Key members of President Obama’s Jobs Council made a special trip to campus on Friday for a discussion of the current competitiveness of the American economy as part of the school’s ongoing U.S. Competitiveness Project.
The series of remarks and panel discussions in Spangler auditorium presented a fairly unified assessment of the US economy from both Jobs Council and Competitiveness Project representatives. The analogous views of the panelists seemed to reflect the parallel missions, approaches, and perspectives of the two entities. The HBS-led US Competitiveness Project, co-chaired by Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin, is an ongoing academic initiative that aims to provide an innovative and non-partisan perspective on the American economy. Similarly, the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness was formed in early 2011 to advise President Obama on how to bolster employment and competition in the post-recession economy.
Spangler auditorium, completely full of students despite free beer at the rugby game, was energized with lively discussion. First up was Dean Nohria, who introduced the Council members and encouraged students to follow their example of “stepping up” to help national interest. Rebecca Blank, the acting Commerce Secretary, then took the podium to frame the conversation by highlighting the similar missions of the Competitiveness Project and the Jobs Council and her administration’s recent progress in supporting economic recovery.
Jeff Immelt (very old A), the featured guest of the afternoon, opened the panel with a brief outline of his roles as CEO of General Electric and Chairman of the Jobs Council. Referring to the Harbus as “a noteworthy publication” in his conversation with the Editor-in-Chief at the event, Immelt contested the idea that global competition is a zero-sum game, arguing that “a healthy US economy is good for you not matter where you sit”. He outlined six areas of the council’s focus in its endeavor to create jobs: training and education, fast-growth companies, regulation, investment, infrastructure, and systems of competitiveness.
The first panel, starring acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, addressed government involvement in economic growth. Secretary Blank emphasized the need for infrastructure to mitigate unemployment and improve business environment. She also urged Congress to tackle immigration reform, addressing the disparate needs of skilled and unskilled immigrants. The third point on the secretary’s agenda, corporate tax reform, was presented as the most difficult to implement due to its partisan nature.
The professors and council members agreed with the Secretary’s focus and echoed her view of Congress as an obstacle to progress. Prof. David Moss elaborated that despite a long history of partisanship in the United States, the recent treatment of “politics as war” on both sides of the aisle presents a real challenge to efficiently passing good economic policy.
The discussion transitioned to the private sector’s role in competitiveness with the second panel, featuring Immelt and fellow council members Darlene Miller and Robert Wolf. Immelt kicked off the discussion by commenting on the incredible change that his General Electric has undergone during his tenure at the company; while GE served a primarily domestic market when he was hired upon graduating from HBS, it is now the second largest US exporter with 60% of its business overseas. Taking into account the changing global demand dynamics and the shift away from the US domestic market, Immelt remarked that he “will never apologize for being a global company”. But at the same time, Immelt views himself as “an American CEO of an American company”. This discussion of the American business identity in a global economy, a highlight of this second session, raised important questions for leaders on the panel and in the audience.
All in all, private and public sector panelists provided cogent arguments in support of a strong government role in the US economy, in the short-term to revive employment and in the long-term to support America’s role as a global economic powerhouse. While the panelist politics leaned left, the larger messages conveyed a bullish view of the future of the American economy and a unified commitment to action towards achieving this goal.