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March 1, 2009

THE THREAT TO OUR COMMUNITY

“Every community is an association of some kind and every community is established with a view to some good.”
—Aristotle

The whirlwind of change that is the Obama administration has provided a rich mixture of risk and opportunity for the business community, mired as we are in a crippling and often bewildering recession. I don’t, as the chief spokesman for Forward’s owner, the Metals Service Center Institute, propose to comment on the Obama revolution. We are, after all, decidedly non-partisan, and we as a trade association take positions on very few public policy issues.

Yet I am so concerned about one aspect of the president’s pronouncements— the sense of a moral crusade against business and those who are successful in business—that I feel I must comment about the dangers it poses.

Trade associations exist for the benefit of their members, be they companies or individuals. Freedom of association is one of our most valued and valuable rights because it is through free association that we learn, exchange points of view, share experiences and come to understand others and the world around us. Certainly, free association is essential to any republic, and I believe that the freedom to associate with your peers in trade associations is equally essential to the long-term progress and well-being of any industry or profession.

From his speeches, press conferences, other public comments and the makeup of his policy inner circle—primarily academics, bureaucrats and recycled politicians—it is clear that almost no one in Obama’s administration understands business, how business is conducted or much about the motivations of people in business. One inference that I’ve drawn from his comments is that our president regards business meetings and conferences as indefensible indulgences. He and his allies have chastised businesspeople for their private jets, criticized business meetings held in Las Vegas, howled about corporate sponsorship of golf tournaments and spoken critically of a business community that has lost its way.

Certainly, all of us are aware of businesses and businesspeople who are blatantly self-indulgent, completely insensitive to the symbolism of corporate perks and luxuries and arrogantly unwilling to think about anything other than their own will. What’s more, I completely agree with those who say that companies that take federal bailout money must, of course, live within the rules and strictures that go along with public funding.

What worries me, though, is how far these appropriate concerns have already seeped into the normal, ongoing business world. Executives who completely understand the importance of off-site meetings to talk about issues, hear new ideas and market updates, recognize outstanding performance, and regenerate the idea bank have, in their otherwise prudent budgeting, sometimes been overly influenced by this new public sense of disapproval when discussing whether they should attend, say, an industry conference.

If every community is an association, as Aristotle tells us, and if every community or association seeks to do good—and I believe all do—it makes no sense whatsoever to suggest that those communities of well-meaning people should feel shame about their own choices and free associations. It makes no sense, during a recession, with millions of people losing jobs, to suggest that businesspeople should not travel, should not stay at hotels and should not gather to talk business.

It will be a relief when this recession ends. In the meantime, let’s not be afraid to operate our businesses with a focus on tomorrow, and not just on the difficulties and transitory political moralities of today.