May 6, 2016

KABA speaker says broken political system puts U.S. competitiveness at peril

By Rex Davenport
Kenosha News

Successful business people tend to look at competitiveness as something to be ignored at their peril. Applying that same mindset, or urgency, to politics may not be as intuitive.

Katherine Gehl, a successful business leader and former CEO of Gehl Foods, brought a message of the importance of changes in policy and politics that are needed to keep the United States a powerful global business competitor. She spoke Thursday morning at an Inspire Kenosha breakfast put on by the Kenosha Area Business Alliance.

Gehl was the fourth-generation president and CEO of Germantown-based Gehl Foods, where she led an aggressive growth strategy, driving transformations across the company — from management and processes, to facilities and information systems.

In 2010, Gehl was nominated by President Barack Obama to serve on the board of directors of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

“How many of us in this room have said, ‘Washington is broken?’” Gehl asked the audience. “It turns out that Washington is not broken. Washington works exactly as it has been designed to work and delivers exactly what it is currently incented to deliver.”

Gehl explained that the system is contrary to business competitiveness.

“For me, the U.S. is competitive as an economy when two things happen simultaneously,” she said. “First, businesses have to be able to compete successfully in the global economy. Second, and at the same time, their employees have to be supported with high or rising standards of living. A country is not truly competitive if it can only deliver on one half of that definition.

“If businesses are succeeding but average employees are not, that’s not sustainable. Conversely, if a country were able to artificially support a higher standard of living for every citizen (and it was) not really supported by a true economic (capacity) in private businesses, that wouldn’t be sustainable, either.”

Barriers to reform

Gehl said a number of challenges inherent in the current political system stand in the way of reform.

“I’m not criticizing individual (politicians) or their parties,” Gehl said. “I’m here to discuss the system in which all of these actors are playing out their roles and the problems that (the system) is creating for us.”

Gehl pointed out the importance of seeking reform where the changes are both powerful and achievable. Her key targets include an end to gerrymandering, the end of partisan primaries and the support of independent candidates.

She also cautioned about spending too much effort on issues where the outcome would be less than powerful and achievable, such as campaign finance reform.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. SEC “is used as a proxy to (describe) what’s wrong with campaign financing,” Gehl said. “But what’s wrong with campaign financing (existed) even before the Citizens United (ruling). That’s not the only part of (campaign financing) that we would need to fix. How campaigns are financed has powerful effects in the system, so it is worth looking at.”

State-by-state efforts

Gehl noted that many of the reforms she believes are necessary must take place in a 50-state effort.

“As innovations work, they spread, particularly if you are creating a more competitve marketplace,” Gehl said. “Competition is designed to support the best ideas. And to deliver what the consumer, or in this case, the voter, wants. This will all take time, and it is definitely a 50-state battle. You don’t have to win in all 50 states at one time. You can win state by state and see how it works.”

Inspire Kenosha is a collection of activities, events and resources intended to engage existing and emerging leaders so they feel empowered to evolve our community and region.

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