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Letter to President Obama

Vicky Dickson

Dear President Obama,

I’m glad that, after the debt ceiling debacle, you can now turn your attention back to our country’s dismal employment situation. But I do find it ironic that you met the leaders of Xerox, Johnson & Johnson, American Express and other multinationals at the White House last week to discuss their ideas for spurring job growth. With Department of Commerce figures indicating that U.S. multinationals cut their workforces at home by 2.9 million between 2000 and 2010 while increasing their overseas workforces by 2.4 million, and with Fox News reporting that in 2010 American companies created 1.4 million jobs overseas while creating fewer than a million domestically, it seems to me that multinationals are part of the problem, rather than its solution.

It’s not that I blame the multinationals. Their existence is predicated on making profits, so if they can pay Chinese workers a tenth of what Americans need to live on and thereby increase their profits, they’ll certainly be rewarded by their shareholders for doing so. And punished if their competitors do a better job at outsourcing than they do.

I also don’t blame companies for investing their profits in technology that replaces workers. The efficiencies that technology can bring should lead to even higher profits, and hopefully more overall wealth. But I’m very concerned about the number of jobs that can, and will, be lost in the process. When I think, for instance, about the jobs that will be rendered obsolete when e-books replace paper ones – from the lumberjacks to the paper company machine operators to the bookstore employees – I can’t imagine how the higher profits that will be accrued will lead to a net increase in jobs for Americans. Especially if the companies that accrue those profits either decide to hoard their cash (as Apple is doing) or invest it overseas.

Government should not, and probably cannot, stop multinationals from outsourcing jobs, or computers from replacing human employees. It probably also can’t do much about the weak consumer demand that’s resulted from the dramatic drop nationwide in the home equity that fueled so much borrowing and purchasing when times were flush.

But what it can do is be a stabilizing force when our economy faces such powerful headwinds. It can increase its investment in the infrastructure – the roads and bridges, the education and health of the workforce – that has always enabled American business to survive and prosper. I know that you’ve stressed this sort of investment in your stimulus packages, but I fear that the tea party’s anti-government message has simply drowned out public awareness of the positive effects of that stimulus.

Tea party propaganda also ignores the positive effects that government workers’ paychecks have on the businesses those employees frequent. And so I’m afraid that the budget cuts you’ve recently agreed to, in your effort to negotiate with people who won’t compromise, will hurt small businesses all over the country at a time when they can least afford it.

My husband and I own a small weekly newspaper. Despite launching the paper at a particularly inauspicious time (March 2007), we’ve managed to keep five or six people employed. The printing bills we pay help keep our printer’s employees working, and the free ads we’ve given to nonprofits undoubtedly benefit their employees. Then there’s rent and utility payments, which go to local businesses and in turn help them stay alive. So our investment has a very real and positive effect on the American job market.

But thanks to our Republican state legislature, the university in our town is facing budget cuts, potentially $100 million of them, and the loss of that money will inevitably reverberate throughout our community. When those who lose their jobs quit going out to eat and buying goods and services, the small businesses that serve them may have to quit advertising, or be forced out of business altogether – which could hurt our business. And that would decrease the revenue coming into state and federal coffers as well as that going to local business, in a downward spiral that I can’t foresee ending well.

So I would urge you, if you want to develop policies that could increase employment in this country rather than hasten that downward spiral, to listen to the country’s small-business owners. Not the ones the Republicans seem so concerned about, the tiny minority who take out more than $250,000 a year from their businesses, but the vast number who struggle just to keep their doors open and their workers employed – the owners of the companies that will never outsource their workers, or replace them all with machines. I also urge you to increase, rather than cut, the government funding that can, in these difficult economic times, provide a real lifeline to those companies.

Vicky Dickson

Vicky Dickson is co-owner of The Carrboro Citizen.

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