Remarks at a White House Meeting With the Associated General Contractors of America

 

April 18, 1988

 

The President. Well, thank you all, and it's good to see Jim and Delcie Ann Supica here. And it's a pleasure to welcome all of you here today, especially since we see so many familiar faces. Before I get into my remarks, however, I have something in the nature of a bulletin that I would like to impose on you.

 

Earlier today our Navy made a measured response to Iran's latest use of military force against U.S. ships in international waters, as well as its continued military and terrorist attacks against a number of nonbelligerents. Following the destruction of the two Iranian military platforms, whose personnel evacuated after our warning, several Iran naval vessels and small boats attempted to engage our ships and aircraft. Three Iranian naval vessels and at least two small boats were sunk or very severely damaged.

 

We've taken this action to make certain the Iranians have no illusions about the cost of irresponsible behavior. We aim to deter further Iranian aggression, not provoke it. They must know that we will protect our ships, and if they threaten us, they'll pay a price. A more normal relationship with Iran is desirable, and we're prepared for it. But such a relationship is not possible so long as Iran attacks neutral ships, threatens its neighbors, supports terrorism, and refuses to end the bloody war with Iraq.

 

Now I'll get on with the business of the day. I was looking over my notes from our last meeting, back in 1986, and I noticed that I told you about one of my first jobs as a young man, working for a contractor who was remodeling old homes. I was just 14 years old -- by the way, it's not true that the homes that we were remodeling were log cabins. [Laughter] As I say, I was just 14 years old; and as I told you, by the time the summer was over, I'd dug out foundations, laid hardwood floors, shingled roofs, and learned a respect for good, honest labor that has stayed with me all my life. But my notes show that I never did tell you just how it was that I left that construction work.

 

Well, it was on that summer job -- this time digging trenches for foundations. And one hot morning I was swinging my pickax, working away, swinging and digging. It so happened that I had the pick up over my head, ready to bring it down in another blow, when the noon whistle blew. And I just stepped out from under the pickax and didn't finish the blow -- it was after 12 o'clock -- and walked out from under it. And right behind me, I heard some words that my mother had told me never to use. [Laughter] I turned around, and there was my boss, standing there, with the point of the pick stuck in the ground right between his feet -- I missed him by about a half an inch. And although I can't say for certain, looking back, but I have the feeling that it may have been at that moment, looking into his face, that I first entertained the thoughts of going into show business. [Laughter]

 

But it is indeed a pleasure to have you here, and I wanted to speak to you today in large measure to give you my thanks. You're the ones, after all, who build our roads and put up our buildings, who do so much to help keep America growing. And as President, I extend to you the respect and gratitude of the Nation. But more than that, I owe you, as well, a personal debt of gratitude, for you've done much to make this administration a success.

 

I referred a moment ago to our meeting in '86. But there was an earlier meeting as well, all the way back in 1981. I asked you then to support our economic recovery program. You did so, even though in the short term many of your firms went through some tough times. But you knew that in the end it was free enterprise, not government regulation, not high taxes or big government spending, but free enterprise, that had led to the building of a great America. And I like to point out that the Federal Register, which lists all new regulations, is just a little more than half the size it was when we came here. The estimate is that we eliminated for our citizens and small businesses some 600 million man-hours a year of work just filling out government forms in answer to the regulations. You knew that what America needed as she entered the 1980's was a new birth of economic freedom.

 

As I said, it was tough at first for some of you, very tough. But today the American economy is in the longest peacetime expansion in U.S. history. Indeed, this month, April, marks the 65th straight month of economic growth. We've created nearly 16 million new jobs -- jobs that on balance are better and higher paying. Altogether, the United States has created close to twice as many new jobs as the other leading industrialized nations combined. During this expansion, a greater percentage of our population is employed than at any other time in our history: 62.3 percent of our total potential employment pool is currently at work. Now, maybe you might be like me; I didn't know at first how they figured what was the potential employment pool. And a little over 60 percent of that doesn't sound so well if you're thinking of the entire population. Well, I found out that that potential pool is everyone, male and female, from 16 years of age up, including all the retirees and the people on Social Security, all the kids that are still going to school and not looking for jobs and so forth. And so, that is 62.3 percent -- the highest percentage ever in the history of the United States -- have jobs.

 

And the real income of the average American has been rising steadily for the last 6 years. Even areas of our economy that were long thought to be in special trouble have begun to show signs of new creativity and prosperity. As Business Week magazine reported recently: ``Basic manufacturers, once considered a dying breed, are selling products many thought wouldn't even be made in the United States any longer -- escalators to Taiwan, machine tools to West Germany, lumber to Japan, and shoes to Italy.'' Since the third quarter of 1986, the volume of American goods exported has been growing some four times as fast as the value [volume] of imported goods. And since 1980 U.S. manufacturing has increased productivity roughly 3\1/2\ times as fast as in the previous 7 years. The result is that, as one German manufacturing expert put it recently, the United States is ``the best country in the world in terms of manufacturing costs.''

 

And of course your own industry, too, has grown with the new prosperity. Between 1980 and 1987, total new construction grew 24 percent, for an average annual rate of 3.1 percent. The nonresidential sector grew by 4 percent annually, with an overall growth rate of 32 percent. That's not bad, not bad at all.

 

The American construction industry is not only prospering here in the United States, it also faces new opportunities abroad because the Japanese Government has announced a large-scale public works program. And Japan, in particular, offers vast potential for American construction firms. Just last month we reached an agreement with Japan that will permit American companies to bid, for the first time, on major Japanese construction projects, giving them a much-needed foothold in this important market. Since American construction firms are the most experienced and competitive in the world, I challenge you to take full advantage of this opportunity. Government can create opportunities by knocking down unfair barriers, but businesses themselves must follow through with the proposals, creativity, and workmanship that made America the leader in this field.

 

And because we've opened up the economy, lowered tax rates, and restored the ideal of limited government and free enterprise -- for all these reasons, America today stands poised for even greater economic growth in the year ahead. But even as we celebrate all that we have accomplished, we must acknowledge that hanging over the future are some enormous ifs. If we keep tax rates down, economic incentives will remain strong. If we get government spending under control, the private sector can continue to grow without fear that it will become crowded out by the public sector. If we continue to combat needless regulations, we can keep the economy from suffocating beneath redtape. If -- and I know this is an issue that especially concerns you -- if we prevent government from mandating additional costs on business. And so, the ifs continue -- on and on and on.

 

Now, I'm not about to launch into a campaign speech; there will be enough for that in the days to come. I could mention, however, that some of the campaign speeches I've been hearing must have been living in another country for the last few years, not this one. [Laughter] In any event, my main purpose in speaking to you today has been, as I said, to offer you my thanks. But more than we owe each other thanks, we owe gratitude to this great land of opportunity and freedom, thanks that we must never cease to repay by remaining active in the political life of the nation. For to be sure, America will face choices this fall that will determine perhaps the entire economic course of the coming decade. Will it be economic growth or the growth of big government? Will it be free enterprise or the steady erosion of free enterprise by an ever-expanding Federal bureaucracy?

 

And so, I ask each of you to direct some of your talent, energy, and leadership in the coming months to the choices that lie before us. And I know somewhere in your minds there's probably a voice saying, but I'm a contractor, not a politician. Well, there was a time -- it's getting to be quite a while ago, now -- but there was a time when I wondered just how involved I should become in public affairs. I'll never forget the reaction of my old boss at Warner Brothers, Jack Warner, when he first heard that I was running for Governor of California. He said, ``Oh, no, no. Jimmy Stewart for Governor, Reagan for best friend.'' [Laughter] And then there was the time back in the early days of the picture business when Jack Warner's brother Harry was first told about the development of motion picture sound -- talking pictures. Harry's reaction was one that I was often reminded of during my early days in public life. He said simply, ``Who the heck wants to hear actors talk?'' [Laughter]

 

But of course I'm not asking you to become professional politicians, merely to remain engaged in the life of the Nation -- as engaged as you've been so successfully during these past 7\1/2\ years. The choice is simple: Is big government going to grow, or is your economy going to grow? And so, I thank you one last time for all you've done. And I say to you as well, we can't afford to rest. We must keep America strong -- strong and growing.

 

Now I'm going to do something here to finish that I hadn't really planned on doing. But talking about the difference between government and the private sector -- the greatest example we have of that, of course, is the Soviet Union. And I have a new hobby. I collect stories, jokes that I can prove are told between the Russian people, that they tell. They reveal that if we ever got to know them we'd find they have a great sense of humor. Also, they have a pretty cynical attitude about their government.

 

Now, one example is a story they tell -- you know, you have to wait 10 years there for delivery after you order an automobile. And so, a fellow had finally gotten the money together and was going to buy an automobile -- only about one out of seven families have them in that country -- and he went through all the paperwork and everything and finally signed the last paper, laid down his money. And then the man behind the counter said, ``Come back in 10 years and get your automobile.'' And the man said, ``Morning or afternoon?'' [Laughter] And -- wait, wait. The fellow behind the counter says, ``Well, what difference does it make 10 years from now?'' And he said, ``Well, the plumber is coming in the morning.'' [Laughter] I've thought about, but haven't gotten around to, telling that to Gorbachev in our next meeting. [Laughter]

 

Well, thank you all, and God bless you all.

 

Mr. Supica. Mr. President, the construction industry loves you and salutes you because you have restored and expanded the faith, the hope that was so badly needed to keep this nation great. You know America to its deep heart's core. You have stayed closely in touch with the hearts and the minds and the souls of Americans. In 1981 AGC named you our man of the year. You have always been our man of the hour, sir. Today, Mr. President, you honor us again.

 

Now, Mr. President, in our own special way, we want to honor you. Like the great American eagles that soar over this great nation, well, you have aspired to a better and stronger America and a safer world. And you, sir, have led the way. As a small gesture of the construction industry's regards for you, our nation's number one builder, I have the privilege of presenting you the Associated General Contractors of America's Eagle Award. May God bless you, Mr. President, Mrs. Reagan, and God bless America. Thank you very much.

 

The President. Thank you very much. I am honored, greatly honored. I thank you all very much. I'm going to impose on you for just a second. I am going to tell you one of those Russian stories that I did tell to Gorbachev. [Laughter] In view of your remarks -- Russian and American, they have a lot of stories of that kind -- arguing about our two countries. The American said, ``Look, I can walk into the Oval Office. I can pound the President's desk, and I can say, `Mr. President, I don't like the way you are running our country.''' And the Russian said, ``I can do that.'' The American said, ``You can?'' He said, ``Yes, I can go into the Kremlin to the General Secretary's office, pound his desk, and say, `Mr. General Secretary, I don't like the way President Reagan's running his country.''' [Laughter]

 

Note: The President spoke at 1:52 p.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building. In his opening remarks, he referred to Mr. and Mrs. James W. Supica. Mr. Supica was president of the Associated General Contractors of America.