Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the Annual Convention of the Concrete and Aggregates Industries Associations in Chicago, Illinois

January 31, 1984

I was just trying to learn here for just a second whether the weather was as bad here yesterday as it looked last night on television, in Washington. I understand it wasn't that bad.

Thank you, Bill. Members of Congress, distinguished guests, and ladies and gentlemen, I appreciate this chance to be with you. Over the years we've stood shoulder to shoulder on the major issues of the day. I remember when it was in style to say that no growth would improve the quality of life. Well, we can be grateful no one's falling for that anymore. The folks in your industry are today, as you have always been, working not to keep America the same but building to make it better.

Your group was one of the first I addressed after becoming Governor of California back in 1967. I also spoke at one of your luncheons in San Francisco in 1971. And while preparing for today, I looked over that 1971 speech. It began with the words, "I just returned from a trip to Washington, DC, and have to say it's a great place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there." [Laughter]

Now, I still have some of the same feelings today, but— [laughter] —I think maybe I'll stretch the visit out for a few more years, if I can, and then I'll head home. [Applause] Thank you very much. [applause] Well, thank you. Thank you very much. Be careful. I may decide not to go on after that. [Laughter]

I appreciate this opportunity to give you an update on what we've been accomplishing during our 36-month tenure in Washington. Of course it's what you and people like you outside of Washington are doing that makes all the difference. Too often government is given a lion's share of the credit. And that's a pretty good excuse for a story here about the old farmer who took over a parcel of land down near the creek bottom. It had never been cleared, it was covered with rocks, brush, all rutted, and he just determined to make it flourish. And he went to work and he hauled away the rocks and he cleared away the brush, cultivated the ground and fertilized and so forth, and then planted his garden and before long just had a very beautiful garden.

And he was so proud of what he'd accomplished that one Sunday after church he asked the minister to drop by and see his place. Well, the reverend came out and he was impressed. He said, "That's the tallest corn I've ever seen. The Lord certainly has blessed this land." And then he said, "Those melons! I've never seen any any bigger than that. Praise the Lord." And he went on that way—tomatoes, squash, the beans, everything, and what the Lord had done with that land. And the old farmer was getting pretty edgy. And finally he couldn't take it anymore and he said, "Reverend, I wish you could have seen it when the Lord was doing it by Himself." [Laughter]

We Americans have always been grateful to God for the blessings bestowed on this land. One of our greatest blessings was freedom that unleashed the creative energy of our people. That energy took an undeveloped land with vast stretches of wilderness and desert and turned it into an economic dynamo that has provided a better quality of life and a greater degree of freedom for people than any other in history.

There are many explanations for the American miracle, but government planning isn't one of them. I can't help but think that had Chicago faced modern Federal regulations, we'd still be stepping over the burned-out wrecks left by that great fire. Of course, back in those days, no one waited for help from Washington. They just rolled up their sleeves and went to work.

Chicago's resilience reflected the spirit of a free people. The key word is "free." The prevalent notion in this country was that progress is the result of unleashing people's talents and energies to achieve goals as established by the people, themselves.

Now, this was contrary to another concept that has had a degree of acceptance in the latter half of the 20th century, especially in the Nation's Capital. This theory supposes that progress is a product of harnessing the people's energy and focusing it on predetermined goals. Planners would determine the goals to be targeted. The planners, invariably, are people with whom the espousers of this philosophy agree.

The latter theory didn't take hold here because—and this is something of which we can all be proud—it is pretty darn hard to harness an American. Thank God for that.

The American character is proud and independent. It's one of this country's greatest assets. We came here from every land. We're the product of every culture and race. We came to be free and to better our lives and the lives of our families. And yet, we are all Americans. Our love of liberty and the values that flow from it unite us as a nation and a people.

An aspect of American history, distasteful to some, is the important role played by the profit motive. Well, I, for one, have no trouble with the profit motive. When people are free to work for themselves they work longer and harder. They'll do a better job because they're not just following orders, they're doing what they want to do. Profit motive unleashed an explosion of energy in America.

The young Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, traveled to America back in the 1830's and he observed that, "America is a land of wonders in which everything is in constant motion and every change seems an improvement." He wrote that, "No natural boundary seems to be set to the efforts of man, and in his eyes what is not yet done is only what he has not yet attempted to do."

Well, those who are uncomfortable with profits may not understand something that you folks in business know well. In a competitive economy, making a profit means filling other people's needs and doing it efficiently, courteously, and at as low a rate as possible.

Because our business men and women have been working for profit, the American people pay less of their income for food and necessities of life than people anywhere else. Of course, mistakes sometimes happen. There's a story of a fellow whose friend was so successful that he was opening up a new branch office and a floral arrangement was ordered for the occasion. He was upset when he got to the opening to find a wreath reading, "Rest in peace." [Laughter] Well, on the way home, he was so upset he went by and stopped by the flower shop to complain. And after he ranted for a little bit the owner of the flower shop said, "Well, calm down. Things aren't all that bad." He said, "Just think, somewhere today someone was buried under a flower arrangement inscribed, 'Good luck in your new location.'" [Laughter]

It hasn't been perfect and, yes, our country has made mistakes. But with freedom and a profit motive we've achieved greatness as a nation. And don't let anyone tell you that because our people are working for themselves and their families it is contrary to community spirit and the spirit of human kindness and generosity. The frontier spirit of pulling together is legendary. And today people voluntarily donate hundreds of millions of hours and billions of dollars to charitable and community projects each year.

This, too, is inherent in the spirit of America. After all, when people are free the choice of helping others becomes meaningful. The choice of doing something to better one's community becomes a source of pride because it reflects the character of the donor and not the product of legal coercion.

It's time to reject the notion that advocating government programs is a form of personal charity. Generosity is a reflection of what one does with his or her own resources and not what he or she advocates the government to do with everyone's money.

Calls for more and more government may reflect a lack of understanding of the American character. Our values as a people are strong. We believe in work, yes, but also in family, faith, and neighborhood. We're optimistic people who believe we can overcome adversity and accomplish great things.

Four years ago it was clear that something had gone wrong. There was a growing feeling of pessimism and a sense of hopelessness inconsistent with the American character. For the first time the refrain was heard that America's best days were behind her.

Economic stagnation held us in a vise-like grip while double-digit inflation picked our pockets. Sky-high interest rates knocked the construction and automobile industries right off their feet. Now, I know this isn't a political gathering, but does anyone really want to go back to those days?

The woes from which we're now emerging were not the result of some uncontrollable cycle, nor were they the result of personality defects in our political leaders. We simply strayed too far from those truths which serve as the basis of American progress. Government was spending too much, draining away any chance for growth in the private sector. Federal taxes were too high, undercutting the incentive to work or invest. Federal regulation was beyond all reason, tying our hands and threatening our freedom.

Getting this situation straightened out and putting this country back on the right road has not been easy, and the job is not yet done, but we have made a beginning. I want to take this opportunity to thank you for all your support over the last 36 months. What we've accomplished couldn't have been done without the active support of you and good folks like you.

Together, we've put the inflation monster in a cage, and we've broken the inflation mentality. Together, we've cut the growth in Federal spending more than in half. More progress can be made here, but we've made a good start. The prime interest rate has come down from 21.5 percent to 11 percent. Here, too, those rates can and must come down more.

I think there are just some people that aren't quite sure that what's going on now is for real. Well, maybe a little bit longer and they'll realize it is for real.

Federal regulatory reform has reduced the growth of Federal red tape by more than 25 percent. This initiative, led by Vice President Bush, has cut over 300 million man-hours of needless, government-required paperwork each year and will save more than $150 billion for you over the next 10 years.

Through across-the-board tax rate reductions and indexing, to begin in 1985, we're preventing people from being mangled by built-in tax increases.

As the political rhetoric heats up this year, there'll be those trying to appeal to greed and envy. Make no mistake, that is what they're trying to do. They suggest our tax program favors the rich. Well, this is the same antibusiness, anti-success attitude that brought this country to the brink of economic disaster. The finger-pointers and hand-wringers of today were the policymakers of yesterday, and they gave us economic stagnation and double-digit inflation. There was only one thing fair about their policies: They didn't discriminate; they made everyone miserable. [Laughter] Today 10 percent of the people—10 percent—pay 50 percent of the income tax. And 50 percent of the workers in America, and earners, pay 93 percent.

Teddy Roosevelt once said, "It ought to be evident to everyone that business has to prosper before anybody can get any benefit from it." Well, together, we're restoring progress, and every American will benefit.

We're turned stagnation and decline into robust growth—6 percent in 1983. Productivity is up; consumer spending is up; factory use is up; housing starts and auto sales are up; and, most encouraging, venture capital, which lays the foundation for a better tomorrow, is way up. During 1983, $4.1 billion was raised. That was four times more than in 1980.

Working people are already seeing results. More people are, in fact, working today than ever before in our history. Last year unemployment took its biggest drop in 33 years. Real wages went up last year and the year before that. When we got to Washington, real wages were going down. And one statistic of which I'm most proud: A working family earning $25,000 has $1,500 more in purchasing power than if tax and inflation rates were still at the 1980 levels.

Just this morning we received two gems of good news. The leading economic indicators, forecasting the direction of the economy, posted a solid increase in December, the 15th increase in the last 16 months, and home sales in December jumped to their highest level in more than 5 years.

America's economy is strong and, yes, I do believe the American people are better off than they were before. We inherited despair, and we're turning it into hope. With hard work and common sense, we're turning the era of limits into an era of opportunity.

We've come a long way, but much remains for us to do. Turning the economy around was priority number one. Now we can turn to the equally difficult task of streamlining government, making it more efficient and responsive. We've made a start here, too. We've transferred a host of programs back to the State and local levels, programs that never should have been the Federal Government's responsibility in the first place.

We also put to work a team of experts from the private sector to determine where changes can be made to eliminate waste and make the Federal Government more cost-effective. The Grace commission came up with some 2,500 recommendations that are being studied right now throughout the departments and agencies. This was all done by some 2,000 of your companions in the business world who volunteered and even put up the money to fund their activity.

We, of course, still must come to grips with the deficit. My only caution is to watch out for those offering easy answers. I have attempted to keep this issue from being politicized by supporting the creation of a bipartisan working group from the Congress. The group will work with the administration on making a down payment on the deficit. More substantial measures will still be required. But one thing is certain: Raising taxes and threatening the recovery is no answer. This problem was long in the making. It'll require more than band-aid solutions.

I've sometimes compared government to that unkind definition of a baby: It's an alimentary canal with an appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other. [Laughter] One of the first steps that we can take to make our system more responsible is providing the Chief Executive with a line-item veto. It's working in 43 States and I think it should be put to use in Washington, DC.

The American people want this reform. And they and I also want a constitutional amendment mandating a balanced Federal budget. Now, this isn't a new idea. At the adoption of the Constitution, 1787, Thomas Jefferson noted that the Constitution needed one additional article. He said it should contain one that would prohibit the government from borrowing money.

Well, in addition to long-term reforms, I believe we should make our tax system more simple, fair, and rewarding for all the people. If we could broaden the tax base, then personal rates could come down rather than go up. And I think tax simplification is an historic change the people want and our economy needs.

In closing, just let me express that I have every confidence that we can control government spending, taxing, and in doing so, ensure a lasting era of growth and opportunities for all our people. Although the rhetoric gets thick at times, especially during election years, the leaders of both political parties are individuals of good will, individuals who want what's best for this country. Nobody should ever sell America or Americans short.

We are today recapturing much of the spirit of enterprise about which that Frenchman, de Tocqueville, wrote. Your industry, more than most, reflects this spirit. You've proven that those who are willing to take a chance, willing to work hard and live right, can accomplish great things. You need only look around you to find successful individuals at the head of impressive companies who started with a pick or shovel or driving a truck.

This magnificent theater in which we're meeting today is part of the legacy of an individual who started in the sand and gravel industry, Colonel Henry Crown. His father, Arie—I hope I have the name, pronounced the name right—after whom this theater is named, was a Lithuanian immigrant. From the humblest of beginnings, Henry Crown became one of the most successful men in the American business world. Reflecting the good and decent values at the heart of this country, he's been one of this country's leading philanthropists. Colonel Crown, thank you for all you've done.

Colonel Crown's story is not unique among this group. You are powerful forces for good in your communities across our country. Walt Whitman once wrote, "O, America, because you build for mankind I build for you."

Today American liberty shines brightly, offering proof to a mankind plagued with tyranny and deprivation: There is a better way. Together, we can keep America the blessed land of freedom and opportunity God meant it to be.

Thank you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 12:38 p.m. in the Arie Crown Theatre at McCormick Place. He was introduced by William Jenkins, chairman of the board of the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association. Following the President's remarks, he was presented with a plaque bearing a replica of the convention badge.

Before returning to Washington, DC, the President met at McCormick Place with a group of Illinois labor leaders.

The event was the combined annual convention of the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, the National Sand and Gravel Association, and the National Crushed Stone Association.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Annual Convention of the Concrete and Aggregates Industries Associations in Chicago, Illinois Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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