More than a year has now passed since Mr. Reagan's dramatic victory. I suspect that even the high rollers among us would have been hard pressed in November 1980 to wager that the president would deliver on as many of his promises, or as quickly, as he has: sweeping tax legislation; a fiscal conservation that reverses a trend half a century old; and efforts to cut back the federal bureaucrary and cut through the labyrinthine regulatory procedures. All this and more since Jan. 20, 1981.
While some might argue with certain elements in the Reagan approach to the economy, he nevertheless has delivered essentially what the American business community has for decades asserted to be necessary to again unleash its creative powers.
But the pro-business administration, together with the American public, has placed an enormous burden squarely on the shoulders of the country's business leadership. For the fundamental assumption of the Reagan program is that the private sector will bear the overwhelming share of responsibility for the fate of this nation. . . .
Of course, the private sector encompasses much more than business. But in the eye of the American public, and Mr. Reagan, the business community holds center stage.
President Reagan's challenge to the business community is twofold. The first, of course, is to do everything possible to deliver substantive economic results as soon as possible. The American public and Mr. Reagan expect immediate and sincere efforts by business to increase investment in plant and equipment, stimulate productivity, and reassert American technological superiority on a global scale.
The second challenge might be less obvious, but I think it is equally important. That is, to establish a sense of direction, a clarity of purpose for this nation. One of the major issues of the presidential campaign was that most American felt the country was adrift, with no clear sense of where we were going, especially in terms of economic goals . . .
It is now up to business to assume the initiative in publicly debating questions and defining courses of action which are basic to economic prosperity . . . Moreover, this kind of assertive leadership is essential to conveying a key message to the American public: that business does care. And it is on this particular challenge that I concentrate . . .
There are four issues in particular that are vital to the assertion of leadership by business: the approach of business to Mr. Reagan's economic program; the relationship between government and business; our position relative to the international business and financial community; and our social responsibilities here at home . . .
First, the president's economic program. I am time and again amazed by the many people who eagerly scrutinize the leading economic indicators, claiming the slightest fluctuation signals the success or failure of Mr. Reagan's program. Yet, it has been just a few months since the first part of the tax package went into effect.
It's up to business to take the lead, not only in supporting the program, but also in telling the public that we've all got to be in this thing for the long haul--that you cannot remedy in one year what was in the making over a period of decades . . .
And the business community must call attention to what may be the most important asset of the Reagan program--its underlying consistency and coherence. There is a need for further budget cuts. Some revenue-raising measures may be required. But business should continue to send the administration and Congress the message that it cannot do its best to turn the economy around if it wakes up every morning to a new reversal of policy . . .
A second general consideration is the relationship between government and business . . .
We must tone down, considerably, the adversarial relationship between business and government. The United States is not Japan, but I believe there is an important lesson for us in the cooperative spirit that exists between business and government in that country, the greatest economic success story of the post-World War II era.
Business has often criticized certain political leaders and economists for casting government as an omnipotent force, as a panacea for all our economic troubles. But we in the business community must take a close, hard look at ourselves. Aren't we in danger of making precisely the opposite mistake? It seems to me that in our zeal to turn the economy over to free-market principles, we may well be guilty of seeing the marketplace as an omnipotent force, as a cure-all for our economic ills.
. . . The truth is that the government has an important role to play, although one much more selective and smaller than what we've seen in this country since the '30s . . . Today, the government's benign neglect of the economy is simply not a practical or desirable expectation.
Undoubtedly, what is necessary in the final analysis is a delicate balance between unrestrained government and unrestrained free enterprise.
Among the key questions we have to address in trying to achieve this balance are:
How can government help to reassert the scientific and technological strength of American industry?
What is government's role in assisting industry to reach the goal of greater productivity?
How can government help to stimulate exports and foreign investment by United States companies?
How can government facilitate the capital-formation process? . . .
A final point on the basic relationship between government and business. The Reagan presidency has emphasized that more public responsibility has to fall on the shoulders of local and regional governments. The message is clear: the New Federalism means that business must take stock of its relations with local and state governments and be prepared to deal more frequently and more effectively with them. This will involve addressing a wide range of issues more often and more intensely than in the past--taxation, pollution, plant relocations, foreign investment in localities, and many other matters that concern these jurisdictions.
The third general issue I want to highlight focuses on the international economic community. Mr. Reagan promised, and the American public expects, revitalization of the United States in world affairs. This means much more than military power, or a tough, systematic foreign policy. It means economic clout and competitive vigor--a revitalization of our presence in the international realm.
The essential fact of life we must bear in mind, however, is that the world is becoming more integrated, more interdependent, and more competitive . . .
When Poland goes into a convulsion, the hearts of bankers around the world beat a little faster. And, increasingly, the small nations of Africa, Asia, and the rest of the so-called Third World have moved from the realm of exotic curiosities in the National Geographic to the status of nations with problems like ours, problems affecting us, and therefore problems deserving the attention of the world business community. Moreover, these countries are not simply waiting for us to attend to their needs; they're demanding attention, as the Cancun conference demonstrated.
Because of this integration, interdependence, and competition for markets, the United States is increasingly in need of markets for its goods and services overseas; of places to invest abroad to help nurture such markets; and of foreign investment in this country, as domestic sources of capital become less and less adequate to meet the growth needs of America business . . .
To strengthen this country's position and deal with the reality of the world as it exists today, our top international priority should be to support the free flow of international trade and investment . . .
Business must work with government to eliminate export disincentives; to reorganize and consolidate the fragmented export promotion functions in the federal bureaucracy; and to further legislation intended to encourage exports.
And, business must urge government to adopt an aggressive program to strengthen and expand the investmant opportunities for American business abroad. We meed to insist that other nations demolish the barriers they have erected against foreign investment. In other words, we must ensure reciprocity--that we will get the same open, fair-minded treatment that this country gives to foreign investors here.
Finally, my fourth point: the social responsibility of business. A by-product of the Reagan administration's efforts to reduce government spending and "get government off our backs" is that government will no longer be meeting many of the public needs it has met in the past. And the private sector is going to be expected to fill the gap.
To that end, President Reagan has created what's known as the Presidential Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives. It's comprised of 35 leaders of corporations, foundations, and voluntary and religious organizations, and will have various subcommittees utilizing the talents of other business leaders from around the country.
The companies that are represented on the task force have pledged that individuals at their firms will make greater sacrifices of time and energy in order to make up some of the losses resulting from reductions in government personnel and funds available to meet important human needs and solve specific programs in housing, education, the arts, and so forth.
But time, energy and expertise are not enough. Money is needed as well--lots of it--and all the figures indicate that there is no way business is going to take up the slack caused by government cutbacks. As a result of reductions in government expenditures--and changes in the tax law that may discourage some philanthropy in this country--there is likely to be a huge gap to fill--perhaps as much $40-50 billion.
Business must make every possible effort to meet its increased social responsibilities. At the same time, however, it must get across the message to the American people that, no matter how much it increases its philanthropic activities, there is no way to completely fill the gap which government has left.
This issue of social responsibility is a sleeper. It may be the most difficult aspect of the Reagan administration's challenge to business, because how well and tactfully the business community handles this delicate area will have enormous impact on its public image.
Clearly, the challenge to business that has evolved over the past year is broad in scope and demanding in specific ways. But we have, in effect, a contractual obligation to meet this challenge. The deal we struck with the American public went something like this: "If you loosen the chains that bind the dynamic powers of free enterprise, then we can and will do our part to revitalize this country."