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Now that corporate America has what it wanted

For the past 15 months, corporate America, like Ronald Reagan, appears to have gotten exactly what it wanted. Their man was elected president. The new administration was staffed by ''pro business'' people. Massive personal and business tax cuts were enacted. Regulatory relief was granted.

But the promised expansions in business investment, jobs, and tax revenues have not materialized. Middle-income taxpayers increasingly believe that large corporations and the wealthy have benefited from the Reagan program at their expense.

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Huge funding gaps created by domestic spending cuts are not being filled by corporate resources. And there is an appearance of retreat from such widely accepted national goals as environmental protection, antitrust enforcement, and equal opportunity. These factors have widened the gap between what is expected of American corporations and what they deliver. The result could be very troublesome.

How can corporations minimize the risk?

* Business leaders should rethink their relationship with government. The fact is that business needs a strong, effective federal government.

Beyond securing our national defense, the federal government can help finance the infrastructure that is critical to national growth--the new roads, ports, and facilities that make commerce possible. It can help support the investment in human capital through education and job training that will provide the skilled workers business needs. It can provide the support for research that will keep us on the technological frontier. And the federal government can help fund the search for needed energy alternatives that will free us from energy dependence on foreign sources.

* Business should rebuild a partnership with government. A good start would be to review the new budget cuts program by program to see if they meet the test: will this cut weaken the investment we need to make in the future?

* Business leaders should recommit themselves to certain national goals. The nation's commitments to environmental protection, civil rights, honesty in the marketplace, and consumer safety remain firm. Corporate managers should not mistake their new freedom as license to abandon these goals.

* Renewed efforts to support vital nonprofit community programs should be launched. Companies must decouple decisions about community support from tax calculations. If businesses cannot increase dollar contributions, managers should explore other avenues of assistance. They might loan skilled employees to assist local groups. They should strive to develop cooperative community efforts , in which companies can be participants, not targets.

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* Corporations should ensure that tax strategies are linked to economic benefits. The accelerated depreciation allowances and other provisions in last year's tax bill made sense because they stimulated investment and economic growth. But the new loopholes in the windfall profits tax and the bill's leasing provisions don't meet the test of economic contribution. Current discussions about initiating a minimum tax underscore the need for adjustments.

Quite simply, the American public increasingly feels corporations are not contributing their fair share. Already a firm majority believes that the administration favors upper-income people over everyone else.

As the tax burden shifts from corporations to individuals, this perception will deepen. In 1980, corporate taxes accounted for slightly more than 12 percent of federal revenues. Because of the 1981 tax law, this percentage will slip to 6 percent by 1985. And many large companies may pay no taxes at all.

Individuals will also pay more state and local taxes. Federal budget cuts have accelerated states' fiscal crises. Only 10 states had more revenues than expenditures in 1981. To compensate, 30 states raised taxes by a net $2.5 billion--the largest increase in a decade. As states respond to further federal cuts, they will raise sales and personal property taxes--taxes on individuals.

As the feeling grows that large companies have been unreasonable beneficiaries of the Reagan program, pressure builds for the private sector to fill the huge gap created by federal budget cuts. The President's repeated assertions that the private sector can deliver needed services better has increased expectations that companies will fill the gap between what is needed and what government now provides.

But the private sector's ability to respond is limited. The ''gap'' is wide. 1982 cuts equalled nearly $45 billion. Large cuts will follow for 1983 and 1984. Yet total corporate giving amounted to $2.7 billion in 1980, less than 1 percent of pretax earnings. A recent Conference Board report on business voluntarism found that many major corporations had no plans to change giving patterns. Some major firms intend to reduce contributions in 1982.

Ironically, the administration's economic program is at least in part responsible for this. Both the recession and reductions in corporate taxes, which reduce incentives for pretax exemptions, will limit corporate giving.

Yet the Reagan administration's program has dramatically increased the public focus on corporate social action. In the second year after President Reagan's inauguration, American corporations may be more exposed to substantial public criticism than at any time in recent history as public expectations about what they should do rise.

President Reagan has established a Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives. Its mission must be to face up to the enormity of the challenge that corporations now encounter. For if the public concludes corporate managers cannot meet these expectations, the pendulum will swing back with a fury--and a new round of tax and regulatory initiatives will begin, this time counter to corporate business interests. Responsible corporate leaders should meet this challenge now, or they will pay the price later.

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