Veteran Pols Pritzker, Mitchell, Cohen on Our Volatile Moment
In the midst of one of the most contentious, divisive political moments in most Americans' lifetimes, a trio of venerated public servants gathered at DLA Piper's Global Real Estate Summit for a frank, weighty discussion about where we are, how we got here and where it might lead us.
The panel, titled "A New Political Order: Domestic and Global Business in the Trump Era" and led by Real Estate Roundtable CEO Jeffrey DeBoer, featured former Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and former Senator and US Secretary of Defense William Cohen.
The political climate
DeBoer kicked off the discussion by asking the panel how they'd characterize the present political climate. Or, as he quipped, "How bad is it?"
Sec. Pritzker: It's challenging. We're all struggling to understand what is ahead for the country, both domestically and internationally. One of the biggest challenges is that we still don't have a full government in place. We still have hundreds of open ambassadorships. Those ambassadors are vital, not only as ears on the ground for foreign policy and national security, but also for our economy. They report back on what's happening in countries around the world.
Sen. Mitchell: Overall, I'm optimistic. As a democracy we tend to dwell on our problems, but I believe the United States will, in relative terms, remain the world's greatest superpower for as long as any of us can foresee. And we will get through these difficulties, including the central issue of our time: How to deal with the combined effects of the technological revolution from which millions of Americans feel alienated. We have to ensure that the people who feel lost today ultimately have reason for hope. But I believe this will ultimately be resolved – by Americans.
Sec. Cohen: During the Watergate era I served on the House Judiciary Committee. There were threats to me, my family – it was very tense but we got through it. It's much worse now. The standard for talking about impeachment has been lowered. And I'm very disappointed to see our president disparaging the institutions – Congress, the media – on which we've built our country. There's a coarseness in our society he is exploiting, an anger out there at the elite, at us.
In the wake of President Trump's recent criticism of NFL players for their protests during pre-game national anthems, the panel returned several times to the issue of race in America.
Sen. Mitchell: My mother was an immigrant, my father was the orphaned son of immigrants. They were intensely patriotic. My days in the US Army were among the best in my life. So for me it would be unthinkable not to stand for the national anthem. But we have to understand those who choose to express themselves – in a non-violent manner – on what is so obviously an issue about race. Race is the most difficult issue in US history. In a nation of immigrants, African-Americans are the only group that came here involuntarily. For anyone not to be aware of the pain of that seems to me to be somewhat insensitive.
Sec. Cohen: This is not going away until we address the racial tension in this country. My wife is African-American. I have biracial grandkids. I have to talk to them about what to do if they get stopped by police. I don't have to do that with my white grandkids. What Colin Kaepernick [the former NFL quarterback who was the first to kneel during the anthem] was saying in his original protest was "stop killing us." I can't help but compare the president's comments on the NFL to his comments on Charlottesville. If you really want to criticize people for not saluting the American flag, don't praise those carrying Nazi flags. [The president should] try to heal us, not turn us against each other.
Trade and the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Noting that wait times for US travel visas have been going up, DeBoer asked the panel to weigh in the key issues in international trade.
Sec. Pritzker: As Secretary of Commerce, I was responsible for travel and tourism strategy. Many of the jobs we've been creating are in the service industry, so promoting tourism is a significant strategic priority for economic growth. We have to be out there working with other countries. I'm concerned that the bellicose rhetoric toward Muslims and other countries, and the administration's budget, which wiped away the tourism budget, will cost the US market share in tourism.
I also believe that withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership represents one of our great failures. The US was a clear winner in that agreement – we have low tariffs, the Asian signatories have high tariffs, which makes it hard for US companies to sell their products in those countries. TPP would have changed that. It also would've given our companies certainty on the rules for customs, minimum wage and data protection.
Sen. Mitchell: I agree, it will be seen as an enormous error by the US. During last year's campaigns, both parties created the impression that trade agreements caused all American job losses. But the reality is technical advances are more responsible, and we have to understand that that is part of progress. In Maine we once had some men employed in the business of making stagecoaches. Today not a single person works in those jobs, but nobody would argue that the automobile was bad for our country.
Sec. Cohen: I was in Beijing the day after the election, having dinner with a Chinese executive. He asked me if I thought TPP was dead. I said yes, and he said "good." Meanwhile the countries in Southeast Asia saw it as a disaster – not only because they wasted seven years negotiating, but because they see it as a key to preventing China from subordinating them in the region.
DeBoer asked Secretaries Pritzker and Cohen in particular to share their insights on the risks – both military and economic – posed by cyberthreats.
Sec. Cohen: Cyberthreats are as dangerous as anything we're facing in the world. Cyberattacks could shut down our commerce or alter our elections at the speed of light. And unlike military threats, we have no rules for engagement. We have good defensive mechanisms, but they're not impregnable.
Sec. Pritzker: The last few months of the Obama administration we created a cybersecurity blueprint. I was secretariat for that, and what I learned was that the Internet was not created to run our economy. It is full of vulnerabilities and we do not have a system to protect us end-to-end. We have a series of patches. We might need to rethink the entire architecture of the Internet. Right now we're talking about the parts of the elephant but what's required is a holistic solution.
Finally, DeBoer asked Secretary Pritzker what the assembled real estate executives should be thinking about and doing to prepare for what's ahead.
Sec. Pritzker: Recognize that for your workforce to thrive, you have to spend money on their training. Understand that there is enormous angst and anger among the 60-70 percent of Americans who aren't thriving in the new economy. We have to step back and address the fact that we're not training people for the jobs of the future – jobs in cybersecurity and artificial intelligence. I met with close to 2,200 CEOs as Commerce Secretary, and every one said "I can't get the workforce I need." So we need to figure out how we close the gap between companies that can't find the right people and people who can't find work.