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Attn. George Buckley: I always thought of Robin Hood as a hero; was I wrong?

George Buckley
George Buckley

George Buckley has been drawing a lot of bad press lately and a lot of nasty comments across the dinner table. Maybe that's OK with him. But if not, I'm here to help the 3M CEO understand why his remarks have stirred some hard feelings.

Start with his interview in the Financial Times last month. Forget his complaints about Minneapolis-St. Paul's horrid winters. They are spot on. Forget his personal attack on President Obama, to wit: that Obama's business-friendly initiative is a sham that hides his true feelings. Buckley might be right about that, too.


What boils the blood is Buckley's recasting of Robin Hood as a treacherous villain. Obama has "Robin Hood-esque instincts," he complained, as if there's something terribly wrong with that.

Gee, I grew up thinking Robin was a hero. If he and his merry men robbed from the rich to give to the poor, then the rich must have had too much and the poor too little. I'll bet that on the gritty streets of Buckley's native Yorkshire, Robin is still admired, even as he's vilified in the boardroom at 3M.

Buckley also told FT: "Politicians forget that business has choice. We're not indentured servants and we will do business where it's good and friendly. If it's hostile, incrementally, things will slip away. We've got a real choice between manufacturing in Canada and Mexico — which tend to be pro-business — or America."

A few days later the Strib's Susan Feyder reprised an earlier interview with Buckley: "If I have a chance to invest in a factory in Ireland at zero [corporate tax], or a factory in Korea at 15 percent, or a factory in Singapore at zero, or a factory in Germany at 25, why would I want to invest in Minnesota or the United States?"

Fat times for big business
Well, where to begin? What Buckley should know is that most Americans think that big business has been doing pretty well. Profits in the third quarter last year were the highest ever recorded for U.S.-based companies — $1.66 trillion at the annual rate. Indentured servants? Hardly. Buckley has done his part for 3M's shareholders. Net income was $4.1 billion last year on $26.7 billion in sales, up from $3.2 billion in 2009 on $23.1 billion in sales.

All in all, corporate America is swimming in cash. But Buckley should understand that that doesn't impress ordinary people who are still struggling in the aftermath of a disastrous recession caused by many of the same people who are now swimming in cash. Record profits aren't producing the jobs people hope for. To hear corporate executives threaten to move offshore if their taxes aren't cut further sounds like a combination of extortion and treason. Would business really rather export jobs than pay taxes needed to educate, train and sustain an American middle class? That's the way it looks.

Here's also how it looks: Companies have so much cash they don't quite know what to do with it. They have money partly because they've let so many workers go. They've let go workers because production is down. Production is down because fewer people — including the let-go workers — can afford to buy things. So companies like Boston Scientific are said to be contemplating massive layoffs while spending money on mergers and acquisitions so that more people can be let go and higher-quality things can be made that people can't afford to buy.

A lopsided economy
And here's the backdrop for all of this: 30 years of a widening income gap between the very wealthy and the middle and lower groups. As Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson tell it in their new book "Winner Take All Politics," the very rich have captured a larger and larger share of the national income since 1980, apparently without any extraordinary merit. Their main talent, according to the authors, has been to purchase the American political system and bankroll a propaganda machine aimed at playing to the fears of ignorant people (fears of big government, liberals, terrorists, immigrants, the gun control lobby, etc.).

But those distractions may be running out of steam. If the demonstrations in Madison have accomplished anything, they've set off a light bulb in the heads of some conservatives who realize they've been playing the stooge for years. The parable of the 12 cookies rings true to both conservatives and liberals on the lower rungs of the income ladder: Three guys are sitting at a table — a CEO, a Tea Party member and a public employee union guy. At the center of the table is a plate of 12 cookies. The CEO immediately grabs 11 of them and turns to the Tea Party member. "You better look out," he says. "That union guy is going to try to take part of your cookie."

I'm told that Buckley is a great guy and a brilliant engineer who's widely admired at 3M and other global companies. I know he's a CEO who has delivered for his shareholders. I'm sure he doesn't need some blogger to set him straight on anything. I'm just offering a view from the other side of the tracks, one that he might like to consider. Or not.

NOTE: Cityscape will be on hiatus for the next couple of weeks. My next post will be on March 23.

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Comments (17)

Robin Hood was a yeoman hero who pushed back against a corrupt political class. It would be completely bass-ackwards to equate Barack Obama with Robin Hood.

At some point the realization must dawn that the oligarchs of an earlier age (Rockerfeller, Morgan, Astor, Hill, Carnegie, etc.) also did not give a rip about their workers and their dreadful living conditions. The more they could squeeze from the workers at lesser and lesser pay, the better they liked it.

Livable wages and benefits came through the collective action of fed-up workers. Those livable wages bought the America that most American look on fondly. Very few would really want to live as virtually every person did in the early 1900's or earlier. Don't be fooled by the Merchant-Ivory type films--unless you were wealthy life was pretty ugly.

The decline of the American middle class will be missed as the companies resume their centuries-old wage and benefit squeeze.

This is as true in Thailand, China, and Egypt as it is in the United States. It's just that there is more to squeeze from the US worker.

One day, the Tea Partiers may find much more affinity with the phrase, "Workers of the world, unite!", than with the Republican party.

America is not broke. America is rich. We just
can't ask them to pay for it. Free market ideology
all the way. Germany and Canada are not suffering,
The rich are not suffering. The middle class is.
I hope they wise up in time before the oligarchs run us off the cliff.

"...a combination of extortion and treason."? I think the company and/or its officers would have to be Americans to commit anything like treason.

But I don't see where a lot of the nominally "American" multinational companies display any particular loyalty to the U.S. It would appear this is way down on the list of the 3M CEO.

According to 3M's site Solutions.3M.com,
international sales are 65 percent of the company's total.

Many of these corporate entities are "American" in name only, regardless of where their corporate offices are located.

Coca-Cola's "...business outside North America accounted for 74% of net sales in 2009." (source: ValueLine.com)

Are these "American" companies? Do their obligations to their shareholders include considering the best interests of the U.S. in their decision-making? I doubt it much.

Looks like Buckley's Titanic has run into Minnpost's ice Berg. Bravo Stevo!

For "gentlemen CEOs" like Mr. Buckley, the perfect corporation would be one with zero employees, one, VERY highly compensated CEO, and a VERY highly compensated board of directors made up of his cronies (on whose corporate boards he/she also serves).

He presumes that after he and his cronies have destroyed the American Middle Class they'll find plenty of customers in the much larger rising middle classes of developing nations such as China and India.

He and his economic/social class cronies have absolutely NO loyalty to America or to the citizens of America. They pay handsomely for weasel news and the mainstream media, to distract their loyal, lower class supporters from noticing the truth, turning the media, on the whole, into "lords and ladies in waiting," with the public seen as little more than the easily-expendable serfs doing the menial labor in the fields owned by those lords and ladies and in the manor houses (and bedrooms) of the rich.

They intend to destroy this nation for their own enrichment and amusement (although they will NEVER allow themselves to realize that's what they're doing, but will simply blame the rest of us when that destruction is complete).

"America" as we have known is was nice while it lasted, but, since NO ONE seems to be willing or able to actually play the role of Robin Hood (President Obama and the Congressional Democrats proving, more and more that they, too are just among the lords and ladies in waiting), we can look forward to a return to the conditions of the 1930s with the attendant necessity of fighting the battles required to create and strengthen the middle class of America all over again.

Perhaps we'd all better train our grandchildren on how to take to the streets, how to survive teargas attacks, not to mention how to counter whatever high tech weapons the military is currently developing which will, in all likelihood be turned on our own "lawless" citizens in order to "protect the public" once Buckley and his cronies control the government.

And Buckley thinks Robin Hood was evil (while implying that he, himself and his cronies are the saints and saviors of America)?

The Robin Hood analogy, while not applying well to Obama, is certainly apt. Tony Sutton's "job creators" are the new lords and dukes of the realm. The GOP's alliance with the conservative Christian movement is identical to the traditional alliance of kings and religion.

The GOP and Buckley's vision comes straight out of the Showtime series, "The Tutors". Henry VIII and his buddies do insider trading, double crossing and cross-border raiding to enrich themselves. Of course, once in a while Henry does throw a peasant a shilling. We haven't seen that out of the GOP lately!

Mr. Buckley would seem to be Minnesota's version of the Koch Brothers.

The countries to which he would ship 3M jobs, Canada and Mexico, are bound by the terms of NAFTA, as Latin American countries are bound by CAFTA. These treaties give American corporations the power to trash the environments and economies of host countries while paying low wages that cannot possibly be enough to live on.

"Friendly" to business, yes, but only because foreign political leaders are coerced by promises of access to our market. The penalties for moving jobs out of the country should be massive and swift -- providing enough money for workers-left-behind to live on for a couple of years.

I disagee with George Buckley's characterization of Obama and Robin Hood.

If you'll remember, Robin Hood robbed the tax collector and gave the money back to the poor taxpayers from which it came.

Oh, and all the villains in the story, the sheriff of Norringham, et al, all worked for the government.

Nottingham.

There was no need to correct yourself, Dennis. It sounded just as ridiculous, especially considering that Obama has lowered taxes for most Americans.

Thanks for setting Mr. Tester straight, Ron.

“…a combination of extortion and treason” sounds about right as a characterization of Buckley’s remarks, at least ethically. “Treason” doesn’t work legally, however, since he’s not an American citizen.

At the very least – keep this in mind as you watch Republican legislators “assume the position” for business tax cuts – Buckley’s rather frank views provide ample evidence that there’s absolutely no reason for the Minnesota legislature or the American Congress to treat corporations with any degree of deference at all. There’s no loyalty to the United States or its citizens displayed by Mr. Buckley or his company, or by (feel free to insert here the name of any one of dozens of Fortune 500 corporations), Inc. With corporations like 3M practicing that interesting combination of extortion and betrayal, Republican policies of granting tax breaks, and in general being “pro-business,” ought to make most Americans gag on their oatmeal, if they can still afford oatmeal. Why provide ammunition for the guy who’s just announced that he intends to shoot you as soon as he finds the bullets?

This whole Robbing Hood thing just isn't working for me. For decades both the Republicans and the Democrats have been taking for the poor and giving to the rich. We've the Saving and Loan bailout, multiple Wall Street bailouts, regressive tax structures that have delivered four times as much wealth into the top 5%, and of course the most recent bank and auto industry bailouts. It there's a Robbin Hood around here somewhere I don't see him.

Mr. Buckley,

Congratulations on your success in producing profits for your shareholders and good paying jobs for many Minnesotans.

I think it would be great to hire you as a consultant to help fix our failed, expensive, patronizing, and trickle-down education system.

I am sure he could deliver on "real change" and give "real hope" for all the children.

Unfortunately, history, gratitude and fairness play no roles in business decisions. Morality doesn’t seem to be a virtue in the business world.

There are reasons why companies like 3M were born and raised in Minnesota and throughout the United States. The US was the only country in the world that had the workforce, expertise and economic resources to support their development. Without the United States, companies like 3M would not have flourished and Mr. Buckley and his peers would not be wealthy.

Unfortunately, we bought into the globalization of the economy, creating policies and passing legislation that rewarded outsourcing jobs to other countries. Our own educational system has helped to create workforces in those countries that rival our own, but will work for a pennies on the dollar. Much of this resulted from following the advice of people like Mr. Buckley, who were clearly looking out for their own interests, not for ours.

What baffles me is why many in the middle and working classes are still supporting these people who have given us such self-serving advice and gotten fabulously wealthy in the process. Mr. Buckley is looking out for himself and his peers, not for his followers.

They won, we lost and still we elect their political proxies.

I'm not here to either praise or condemn Buckley or 3M's behavior, but I do have one question. The tone here seems to be that most of the blame for our nation's ills lie with greedy and exploitative capitalists, and that all would be well if they would just agree to pay more taxes. While that criticism may or may not have validity, I am wondering why no one here seems interested in also scrutinizing how effectively the revenue government already collects is being managed.

Perhaps a little common ground could be found if those who find so many faults in corporate America would support increased accountability in government. It’s disappointing how the GAO report referenced in the link below was so quickly forgotten. Personally, I’d be far more sympathetic if government so much as hinted they were ready to get their own house in order. Could one of you take a look at this piece and help me understand what I'm missing? http://tinyurl.com/4bc6sym

Managing government revenue - the only discussions I hear on this subject relate to Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. First if Medicare were opened to everyone Medicaid would disappear solving its solvency problem. Second, opening Medicare to everyone would make it a true insurance 'pool' - now just the riskiest, sickest part of the pool participates and pays - include the entire pool, healthy and risky, everyone is paying and, in true insurance form, only those who need it collect which makes it solvent. Third, Social Security is not 'revenue' to the government. It is payment of earned income into a fund to provide a retirement safety net. If everyone paid in, e.g., remove the top stop, it would have no solvency problem. And, finally, defense spending and corporate welfare are huge. Let other countries provide their own defense so we can compete on an equal footing. Stop subsidizing mega-ag and oil and other grossly profitable companies at middle class taxpayer expense. Enough getting the house in order? I wish they'd try just one of these ideas.