Does anyone doubt that even if he resigned from the Trump Council, any official at the Treasury, Fed or SEC or for that matter in the White House would be happy to take Jamie Dimon's call? Or that the head of the Department of Commerce would take a call from Jim McNerney, the former CEO of Boeing? Or that GE Chairman Jeff Immelt would not be able to "participate in the discussion on how to drive growth and productivity in the US" (his proferred rationale for failing to resign) without being on Trump's Manufacturing Council?
There is another argument I have heard CEOs make: "My company cannot afford to alienate the President and face retaliation." They should note that Merck's stock price rose yesterday (despite the President's disparaging tweet) as an indication that this fear is overblown. But more importantly, if this is what corporate America's leaders believe, it is a damning indictment of the President and of their own cowardice. If a substantial group of CEOs resigned en masse, what realistically could the President do other than tweet his frustration and hopefully ultimately take a lesson.
There is a long tradition in American history of business leaders as statesmen and moral leaders. Business played an important role in the passage of the Marshall Plan. Business leaders provided important support when the Supreme Court has upheld affirmative action. Business has long been a supporter of cooperation with other nations to promote prosperity. Most CEOs were strong and effective supporters of the Paris Climate Agreement. At the local level business leaders have fought to strengthen public schools and to resist discrimination against minorities.
This is the tradition that needs to be honored today.
In the Obama Administration, I frequently counseled that "business confidence is the cheapest form of stimulus." I resisted populist rhetoric that vilified corporations, instead favoring approaches that emphasized accelerating economic growth and competitiveness for the benefit of all. I still favor such an approach. But given the cravenness now on display in CEO-world, I fear that on the current path, a massive backlash against business is all but inevitable. Such a backlash would be highly unfortunate but not difficult to understand. Every member of President Trump's advisory councils should wrestle with his or her conscience and ponder Edmund Burke's famous warning that "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
Since writing this post, Under Armour CEO Kevin Plank and Intel CEO Brian Krzanich have decided to step down from Trump's Manufacturing Council as well. I applaud their decision, and hope that many other CEOs will follow suit.
Commentary by Larry Summers, the former Treasury Secretary and currently the Charles W. Eliot University Professor and President Emeritus at Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter @
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