no one in my enthusiasm and dedication to improving our society and especially our health care. It's worth adding that it makes little sense to send Treasury checks to high net-worth people in the form of Social Security. That includes you, me and scores of members of Congress. Why not cut through that red tape, Mr. President, and apply a basic means test to that program? Just make sure that money actually reduces federal spending and isn't simply shifted elsewhere. I guarantee you that many millionaires and billionaires will gladly forego it—as my wife and I already do when we forward those checks each month to charity.
It's not too late to include the voices of experienced business people in your efforts, small business owners in particular. Americans would be right to wonder why you haven't already.
Mr. Langone, a former director of the New York Stock Exchange and co-founder of Home Depot, is chairman of Invemed Associates.