Tom Bell concerned about the future of free enterprise

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.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

3 replies
  1. tribe49 says:

    We all should be concerned about free enterprise as it drives capital formation and innovation and societal stability.

    Glad to see Tom is taking the mantle on this critically important challenge!Report

  2. Michael says:

    You have to love the fact that Bell raves about free enterprise and then ends up talking about the dereliction of government duty regarding water. He might think about, too, about how the “free enterprise” of development has flourished in Atlanta because of government (including federal government) policies and investment: Those freeways weren’t cheap, and neither is the mortgage subsidy that occurs through the tax code and a variety of federal lending programs. Cousins Properties is where it is because it has received some nice assists from government. I have no problem with that — but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that enterprise has been “free” in this country from government intervention.Report

  3. ATL says:

    Unregulated Capitalism simply doesn’t work…
    Reasonable, rational regulation is necessary to keep the economic system from ‘eating itself’– Capitalism is not a ‘force of nature’ but a man-made construct with man-made rules and boundaries, beyond which it ceases to be effective… Bell is absolutely right on Water, though– we face a vacuum of leadership at the state level that is quite troubling…Report


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