NEW YORK - Delivering the keynote address at the 101st National Retail Federation Big Show, former President Bill Clinton did not shy away from the challenges that businesses face in this economy. In his speech, entitled "Embracing Our Common Humanity," Clinton spoke about the inequality, instability and unsustainable way of life which makes up the world today.
Despite these potential problems, Clinton spoke with optimism about the future if there is a collaborative focus on fixing these problems by different countries.
"Overall, I wouldn't be pessimistic, but I also don't minimize the challenges before us," said Clinton, who founded the William J. Clinton Foundation in 2001 to help focus on and solve domestic and global issues. "It begins in our minds and hearts, but to do it we must share it. The bottom line is we can't get away from the rest of the world, so we have to share the future. We will either share misery or we will share the prosperity, but the only way to do that is to create a system that has more shared opportunities and shared responsibilities."
While embracing commonality may be a key to success, Clinton also noted that changes are needed to ensure a full economic recovery .
"America's great ticket to the future is that there is somebody here from everywhere," Clinton said. "We have to get back in the futures business. We have to reform our education system and we have to educate people for a lifetime. This economic crisis is about way more than the economy and it has gone to the core of people's sense of who they are and how they get through life with meaning. The core of the American dream is what has been shaken in this economic crisis and we are slowly emerging from it."
Despite being introduced by Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren and speaking about national and international issues, small business had a big place in the keynote address as Clinton spoke of some of his favorite independent bookstores where he shopped.
"I always try to help small businesses at Christmastime," Clinton said with a smile.
Aside from being a customer of small businesses, Clinton also acted as an advocate for them, speaking on potential opportunities and changes that need to be made in order to keep small businesses successful. In particular, Clinton spoke of programs based in energy efficiency to help small businesses.
"I have been pushing for a 'Just Say Yes' system where people can retrofit buildings and make them more energy efficient or put solar panels on them and pay the cost of the retrofit back only from utilities savings," Clinton said. "If you are running a small business and you retrofit your business, (then) you are not putting any money out-of-pocket."
Clinton also noted that potential small-business owners have new opportunities, thanks to recently passed legislation.
"The government the other day took a small step in the right direction where if you had a Ph.D. in engineering, say, from India, you used to be able to come into America on a visa if you had a job," Clinton said. "Now if you have the cash and ability to start a small business, they will let you in."
Lastly, Clinton advocated for a fair tax rate for small business while highlighting the current system and its flaws.
"The corporate tax rate should be lower and the structure should be flattened," Clinton said. "For small business we need to look at something we haven't already. A lot of small businesses are subchapter S corporations, so they pay individual income tax rates. It was always justified because we thought they got the best of both worlds, so they should do that. In a practical manner (with small) business it can put you at a real disadvantage, so we may have to think of a different system. "