Remarks to Business Leaders at a White House Briefing on Economic Competitiveness

February 17, 1987

Well, George [Bush] and I thank you all very much, and welcome to the White House. Today -- in this, the 200th anniversary year of the writing of the Constitution, and here in one of America's most historic buildings -- we're gathered, yes, as leaders of government; yes, as business people; yes, as educators; yes, as scientists; yes, as all of these, but even more as Americans. We're here to take a step into America's future. We'll talk today about the 21st century. That seems like the distant future; but in the life of a person, much less the life of this still young nation, the 21st century is but a few moments away.

A child who begins kindergarten this year will graduate from high school in the year 2000. It's not too early to ask what kind of a nation that child will inherit from us. Will we give that child the best education in the world to prepare for leading our country and the world in the next century? While that child is growing up, America's industrial base will be changing. And here, if his parents find themselves in a shrinking industry, will they have the opportunity to be retrained for jobs of the future, not those of the past? And when that child grows up, will he find himself in a strong, competitive nation that is a proud leader of a fair, free, and growing world's economy? Or will he or she find themselves in one that has built walls to isolate itself and that, in its isolation, has stagnated and declined?

In the last 6 years America has once again become the economic wonder of the world, the land of promise to which people everywhere look as a beacon of hope, freedom, and growth. We cut tax rates, and now all around the world, other nations are taking notice. We cut regulations that stifled economic growth -- and here, also, other nations are following us. We've done all this, and as a result we've reignited the American flame of opportunity and created more new jobs in the last 5 years than Europe and Japan combined. Will we now prepare the way to continue this legacy of opportunity into the next decade and into the next century? These are the questions that we Americans will answer. And let me put my cards right here on the table. I have a very simple goal, and I believe all Americans share it. Call it competitiveness. Call it a quest for excellence. Call it preparing for the 21st century. In the year 2000 we want America still at the top of the charts, the front of the pack, the head of the class. Yes, in the year 2000 we want America to be number one -- and climbing still for the stars.

In today's world that's going to take some doing. In the years ahead we're going to have to work harder and work better. And we're going to have to be clear from the start about what the right and wrong paths are. Like the story about Lincoln -- his birthday was last week, so I thought I'd tell you a Lincoln story. [Laughter] As a young lawyer he once had to plead two cases in the same day before the same judge. Both involved the same principle of law, but in one Lincoln appeared for the defendant and in the other for the plaintiff. Now, you can see how this makes anything above a 50-percent success rate very difficult. [Laughter] Well, in the morning Lincoln made an eloquent plea and won his case. Later he took the opposite side and was arguing just as earnestly. Puzzled, the judge asked why the change of attitude. Well, ``Your Honor,'' said Honest Abe, ``I may have been wrong in the morning, but I know I'm right now.'' [Laughter]

The quest for excellence that I have in mind is not just a legislative package, although legislation will play a part. It is not just another government program, although government has a role. Rather, it's a great national undertaking that will challenge all Americans to be all that they can be, to work together to seek new opportunities, to be the very best in a strong and growing international economy -- an international economy that gives us both the challenge of competition and, as it grows and we grow with it, the promise of a century of prosperity ahead.

To America's business the quest for excellence will be the challenge to make products more efficiently, to embrace new ideas, better methods of management, and new technologies; yes, to make the proudest, most desirable label on more and more products and services around the world, the label that reads: ``Made in America.'' To America's workers the challenge is to be prepared for the new jobs and new skills of the future and to prove, in the quality of their work, that the pride is indeed back. To America's educators the challenge is to prepare our students for this changing world so that they can write clearly; so that illiteracy among this great and free people becomes a thing of the past and more children read at their level skill or above; so that every high school graduate has a basic understanding of mathematics and science and knows how to work a computer; and so that every graduate knows the meaning of our sacred American heritage.

In the last 3 years Governors, mayors, school boards, and parents around the country have made quality the focus of their reforms. The challenge now is to finish the job -- to make sure that by the year 2000 America has the best educational system in the world. Yes, to all of us, the quest for excellence is a challenge to join together in looking to the new world marketplace not as a source of fear and uncertainty, but in the way Americans have always looked at their challenges: as a great opportunity, as another open frontier for the American spirit, as America's great next adventure.

As America moves toward the 21st century, government also has a role in our great national quest for excellence. We have already taken giant steps. Our tax reform has given us the most incentive-oriented tax system in the world. And already other governments are asking themselves what they can do to catch up with us. Perhaps you saw a newspaper account recently about a German entrepreneur who has built three factories here in America and is building another. These factories make products for export to Latin America and the Far East. Explaining why he was building export factories in America rather than Germany, he told the reporter that the difference was taxes. Because of taxes, he said: ``In the United States, I have to earn $1.8 million in order to put $1 million in my own reserves. In Germany I have to earn $4 million to do the same thing.'' But as much as our tax reform has done to make America more competitive, there is still more to do. This week I'm sending to Congress proposed legislation to ensure that government will contribute its share to America's quest for excellence. Ours is a diverse package, as diverse as the challenge before us. But diverse though it is, it has one central purpose, and that is to make certain that in the years ahead the door of opportunity and excellence is open to all Americans.

For America's workers this package will include new efforts for job retraining. Properly prepared workers in our declining industries can be the competitive edge for our rising industries. They are skilled; they know how to perform in the industrial workplace. They have the discipline and dedication to quality that America will need in the marketplace of the next century. We must not let this national treasure go to waste. And that's why our job retraining proposal will target dislocated workers. These are the workers who, in the past, made America the world's leader in industry after industry. We must never forget that they're the key to our future, as well. Our package also includes training funds for young people who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. America will not be able to compete in the world of the next century if some of us are permanently barred from the team. We need every American lending a hand, and that includes those who today are caught in the poverty trap. We must find ways to recruit these people for America's team. They deserve the same opportunities all Americans deserve. And we all need them joining in, grabbing the lifeline with us, and helping to pull America into the future.

America's most competitive edge has always been our scientific and technological creativity. In many respects, we invented the modern world. The light bulb, the telephone, the airplane, the mass production automobile, the computer, the transistor, the semiconductor -- the list of American inventions that we take for granted is endless. Today we are still a leader in innovation. In communications technology, for example, one expert has put it like this: ``The Americans are light years ahead of everyone.'' But still we aren't doing enough. In too many industries we have developed the technology, only to see others bring it to the marketplace. Our legislative package will help make the journey from the American laboratory to the American factory, to the world market, a shorter journey and a more certain one.

Part of our focus will be on Federal laboratories, including defense laboratories. These are among the largest and most productive centers of scientific research in the world. But in the past there have been set up roadblocks between what was going on inside and the commercial world outside. That will change. We will encourage scientists working in Federal laboratories to patent, license, and commercialize their research. Federal agencies will establish royalty-sharing plans with their scientists. We will recruit science entrepreneurs to act as conduits between the laboratories and business, venture capitalists and universities. We will also encourage exchanges between Federal laboratories and private industry, so each can benefit from the other. We will encourage our defense and space programs to continue to spin off technology to industry and to do it even faster than they have. And we will double the budget of the National Science Foundation over the next 5 years.

We're also proposing to establish a number of science and technology centers around the Nation. These will be on university campuses. They will focus on those areas of science that directly contribute to America's economic competitiveness. They'll be homes to long-term research in areas such as robotics for automated manufacturing and microelectronics, new material processes, and biotechnology. They will help to ensure that when it comes to technological leadership, America in the next century will continue to have the inside edge.

And finally, we cannot retain our technological leadership unless our children have the basic knowledge of science and technology that the 21st century will demand. And that's why we will begin a campaign for scientific literacy. It will include internships in Federal labs for promising students and aid to schools on all levels to buy scientific equipment and computers. We will also make available the expertise of top Federal scientists to help develop textbooks, software, and lab equipment for our schools and universities. America's natural resources are precious beyond measure, but let us never forget that a greater and more important resource than even these is in the minds of our young people. Our program will help ensure that these young minds are ready for the 21st century.

But all the science and all the education in the world will do us little good if the markets of the world are shrinking. We must continue to promote the expansion of world trade. History has taught us that we cannot become more competitive or enjoy major job growth by restricting imports across the board. In 1930 the United States imposed major new tariffs, against the advice of most economists. Three years later the unemployment rate stood at 25 percent. Free trade is one of the few things almost all economists agree on.

There is developing a great bipartisan consensus that the answer to our trade problems is more trade. As House Speaker Jim Wright said recently, ``The solution lies in opening markets to American goods, not in closing our markets to foreign goods.'' But if the greater world trade is to be the launching pad for economic growth in the 21st century, trade must be a two-way street. In the world of the forties, fifties, and sixties, America was the dominant economic power. We sought to lead the world by example out of the devastation of war through growth-oriented, free trade policies. We've had much success. Europe and Japan have rebuilt. Many developing countries have experienced strong growth. Our fundamental belief in the power of the market remains unquestioned. We will not sit idly by when other countries close their markets to our products, subsidize their exports, or fail to trade fairly.

And that's why, these last 6 years, we've taken the strongest actions in American history against unfair trade practices abroad. And that's why we will be asking Congress to strengthen the protections we give patents, copyrights, and trade secrets, so America's intellectual property will be clearly staked out with a sign that reads: No Trespassing. And that's why I will be asking Congress for authority to negotiate a new round of trade agreements, to bring down the barriers to world trade all around the world.

Yes, we must help those whom a changing economy has displaced, but we must also never forget that what's at stake here is America's future -- the future for ourselves, our children, and their children into the next decade and into the next century. How America will approach the 21st century -- that's what we're talking about today, America's future. This will be a great national discussion of our future, a kind of great national tent meeting that they used to call a Chautauqua. And together we're going to be part of it. I'm going to be traveling to schools and factories, to laboratories and workplaces, all across America. Our great national quest for excellence must begin with each of us thinking and talking about what we can do.

But today let me set out a few simple goals for the year 1990 and for the year 2000. I repeat my challenge that by the year 1990 SAT scores should make up half the ground that they have lost. And by the year 2000 let's have them exceed the 1963 record high. By the year 1990 let's reduce by one-quarter the 40 percent of 13-year-olds below reading at skill level. And by the year 2000 let's have everyone reading at their skill level. And most important, by 1990 let's resolve to have created 8 million more jobs in America. And by the year 2000 let's make it 20 million.

I have lived through a third of American history. I've seen war and depression, peace and prosperity. I've seen the great spirit of the American people build industries and transform the world. But all this time, I have never seen our land hold so much promise as it does today. We are strong as only a free people can be strong. There flows within each of us the heroic blood of pioneers and immigrants. And the greatest adventure men or women can want awaits us: the adventure of a new century. That century can bring untold wealth, peace, and happiness, not only to ourselves but to all mankind. We can lead the way. Our quest for excellence can become the entire world's. Our search for greater competitiveness can be copied in every land. And from this great competition will be built a growing world economy -- the one sure answer to hunger and poverty and the one sure guarantor of a bright future for ourselves and the world.

I've asked you here today to join me in that quest. Two hundred years ago a small group of Americans gathered in Philadelphia to draft a new order for the ages -- the U.S. Constitution. We look back on them now with reverence, because all that we as Americans have been blessed with since that steamy Pennsylvania summer could not have happened without their vision and their courage. They overcame sectional rivalries and parochial interests. They looked to the future not only of our nation but of all mankind, not only for their lifetimes but for centuries to come.

And that is the challenge before us today. As we make America strong, as we work for a free and fair economic constitution for the industrial world, as we improve our education, science, and training, we will be setting ourselves and the entire world on a course to a brighter America. And generations will look back on us, as we do on the Founding Fathers, and give thanks in the name of God.

Thank you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 2:21 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.