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Americans shouldn't be cheerleaders for GE

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General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt -- who is also the chairman of President Obama's Jobs Council -- thinks all Americans ought to be cheerleaders for his multinational industrial conglomerate.

"I want you to root for me," Immelt said on "60 Minutes" last weekend. "Everybody in Germany roots for Siemens. Everybody in Japan roots for Toshiba. Everybody in China roots for China South Rail. I want you to say: win, GE." (Disclosure: I am a paid contributor to MSNBC, part of NBC Universal, which is owned 49 percent by GE.)

Americans from Left to Right derided this notion. Liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, in his typical acerbic style, called Immelt "rich and clueless," while conservative website Newsbusters called Immelt's argument "stunning." The reaction confirmed half of Immelt's point: Americans don't really do economic nationalism. We don't see Boeing as the U.S. Olympic Jumbo Jet team or General Motors as carrying the stars and stripes into the world automaking championships.

Immelt has long lamented this stubborn individualism of the U.S. economy, compared with the more cooperative Asian and European economies. At last year's annual conference of the Export-Import Bank of the United States -- a federal agency that subsidizes U.S. exporters like GE and Boeing -- Immelt had a rather dour description of the free market in the United States.: "For so long, we've said, 'It just doesn't matter. Let whatever happens happen.'"

"Germany is the model," Immelt has said, because it has more "public will" and national "vision." He explained: "The companies roam as a pack. They stick together. And the government supports the companies to be exporters." He enviously described China's "incredible unanimity of purpose from top to bottom."

Again, Americans bristle at the suggestion that we should all march under the GE flag. But Immelt isn't some lone wolf here: He's basically articulating Obamanomics.

Immelt's fondness for government-business cooperation and his belief in a robust national industrial policy were well known when Obama tapped him to head the Jobs Council. The council's findings included a "National Investment Initiative." Liberal Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein described it well, saying the initiative "might as well be called 'winning the future.'"

"Winning the future" is President Obama's hokey phrase for a national industrial policy. "We need to outinnovate, outeducate and outbuild the rest of the world," Obama said in his 2011 State of the Union. This use of "we" invokes Immelt's notion of U.S.A. Inc., in which all Americans are shareholders. Nowhere does Obama use this "Go, Team!" talk more than in "green energy," where GE, with its "ecomagination" initiative, is a huge player.

After House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., said "we can't compete with China to make solar panels and wind turbines" regarding China's obscene solar subsidies, Obama shot back with jingoistic fervor. Administration-friendly liberal activist group Center for American Progress called Stearns' assessment "defeatism" and "un-American in every respect." Obama brought up the comment in a press conference and got all tough: "I don't buy that. I'm not going to surrender to other countries the technological leads. ... I'm not going to cave to the competition when they are heavily subsidizing all these industries."

Obama doesn't mean he's going to challenge Chinese subsidies in the World Trade Organization, or pressure the Chinese to let the free market operate. Obama is letting the world know he's not about to let some Communists outsubsidize him.

At the same time, however, the Obama campaign pretends to be running against Big Business. But we know from history -- from the last century as well as the past two and a half years -- that businesses do not benefit equally when the public and private sectors start cooperating.

Libertarian-leaning blogger Megan McArdle of the Atlantic studied the alternative energy loan guarantees provided under the same umbrella program that gave half a billion to failed solar company Solyndra, and found: "most of the money has gone to enormous companies that should have no trouble accessing capital. ... The bulk of these funds are not going to rectify some gap in the capital markets. They're straight subsidies to huge corporations."

How do you think Immelt's GE would fare, relative to smaller players, if we were more like China and Germany? Here's one clue: GE spends more on lobbying the federal government than any other corporation.

Immelt may not be able to get America to root for his company. But maybe he can get America's political class to help GE win.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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