It's Open Season on Corporate America

You know it’s an election year when hunting season begins. I’m not talking about sportsmen in camo targeting furry critters with long-range rifles, but presidential frontrunners in suits going after corporate executives with rancorous rhetoric. The game is afoot, the clock is ticking and CEOs everywhere are running for cover.

When Bernie Sanders says, “In fact, the greed of Wall Street and corporate America is destroying the very fabric of our nation,” he’s casting a pretty wide net. And the socialist means every word of it. It makes you wonder if Sanders actually grew up in Moscow, not Brooklyn. That’s right, he’s a democratic socialist. Almost forgot.

Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton has had a field day attacking exorbitant CEO pay and income inequality. You have to marvel at the hypocrisy, since the Clintons are together worth more than $100 million, much of which came from speeches to big corporations run by those very same head honchos.

Let’s not forget Barack Obama, who revels in references to the greedy “fat cats” he says don’t pay their fair share. In case you haven’t noticed, the sudden rush of unfavorable business regulations from the administration is simply so they can’t easily be reversed if a Republican takes the White House.

Suffice to say it’s not a great time to be a CEO. And while the popular belief that our nation’s largest banks are solely responsible for the financial crisis is more fiction than fact (there’s actually plenty of blame to go around and the politicians deserve more than their fair share), you would at least expect the vitriolic attacks on Wall Street.

But chief executives from Walmart and Pfizer to GE and Apple are also being targeted. And for what? For doing their jobs and maximizing profits according to the rules voted into law by those very same politicians who, unless I’m mistaken, have all been Senators, aka, the nation’s lawmakers.

Meanwhile, small business owners are likely to suffer plenty of collateral damage, courtesy of the law of unintended consequences – a misnomer that somehow ends up turning every piece of supposedly well-meaning legislation, regulation and taxation against job creators and the middle class. Funny how consistently that happens.

I know that sounds more than a little cynical, but can you blame me? After all, I spent a good part of my career sitting in executive staff meetings and corporate boardrooms before becoming a management consultant and small business owner a dozen years ago. And I’m here to tell you that Washington’s version of corporate America is not the one I know.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no apologist for dysfunctional executives who break the law. On the contrary, I’ve been unabashedly writing about greed, fraud and corruption for nearly a decade. Unlike the politicians, however, I’m an equal opportunity curmudgeon.  I go after any leader who crosses the line, hired or elected.

And I’m bound by something called journalistic integrity, meaning I have to back up my opinions with actual facts. Unfortunately, the politicians learned that doesn’t work nearly as well as fear mongering, playing to populist memes and just plain making up stuff as they go.

Take Bernie Sanders’ recent comments about Apple, for example. He chastised the Silicon Valley company for not “manufacturing some of their devices, here, in the United States rather than in China,” and “trying to avoid paying their fair share of taxes,” both of which are popular themes, particularly but not exclusively by the left. 

In a 60 Minutes interview last December, Apple CEO Tim Cook called the notion that his company avoids paying taxes “total political crap,” adding that, “Apple pays every tax dollar we owe.” As for calls to repatriate $180 billion in offshore profits, that would cost the tech giant nearly $60 billion in taxes. If Cook did that, he’d be fired amidst legendary shareholder lawsuits that would make countless lawyers rich.

In fact, Cook actually appeared before Congress in 2013 to push for corporate tax reform and simplification. Make no mistake, if there were a way for Apple to use its enormous horde of offshore capital to bring more of its manufacturing back to America, it would. Nobody wants that more than Cook.

If the politicians would simply fix our broken tax code and incentivize American business leaders to bring offshore income and manufacturing jobs back home, that’s exactly what they would do. Think about it. They would be heroes. The PR and goodwill would be off the charts. I guess that’s too logical for bureaucrats to understand.

Look. Executives don’t sit around the boardroom imagining ways to screw the American people. That’s not their job. Politicians make the rules; the rest of us just follow them. And if the rules are written to incentivize the right kind of behavior, that’s exactly what they would get. It isn’t rocket science.

We should call our political leaders The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight: They target CEOs and end up hitting everyone else instead. (Apologies to Jimmy Breslin.)