I had a conversation earlier today in Montreal with Jeffrey Immelt, the chairman and CEO of General Electric Co.(GE), who was pretty blunt in his assessment of the so-called Buy American provision in President Barack Obamas stimulus bill.
I think its terrible, Immelt said, before speaking at the International Economic Forum of the Americas here. In the end, protectionism is not a philosophyits a cry for help. Its a sign of weakness.
Thats not the face that America should want to project. The face we should want to project is, We can compete with anybody, anywhere, anytime.
Canadian policymakers and exporters have, of course, been deeply concerned by the Buy American provisions, which limit or prohibit the purchase of foreign goods in projects that receive U.S. stimulus funding.
GEone of the worlds largest companies, with interests including financial services, manufacturing and technologyhas publicly opposed Buy American, along with heavy equipment maker Caterpillar Inc. and other US-based companies, for fear it will spark retaliation from other countries, hindering exports. GE earns half its revenue outside the United States.
Some might see an irony in the fact that Immelt, 53, sits on Obamas Economic Recovery Advisory Board. But even given the opposition to Buy American, the CEO said business leaders need to be involved in the discussion around policymaking. Look, Im a Republican, so President Obama got elected without my vote, he said. But he wants to get different voices inside the administration. I think hes a good listener.
On Obamas recovery plan, Immelt said, I cant say I agree with it philosophically every step of the way But were in a period when business has to engage with government in order to get our voice heard, because the status quo is not going to be tolerated by the population.
Immelt pegged the rise of protectionism as part of a growing anti-business sentiment in the US. I think the man on the street would say that this recession was created by business, quote-unquote, because we all get cast under the same banner, he said. I think theres particular anger right now.
(Look for more from my interview with Immelt in an upcoming issue of Canadian Businessmagazine.)