Jamie Dimon’s Centrist Agenda

I finally got around to reading JPMorgan Chase President & CEO Jamie Dimon’s 2017 annual letter to shareholders. It is required reading for anyone who is looking for hints as to where US politics is headed.

Dimon’s manifesto begins with an assessment of the strengths of American democracy today. He praises the US for having military and diplomatic strength, abundant resources, deep knowledge, rule of law, resilient democracy, work ethic, entrepreneurial spirit, as well as the world’s deepest and most well-functioning capital market.

He then points to various crises in the American polity. First, a dire need for educational investments. Second, infrastructural decay. Third, high corporate taxes reducing the competitiveness of the American economy. Fourth, dumb regulation damaging business formation.

Then something remarkable: He takes responsibility for the deep frustration expressed in the 2016 election, saying that the leaders of America’s institutions, including businesses, have not done a good enough job for our society. He writes: 

The lack of economic growth and opportunity has led to deep and understandable frustration among so many Americans. Low job growth, a lack of opportunity for many, declining wages, students and low-wage workers being left behind, economic and job uncertainty, high healthcare costs and growing income inequality all have created deep frustration. It is understandable why so many are angry at the leaders of America’s institutions, including businesses, schools and governments — they are right to expect us to do a better job. Collectively, we are the ones responsible. Additionally, this can understandably lead to disenchantment with trade, globalization and even our free enterprise system, which for so many people seems not to have worked. [Emphasis added.]

He proposes collaboration between the business sector and the public in fixing educational problems:

We need to work together to improve work skills. I cannot in this letter tackle the complex set of issues confronting our inner city schools, but I do know that if we don’t acknowledge these problems, we will never fix them… Businesses must be involved in this process. They need to partner with schools to let them know what skills are needed, help develop the appropriate curricula, help train teachers and be prepared to hire the students. In addition, this has to be done locally because that is where the actual jobs are. [Emphasis added.]

He advocates for an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and demands sustained and improved management and corporate financing for infrastructural investments.

Infrastructure should not be a stop-start process but an ongoing endeavor whereby intelligent investments are made continuously. And the plan could also be sped up if necessary to help a weakening economy… Infrastructure, which could have a life of five to 50 years, should not be expensed as a government debt but should be accounted for as an investment that could be financed separately… It’s important to streamline the approval process, and approvals should run simultaneously and not sequentially…

Dimon then spends some time discussing need for better regulation and decrying how the business sector has become alienated in the public sphere.

Something has gone awry in the public’s understanding of business and free enterprise. Whether it is the current environment or the deficiency of education in general, the lack of understanding around free enterprise is astounding. When businesses or individuals in business do something wrong (problems that all institutions have, including schools, churches, governments, small businesses, etc.), they should be appropriately punished — but not demonized… A strong and vibrant private sector (including big companies) is good for the average American. Entrepreneurship and free enterprise, with strong ethics and high standards, are worth rooting for, not attacking.

The whole document is highly recommended: It is replete with references to credible research and interesting graphics on labor market and business trends. For instance, he includes this damning figure about the effect of regulation and litigation on the ease of starting a new business.

A Druckerian orthodoxy?

Dimon’s manifesto makes for interesting reading partly because of its ideological eclecticism. In one paragraph, Dimon sounds like a conservative emphasizing business formation and growth. In another, he sounds like a liberal demanding better inner-city schools and dignity for the workers. But this seeming eclecticism belies a unity to Dimon’s thinking. Throughout Dimon’s manifesto, one can hear echoes of the critique organizational thinker Peter Drucker posed against Milton Friedman’s libertarian worldview.

First, Dimon asserts that businesses are responsible to the greater community; and that what is good for America is good for business:

It is now more important than ever for the business community and government to come together and collaborate to find meaningful solutions and develop thoughtful policies that create economic growth and opportunity for all. This cannot be done by government alone or by business alone. We all must work together in ways that put aside our “business-as-usual” approaches. The lack of economic opportunity is a moral and economic crisis that affects everyone. There are too many people who are not getting a fair chance to get ahead and move up the economic ladder.

This assertion stands in opposition to the ideology that Milton Friedman propounded — that “The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Its Profits.” In the past forty years, as financiers and politicians alike adopted Friedman’s unfettered market ideology, many business leaders have also retreated from engaging in civic life. In a break from this tradition, Dimon urges business leaders to get involved in tackling social problems. This follows Drucker’s belief that businesses have social responsibilities beyond their corporate mission. While Friedman assumed that social responsibilities should be taken up by the state, Drucker argued the state is too poorly organized to be able to take care of social responsibilities. Instead, the state’s work to solve social problems must be complemented by efforts by social enterprises, as well as business enterprises.

Second, unlike Reagan or Trump, Dimon does not seek to tear down or disable bureaucracy, but rather to streamline it, to reduce redundancies between the local and national levels, and to make fair and sensible rules and regulations that work for businesses and average Americans. This need and growing desire for “effective government” — an agenda item that Obama, Clinton, and Dimon share — was something Peter Drucker long ago noted in this remarkable 1995 essay:

By now it has become clear that a developed country can neither extend big government, as the (so-called) liberals want, nor abolish it and go back to nineteenth-century innocence, as the (so-called) conservatives want. The government we need will have to transcend both groups. The megastate that this century built is bankrupt, morally as well as financially. It has not delivered. But its successor cannot be “small government.” There are far too many tasks, domestically and internationally. We need effective government — and that is what the voters in all developed countries are actually clamoring for. [Emphasis added.]

Do Jamie Dimon's Ideas Stand a Chance?

As I have previously argued, today’s politics is pregnant for transformation and realignment. I believe these ideas that Jamie Dimon espouses stand a chance to become part of a new centrist governing orthodoxy.

Whereas both Bernie and Trump offered dystopian diagnoses and ideological panaceas, Dimon offers a clear-eyed, analysis-driven diagnosis of current national woes, along with a centrist vision and pragmatic policy solutions. By and large, I find myself agreeing with Dimon’s analysis of why small business owners are suffering and what forms of help should be given to the working poor. I can quibble with details, but overall, Dimon’s agenda makes the American economy fairer, more inclusive, more internationally competitive, and more dynamic. In my mind, Dimon’s shareholder letter may be the beginnings of a political platform that could command a broad-based coalition.

What’s more, I am hopeful that Dimon possesses both the intellect and the moral character to be a person to lead such efforts. His track record at JPMorgan Chase, a very well-run bank, illustrates his capability as an executive. But more than this, he has quite an attractive public persona, too. To see this, watch his interview with David Rubenstein:

The video is quite remarkable. Dimon has charisma and folksy appeal. He has an incredible ability to make incisive arguments about complex issues. In this aspect, he is very much like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, other brainy political upstarts who seized the Democratic nomination. I imagine that, if Dimon chooses to enter the fray as a presidential candidate and spend sufficient hours talking at town halls and schools in Iowa and New Hampshire, he will have little trouble getting his points across to voters.

The major obstacle that Dimon faces is his identity as a banker. Many of my friends will be horrified at the prospect of a banker leading this country. In a sense, their concerns are valid: The “revolving door” between government and financiers among the “corporatist elite ruling class” seems very unfair in light of ordinary American being left behind. If we believe that bankers are corrupt and that they only look after their own, then a banker as president is surely yet another sign that the system is completely corrupt and rigged.

But the problem with excluding bankers from policy making is that dumb financial regulation stifles the economy and solidifies monopolies, making society even less fair. Designing a better, more equitable system requires a group of people who both deeply understand how the US economy works and are deeply committed to the public interest. This is precisely what Peter Drucker believed: that healthy societies require active private sector participation in public affairs. We do need moral and civic-minded bankers to help design good policy. My fear is that it is too late for any such Druckerian vision to prevail, given the anger and mistrust of elites in the wake of the Financial Crisis especially among those hard hit by globalization, both on the Right and the Left.

Having been selected as chairman of the Business Roundtable last year, a traditionally conservative pro-business lobby group representing CEOs of major corporations, Dimon has a perch using which he can seek to start building a coalition. He’s already used this perch to hire an experience Washington hand and reach out to labor unions, as reported by Business Insider. What else will come out of his effort remains to be seen. Whether Dimon succeeds depends on his ability to earn the trust of insiders through his coalition-building work on the Capitol Hill in these coming few years, as well as his ability to sell his vision to voters.

In any case, I think Jamie Dimon’s growing political involvement is probably a good thing. I hope he succeeds. It’s good to get a bunch of smart and capable people together to find and implement pragmatic solutions to America’s problem, and that’s exactly what he is trying to do.