Tom Donohue has never been known for subtlety. The outspoken president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lived up to his reputation as a no-holds-barred speaker on business issues when he delivered the keynote speech at NASSTRAC's annual conference in Orlando, Fla., last month.
Though the shippers' group had billed the speech as a commentary on infra- structure, Donohue did not confine his remarks to roads and bridges. He also touched on a wide array of other topics, including the economy, education, immigration, fuel costs and the price of oil, global warming, the legal system, unions, and the election.
"This is a weird economy," the one-time president of the American Trucking Associations said."Some parts are doing very well, and some parts are not doing very well at all." As for the bright spots, he pointed to what he sees as the relative strength of the stock market and exports, low interest rates, and manageable inflation. He also suggested that further strengthening of the dollar could help mitigate oil prices. But something that will remain a significant problem for some time to come.
Donohue went on to cite another ongoing problem facing U.S. business: human capital. "One part [of the problem] is our education system, K through 12," he said. "Thirty percent of the kids don't graduate from high school in four years, and we're supposed to be the most sophisticated country in the whole world. What does that say for the future of the workforce in this country? "Most of the middle class continues to do well, Donohue noted; the people who are suffering are primarily those without an education. "We need to get involved in this," he said.
A related problem, he said, is immigration policy. "Our views on immigration are crazy," Donohue told his audience. He warned that the nation does not have enough workers to replace the 77 million baby boomers who are closing in on retirement, and that deporting undocumented workers would disrupt many parts of the economy. He favors an immigration program that allows visiting workers. "We don't have to make them citizens, but we can make them legal," he said. "We have to figure out how to get out of the business of trying to build a Berlin Wall because of the emotional reaction of lots of people."
Donohue's comments on the fuel-price crisis were equally unrestrained. "Our national policy on energy is a cross between stupidity and hypocrisy," he said. Because much of the price of fuel is driven by speculation, he said, a shift in national policy to allow wider drilling of oil in Alaska and the Rocky Mountains, offshore, and elsewhere would result in a dramatic and immediate decline in oil prices. On global warming and the environment, he said, "We are doing a great job on pollution. We have spent trillions of dollars over the last 20 years to clean that stuff up and we're doing better every day." The Chamber of Commerce would not contest the science of global warming, he said, but the organization does have three goals for emissions-reduction programs. "Number one, we do it in a way that you all keep your jobs. Second, we do it in a way that is global. And third, we do it with technology because that's a great way to improve everything, and besides, we'll make the technology before anybody else will and we'll sell it to other people."
Finally, he turned to concerns about the United States' transportation infrastructure, which he said "will be running into a wall" as economic growth outpaces infrastructure improvements. Failure to address that shortfall by making an immediate investment in roads, bridges, and other types of infrastructure, he warned, would be "a huge mistake."