Al Gore Talks Business

How hard can the Clintonites push corporate responsibility?

In a May 21 meeting with BUSINESS WEEK editors, Vice-President Al Gore discussed the Clinton Administration's plans to promote responsible employment policies in U.S. business--fair pay, training, health insurance, and the like. Gore and his wife, Tipper, plan to host a meeting on work and family issues on June 23 and 24 in Nashville.

Q: Were you at the President's [May 16] meeting on social responsibility?

A: Sure, we work hand in hand on that. The President asked me to speak as a [chief operating officer] of government. Corporations spoke about partnerships and family-friendly policies. I presented the policies and the initiatives we have going in the federal government.

Q: Are executives seriously interested in these issues?

A: Absolutely. If you buy the model that led executives to see their employees not just as a collection of muscles but also people with brains, I think the next step is to see them as muscles and brains and also emotions and loyalties. By respecting them as members of families and individuals worried about retirement, health care, and education, companies get a higher degree of commitment, loyalty, creativity, and innovation. That's the theory, and these people made a very strong case that it works.

Q: Is it only because they're concerned about the political climate?

A: None of them openly admitted that that was a factor in their thinking. [But] the corporate community has to be affected by the rising concern on the part of organized labor and others who point out that the payoffs from corporate downsizing have been long delayed so far as the workforce is concerned.

Q: How does this play out for the Administration politically? On the one hand, it's good to be arguing that we have a strong, vital economy. On the other hand, the economic anxiety issue plays well to the natural constituency of the Democratic party.

A: Well, it's a challenge. We believe our policies have moved this country in the right direction. The statistics bear that out: 8.5 million new jobs, the lowest inflation in 30 years, unemployment down 20%. The deficit on Sept. 30 will go down for the fourth year in a row in a President's term, for the first time in 152 years. The government has been downsized. There are more new small businesses than ever in history. Corporate profits look good, the stock market has gone up 75% in 3 1/2 years. Exports are up. Wages in real terms finally have started going back up.

But it's hard to talk about the good things without seeming inadvertently to be saying it's good enough. We don't. We say this progress is evidence that we know how to move even further in the direction that we've been headed.

Q: Why do you have a hard time selling the strength of your economic performance to CEOs?

A: I don't think it's that complicated. I think they are disproportionately represented in the 1.2% of the American people that got an income-tax increase. I think policies that are manifestly good for their shareholders, their employees, and their corporations still don't look attractive to them if the result personally has been a tax increase.

Q: Vetoing the product liability law ticked off a lot of CEOs.

A: I'm sure, but the President explained the reasons for that. You know, it had special, really offensive provisions for the gun lobby and for the tobacco industry inserted in the bill in conference. [Tobacco] is by far the largest source of money for the Republican Party. The RNC [Republican National Committee] is almost a subsidiary of the tobacco industry.

Q: Do you think [Bob Dole] will campaign on [social responsibility]?

A: I'm not sure he's interested. Dole hasn't said a substantive word about it.

Q: Is this going to be a campaign theme for you?

A: Well, we think it's a challenge the country has to undertake, regardless of the impact it has in the election. I personally doubt that corporate responsibility has a lot of traction as a slogan. That's not why we're pursuing it.

Q: If you feel strongly about corporate responsibility, why haven't you offered tax incentives to encourage training?

A: We have an open mind. But the consensus among our economic team has been that the transaction costs and the unintended side effects of some of these proposals may turn out to outweigh their advantages.

Q: What do you think about Dole leaving the Senate?

A: I think it's too early to tell whether the advantages of not being tied down in the Senate will outweigh the disadvantages of not having a podium.

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