By Maria Saporta
Tom Bell, who retired earlier this summer as CEO of Cousins Properties, is carrying the flag for free enterprise.
Bell is vice chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which is in line to lead the organization from July, 2010 through June, 2011.
But starting in September, Bell will chair the U.S. Chamber’s Campaign for Free Enterprise, a national campaign that is expected to last through the 2010 mid-term elections.
“It’s a fragile system, and we make a big mistake if we take it for granted,” Bell told members of the Rotary Club of Atlanta on Monday. “We must invest ourselves in protecting the free market system.”
Bell acknowledged that the restructuring of the economy with more government intervention began while George W. Bush was still president. But it has continued at an increasing rate under President Barack Obama’s administration.
If current patterns continue, Bell said the nation’s economy will be more of a democratic socialism with a heavily regulated market where a few pay for many.
“Without free enterprise, the wealth creation and job creation engine that has made this country the wealthiest and most powerful in the world, stops,” Bell said. “We have to deliver a simple message.”
And then Bell said that his wife reminded him of the children’s fable of the golden goose.
“We are at risk of killing the goose,” Bell said. “No goose; no gold.”
Bell tempered his remarks by saying that the federal government might not have had a choice but to intervene in the economy to prevent a total collapse. Yet he questioned whether “the government’s attempt to help us out of this process has slowed the natural correctiveness.”
The stimulus spending packages passed under Bush and Obama are having a marginal impact, as Bell said, they “won’t save us and won’t sink” the economy. “If we can ever let the bureaucrats let go of the money, it will help us,” he said.
But he expressed real concern about what may be coming, although he didn’t mention the energy bill or healthcare reform by name.
“More historic legislation is on its way at truly unprecedented speed and unprecedented cost,” Bell said. Later he added: “You can spread the wealth if there is no wealth.”
In the question and answer period, Joe Bankoff, president of the Woodruff Arts Center, asked Bell to evaluate Atlanta’s place in the economic recovery compared to the rest of the country.
“Atlanta was the fastest growing metro area from 2000 to 2007,” Bell said. “When you have that kind of growth and it stops, it hurts. We are all hooked on growth. We are used to growth. It’s going to take awhile to get that back.”
Bell then mentioned that his greatest fear is metro Atlanta’s future water supply. A judge’s ruling last week clearly was a serious set back in Atlanta’s ability to draw the water it needs from Lake Lanier.
“What will happen if in three years we can’t get water,” Bell asked rhetorically. “We will see a collapse in the Atlanta economy. You can’t have six million people growing at our rate and not be able to take water out of Lake Lanier. It’s a gross dereliction of our responsibility, federal and state, that let us get into that situation.”