All politics aside, the future of the economy is at stake.

So said Richard Wagoner Jr., president and chief executive officer of General Motors, at the 2004 Emerging Issues Forum, “How do we keep our economy robust and growing? That’s the big issue no matter who wins the upcoming presidential election.”

Wagoner, who graduated from Duke, delivered the keynote at North Carolina State University Monday. The annual event focused on “Creative Responses to Global Change,” and the GM executive outlined all the key themes of the Forum.

The two-day event focused on a variety of problems and solutions to globalization and free trade — hot issues in this year’s Democratic primary campaigns.

The problems include: the outsourcing of technology jobs to India; the loss of manufacturing jobs to cheaper overseas labor; alleged unfair trade practices by China; and the porous Mexican border which allows huge quantities of illegal textile imports to enter the country.

The challenges to the U.S. textile industry are particularly pressing since all barriers to imports drop due to trade agreements going into effect in January next year, threatening another 600,000 jobs.

Some of the solutions suggested included:

  • Enforcing trade restrictions already on the books.

  • Tighening the Mexican boarder to slow illegal textile imports.

  • Using biotechnology and information technology to create unique new textile, tobacco, and agricultural products.

  • Promoting innovation and entrepreneurship by supporting research and development.

  • Building government, educational, and business partnerships.
  • Wagoner pointed out that “free market capitalism looks like a big winner in today’s economy. It should be good for us. We pioneered the idea. When you broaden the field and open up the game, you drive innovation and growth and typically improve the whole field.”

    Survival of pioneers

    But, Wagoner said, GM’s experience as a company parallels what is going on in globalization. “Pioneers in given fields enjoy tremendous success until others catch up.”

    The first chairman of GM, he said, went against the Ford idea that you could have any color of automobile you wanted as long as it was black. “Our first chairman wanted to offer a car for every person and every purse and GM went on to become the largest automaker.”

    Wagoner said the U.S. has to address some basic problems to remain globally competitive. He identified the U.S. healthcare system as one area needing reform. “Most healthcare in the U.S. is employer funded and that model is different from that of our competitors around the world.”

    “The rising cost of healthcare is threatening to make the U.S. uncompetitive around the world,” he said, “and fixing it requires fast, hard work on the part of government and business.

    Playing by the rules

    Wagoner identified a key theme of the forum when he said the other major concern is that we have free and fair trade. “The benefits of free trade speak for themselves, but we have to make sure developing companies play by fair rules,” he said.

    Wagoner and others at the forum throughout the long day pointed to abuses of fair trade by China, Japan, and Mexico. “In January alone, Japan set a new record of intervention to keep the yen weak against the dollar,” he said.

    Wagoner said the U.S. needs to build upon its strengths — the best education system in the world and research and development to create more competitive technological advances.

    “It’s hard to imagine a region with better opportunities than this one,” he told the Forum. “You have a tremendous opportunity to lead the way for NC, the Southeast, and the United States.”

    The debate over free trade vs. fair trade and other aspects of the global economy and its effects on North Carolina and the nation continued throughout the day. One common theme emerged: creativity, innovative technologies, and entrepreneurship are the weapons that can help both the state and the nation compete successfully against global competitors.

    Gov. Mike Easely, in a luncheon speech to the Forum, focused on the need for creativity and education to meet global economic challenges. “We can’t get by any more with a strong back and a weak mind,” he said.

    “Other nations are envious of America’s success. They’re ready to take advantage of any weakness. As Will Roger’s said, ‘Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you don’t keep moving.”