The Chamber of Commerce Speech We Really Wanted To Hear

Isaiah J. Poole

The annual “State of American Business” speech delivered today by Thomas J. Donohoe, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, was largely predictable and not particularly noteworthy. But it did contain one of those moments reminiscent of those oil company commercials in which an oil industry official and someone typically representing an opposing side, such as an environmentalist, end up making parallel statements that conclude with the tagline, “We agree.”

So let’s start there, with a section from his speech’s conclusion:

We must get this economy moving faster. Growth of 1 ½ or 2 percent is simply not acceptable. It won’t produce the jobs Americans need or the revenues the government must have to reduce trillion-dollar deficits.
 
Congress and the administration must focus their attention on this critical priority. Every bill that is considered, every regulation that is written, every negotiation that is held, everything our elected and appointed officials do or say must be shaped in large part by these simple questions: What does it mean for jobs? What does it mean for growth?

Amen to that. Unfortunately, pretty much all of the rest of his address needed to be rewritten for the sake of protecting American workers and the economy. For if the nation’s policymakers took their cues from the Chamber of Commerce, what we would get is not more jobs and economic growth but more economic inequality, more pain for workers and the unemployed, more destructive business behavior and more devastating global warming unleashed by our continued over-consumption of fossil fuels.

Yet it is not too difficult to imagine a different kind of Chamber of Commerce speech that would help set the stage for the business community and Main Street to work together to rebuild the economy and expand the middle class. Below are excerpts of what that alternate speech might say. It would start with Donohoe’s own words above, but then take a different turn:

That is why one of the first things we must do is end the self-defeating obsession with deficits now consuming Washington. It is clear that one of the reasons our economic growth is so slow is the historic deceleration of government spending, a reduction of almost $2 trillion already over the next 10 years. We don’t have a spending problem: federal spending as a percentage of gross domestic product is about the same as it was when Ronald Reagan was president. At the same time, federal revenues are just 16 percent of GDP, as low as they have been in the past 50 years.
 
Put those facts together and you can only come to one rational conclusion: Now is the time to leverage federal spending to put people back to work, so that business and workers together can close the deficit over time through a stronger economy with a broader tax base. Business can’t grow if workers aren’t working. Neither can business grow if the government is not playing its role in supporting the foundations of a sound economy: good schools, a strong infrastructure, universal access to health care, income security for seniors and the economically struggling, health and safety protections, and research.
 
The one thing we must stop doing is saying that the key to solving our fiscal crisis is to ask our senior citizens who are already living on the economic margins to make do with even less. There is no need to do that in a country in which the largest corporations who are among our members are making record profits. We are not a poor country. We are not broke. And it will not break us – in fact, it will strengthen us – if we abandoned the idea of raising the Social Security retirement age and instead took steps to ensure that Social Security benefits kept pace with the needs of its recipients.
 
What will break us is health care costs that are spiraling out of control. Many of our members are rightly concerned that Obamacare has not done all it should to contain costs, but the answer is more reform, not less. We should acknowledge that health care cost increases have moderated since the Affordable Care Act took effect. We need to work with the administration and Congress to build on that progress. Two ways to do that are based on time-tested, free-market principles: Let Medicare negotiate market discounts with pharmaceutical companies the way other bulk purchasers do, and create a public option for health insurance that can compete with the private market, spurring cost-savings and innovation.
 
Energy is also key to reviving our economy. But after what we saw a few months ago with Hurricane Sandy and what we’re seeing this week in Australia, where record heat is fueling an unprecedented wave of fires, it is clear we can’t continue to ignore the perils of global warming. Saddling our economic future on the back of ever-increasing fossil-fuel consumption is a dangerous folly. Wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable, sustainable sources of power must no longer be throwaway lines in our political discourse. They must be the centerpiece.
 
We have already proven that we can be global leaders in wind and solar energy. But we allowed China and other countries to steal that lead from us. It’s time to reclaim the lead, through a public-private partnership of research and deployment of the best technologies. We need to be honest about the costs of carbon-based energy on our collective health and well-being, and ensure that those costs are built into the price of carbon-based fuel. With the right combination of policies, we can fuel a rapidly growing economy, create millions of good jobs and  pull the planet back from the precipice of catastrophe. There is no good reason not to do this.
 
There are other significant issues to be discussed – in trade, regulatory reform, immigration and so on – but let me make one thing clear. The theme that runs through all of this is that business is part of the solution to America’s problems, and it is about time for business to stop whining, roll up its sleeve and work with workers, retirees, students – in fact, all of America – to make sure that we all prosper. We shouldn’t declare victory if stock prices are up, but so is unemployment. We shouldn’t declare victory if the cost of getting our way on a particular issue is that people are less healthy or less well off. We shouldn’t declare victory if our members are driving bigger cars on streets that are crumbling through neighborhoods that are dying. We need to rise together, not rise above, and that means many of us in the business community will have to hold ourselves to a higher, different standard.
 
The good news is that, if we do our share to change the political culture in Washington, we will prosper immensely in a more prosperous America.

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