There's no question that "Brand USA" has taken a huge hit this year and, indeed, this millennium (so far). Abroad, we're seen as arrogant, warmongering hypocrites. Inside, we've bifurcated into two hostile camps, each with a different vision of what the USA is all about.
Whoever is the next president will need to do some major brand repair, which isn't easy, because brand isn't something you can fix with a new logo or tag line. Brand is the emotion people feel about a product, so brand repair means fixing the product.
How, then, to fix the USA? I believe that the key is for us to put our money where our mouth is. We can't simply repeat our myths and insist upon our unique greatness. We need to put our actions into alignment with our ideals.
At the risk of oversimplification, it's in the area of employment where there is the biggest disconnect between the USA product and the USA brand. The lack of good jobs (and consequent zero-sum thinking) lies at the root of much of the anger and frustration expressed by both sides of the political spectrum.
We are supposed to be a country where everyone who's willing to work can earn a living wage. Although unemployment is currently low, many of the new jobs are part-time and low-wage, poor replacements for the manufacturing jobs that have been lost.
We are also supposed to a country where a person with a good idea can start and grow his or her own company. Unfortunately, the U.S. now lags most of the world in terms of successful new businesses formed. Brand USA has consequently suffered.
The disconnect between the USA product and Brand USA is the direct result of government policies friendly to large globalized businesses that were launched and maintained by both political parties. Regardless of who is elected, it will take the president and both parties working together to fix the product and repair the brand.
Here's what needs doing:
1. Implement progressive business taxes.
The U.S. has among the highest business taxes in the world. However, only small companies and startups actually end up paying the full tax. Large companies typically use lawyers and loopholes to avoid paying any business taxes at all.
As a result, small businesses operate at a constant disadvantage. Since small businesses are more likely to employ locally, they create more and better jobs than big companies that globalize.
To level the play field, business taxes should be modeled after the income tax, with large companies (based on revenue) paying higher rates than smaller ones. In addition, large companies should pay an alternative minimum tax, regardless of the loopholes they use.
2. Strengthen and enforce anti-monopoly legislation.
The original purpose of anti-monopoly legislation was to prevent large companies from stifling innovation and accumulating too much political power. Trust-busting became part of the USA brand as it evolved away from the "Gilded Age," heralding the country's greatest period of entrepreneurial growth.
Over time, however, anti-monopoly laws have been repurposed as a means for keeping prices low. In other words, the Department of Justice, which enforces anti-monopoly laws, will only block mergers if they raise prices for consumers. As a result, large mergers regularly stifle innovation, and the companies that do them have accumulated huge amounts of political power. (Facebook and Amazon come immediately to mind.)
In order to spur innovation and extract political power from huge companies (many of which are, for all intents and purposes, foreign-owned) and return power to U.S. workers and business owners, the DoJ should return to rigorous enforcement of anti-trust laws.
3. Add low-interest business loans to veteran's benefits.
The USA brand has struggled since the Vietnam war to treat our veterans fairly, but much of the effort has been either symbolic ("Thank you for your service") or counterproductive, like the for-profit college scams. Returning veterans now experience higher unemployment than the rest of the country, which continues to tarnish both the USA product and brand.
As my colleague Kimberly Weisul pointed out recently, the percentage of veterans who own and operate their own business has dropped from nearly 50 percent after World War II to less than 5 percent today. This must and should change.
Veteran's benefits after World War II included low-interest loans for starting a business, while today's benefits do not. Amending the G.I. Bill to include low-interest business loans would return veterans to their traditional role as entrepreneurs and business owners, thereby increasing overall employment.
4. Encourage grass-roots unionization.
When the Democratic party abandoned the working class in favor of the professional class, many union workers moved to the Republican party, which then proceeded to destroy the unions (which had admittedly become corrupt), thus leaving the working class powerless to effect change. Because they lack a seat at the table, they take desperate measures.
What's needed to revitalize and re-empower the working class is unionism that's disconnected from the traditional union movement (and its corrupt political allegiances) but which still gives the working class a say in how businesses are run. The prototype for grassroots unionism: the 2014 Market Basket walkout.
Our next president should encourage activism that gives workers more direct power over their future. If possible, this should be accomplished from the bottom up, rather than as a revival of the traditional union structures.
5. Outlaw products created through slave labor.
The globalization of manufacturing (a.k.a. "free trade") is often discussed in the media without anyone explicitly pointing out the two reasons that manufacturing costs are lower overseas than in the U.S.: slavery and pollution.
Let's talk about slavery first. At this point, almost all large U.S. based consumer goods companies have significant amounts of forced labor and slavery either directly in their supply chain or indirectly, in their support infrastructure. The presence of slavery in a region always drives labor prices down, even when the laborers aren't themselves forced.
Today's trade agreements--all of them--specifically hold U.S. businesses blameless for crimes (like slavery) committed in their supply chains. To fix this, our trade agreements (including TPP, if it ever passes) should be amended to hold U.S. companies legally and financially liable for the presence of slavery and forced labor in their supply chain.
As an aside, the original reason that U.S. businesses were held blameless is because, when these agreements were originally written, it would have been nearly impossible to verify specific business practices abroad. Companies and government have since spent over a trillion dollars on supply chain and surveillance capabilities, respectively. The idea that it would be impossible today to find supply chain offenders is utterly absurd.
In addition to the relief of a vast amount of human suffering abroad, eliminating the world's largest market for the products of slave labor would eliminate an unfair advantage and cause manufacturing to move back to the U.S. Yes, this would mean some consumer goods (like clothing) would be more expensive, but that increase would be more than offset by the return of better jobs to the U.S.
6. Tax imports based upon manufacturing pollution.
When the U.S. exported its manufacturing jobs, they landed in countries that either don't have or don't enforce environmental regulations. As a result, one out of seven children now live in toxic environments, due in large part to U.S. demand for cheap imports.
The ability to pollute, like the presence of slavery and forced labor in the supply chain, makes imports artificially cheap, thereby making U.S. manufacturing less competitive. In addition, massive unregulated pollution accelerates climate change, which affects the U.S. negatively
Because of this, companies importing goods into the U.S. should pay a tax to compensate for the pollution created in the manufacture of those goods. They should also be held legally and financially responsible for the damage that such pollution creates.
The ultimate result of this policy (and the anti-slavery policy above) would be a "giant sucking sound" of manufacturing moving back into the U.S., where companies could more easily monitor the effect that they're having on the environment.
And, unlike a tariff, these laws would only cost overseas manufacturers if they stubbornly continue to support slavery and massive pollution.
7. Withdraw from the Middle East
Nothing has damaged Brand USA both domestically and abroad more than our disastrous meddling in the religious and ethnic squabbles of the Middle East.
The U.S. attempting to moderate these conflicts is like an outsider trying to break up a fight inside a highly dysfunctional family. No matter which side you try to help or how you try to help, you end up being the bad guy. And it doesn't help anyway.
Look, the players in the Middle East are fighting about supernatural stuff that supposedly happened hundreds, or even thousands, of years ago. In all likelihood, they will be still fighting about the same silly nonsense hundreds of years hence.
Participating in their craziness has cost the U.S. economy trillions of dollars that could have been spent building infrastructure, funding new businesses, building new schools, lowering tuition, and generally laying the groundwork for full, living-wage employment.
Rather than throwing more money and lives down the toilet, we best can help the nut-jobs make peace amongst themselves by being a role model for a secular (i.e. non-theocratic) republic that increases the wealth of its citizens rather than killing each other in order to prove that "my invisible friend is stronger than your invisible friend."