Require age-adjusted earnings reports

Marketplace Staff Dec 19, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: It’s not easy running an airline. Back in 2003, when Continental was losing its shirt, CEO Gordon Bethune got sick and tired of hearing about profitable upstarts like JetBlue. So Bethune had his accountants do the books again with one key change. Assuming Continental had, like JetBlue, a much younger workforce, with much lower health and pension costs. Bethune did it just for fun. But the experiment got commentator Matt Miller thinking.

MATT MILLER: When Continental re-ran those numbers, presto, earnings went from a $400 million loss to a $400 million profit. Now, Gordon Bethune cooked up what I call “age-adjusted earnings” to fend off attacks on Continental. But there’s something to the idea.

These days, the drag on corporations of decent healthcare and pension coverage for an aging American workforce is real. But the idea that a firm’s success could depend so much on the youth of its workers is also crazy.

A sane nation would look at how to separate business performance from some social sense of what makes for decent health and pension coverage for every citizen.

It’s time to update America’s social contract to fit the realities of a global age.

A small but powerful way to get business engaged in this conversation now, before the next presidential election, would be for the Democratic Congress to make “age-adjusted earnings” a new rule for public companies.

In addition to the usual earnings reports, they’d require firms to issue a separate income statement that shows what earnings would be if the company had, say, average-aged workers.

Imagine if TV anchors were saying things like “Today, search giant Google reported fourth-quarter earnings of $600 million — though on an age-adjusted basis it was $150 million less.”

The idea is to create a drumbeat that makes every quarterly report a reminder of how nuts it is to tie things like health care to employment — which helps explain why 46 million of our neighbors have no coverage at all.

Not everyone will cheer the alternative, which is a bigger role for government-benefit financing that prolonged exposure to age-adjusted earnings will surely promote.

But let’s face it: business’ knee-jerk, anti-government attitude needs to go the way of the defined-benefit plan if we’re to provide the security workers deserve while cutting the cost of doing business. Who else is going to pick up the tab?

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