My recent journey to business meetings in Washington took on a negative tone even before I crossed the border. In the U.S. pre-clearance area at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, I proceeded to the retinal scanning machine of the Nexus “trusted traveller” program. I used the touch-screen to answer the usual questions and a printed card dropped out which I dutifully gave to the customs officer. To my surprise, I was directed to another room for secondary screening.
The officer looked at my card and said accusingly, “You answered yes to one of the questions.” I explained that I had answered no to all except, “Is the primary purpose of your trip business?” So began a surly cross-examination, followed by a thorough inspection of my carry-on bag right down to last vitamin pill. Meanwhile, another Canadian walked up to wait behind me, clutching his documents and customs card. The officer suddenly reached over my shoulder and ripped the documents out of the man’s hand, yelling, “Go sit down, now!” The man stood stunned, causing the officer to repeat the same directive, not once, but twice. Then he told me I was “free to go,” in the manner of a prison warden releasing an inmate.
So began my business trip to the United States, where I found other Americans to be much friendlier – but extremely worried. The first thing my airport driver said was: “Are things as bad in Canada as down here? Do you think we’re headed for a depression?” A front-page headline in USA Today underlined the reason behind his question: “The new faces of poverty: A record 46 million of us … are now considered poor, as job losses hit the middle class.” Another headline, “Federal benefits, pensions explode,” summed up the financial chasm facing the government.
Federal, civil and military public-service payments and liabilities for 2010 snowballed to $780-billion (U.S.), higher than the $690-billion cost of Social Security. The TV in my hotel room carried an ad from the American Association of Retired People: “Stop Congress from cutting our benefits – that wasn’t the deal.” Clearly, Americans are very worried about their future, and that of their country.
My discussions with business leaders did nothing to foster optimism about that future. Perhaps the most telling comment was: “The President believes that only the government can create jobs.” Even those inspired by Barack Obama’s “Yes we can” message feel they’re being treated like the enemy. He has escalated what began as justifiably severe criticism of the investment banking sector’s role in the 2008 financial meltdown into class warfare aimed at “corporations with jets” and “the rich who don’t pay their fair share,” ignoring the fact that the top 5 per cent of wealthiest Americans pay more than half the income tax.
Taking their cue from their President’s anti-business rhetoric, federal regulators have unleashed a prosecution-filled witch hunt that has corporate leaders focusing more on playing defence than creating jobs. A high-profile example is the prosecution of Seattle-based Boeing. With 850 orders for its long-delayed 787 Dreamliner plane and a history of worker strikes, Boeing decided to add a second 787 production line in South Carolina. Although none of its 26,000 unionized workers in Washington state would lose their jobs, the union petitioned the National Labor Relations Board, alleging that the new, non-unionized plant was a violation of workers’ rights. Rather than throwing out this ludicrous petition, the Democrat appointees to the board filed a legal complaint against Boeing to move the 787 line back to Washington.
I have always admired the resiliency of corporate America. Even at the bottom of the worst recessions, the private sector’s entrepreneurial energy has returned the country to economic growth. In more than a hundred visits over three decades, I have never seen that great economic engine so demoralized and less willing to bet shareholders’ savings on the country’s future.
And never has that “Welcome home” from a smiling Canadian customs officer felt so good.