Former Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, who worked under President Barack Obama and currently works as chairman of PSP Capital Partners and its affiliate, Pritzker Realty Group, spoke Friday in the Ford School of Public Policy’s Annenberg Auditorium. Dozens attended the event, titled “America's Economic Future,” the first annual Vandenburg lecture. The event was held as a discussion between Pritzker and Ellen Hughes-Cromwick, who was a Business adjunct professor before serving as chief economist at the Department of Commerce.

The Vandenburg lectures are sponsored by the Meijer family and honors late Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, R-Mich, who encouraged bipartisan support for consequential foreign policy issues such as the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO and the creation of the United Nations.

Pritzker began the speech stating while she had reservations after being offered the position of Obama’s campaign finance chair, her family encouraged her to accept the position. She would later serve on Obama’s economic recovery advisory board following his election as president, where Pritzker was responsible for advising the administration on ways to recover from the 2007-2008 financial crisis.   

“Our banking system was on the verge of collapse, the auto industry was bankrupt and our country was really near collapse,” she said. 

Pritzker also served as an adviser on jobs, but later was confirmed as commerce secretary in June 2013. Pritzker had no previous government experience.

“I had the honor of a lifetime to serve our country and to represent the United States of America both in our country and around the world,” she said.

Cromwick then shifted the conversation to the United States’ struggle with protectionism, asking Pritzker how the U.S. should manage global free trade so that it does not hurt domestic businesses, such as the steel and aluminum industries.

Pritzker responded business owners around the country were most concerned with obtaining global market access. She strongly supported the need for open international trade but thought businesses should protect vulnerable American industries by putting international pressure on countries that cheat the system.

Regarding steel, she asserted while some tariffs were necessary to implement, the U.S. should focus on international cooperation for protecting the American steel industry.

“We globally went to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) and other global organizations and said the world needs to come together and we need to fight whos over producing steel, which is China,” she said. “They are screwing up the steel market… but the way you address it is you have to have the world come together.”

President Donald Trump recently imposed tariffs of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on imported aluminum. The move was an effort to protect the American steel industry but has been criticized as an attack on free trade.

Pritzker also highlighted her efforts to promote free trade such as opening markets in China, elevating the commercial relationship with India and increasing trade with Africa. She then discussed the importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the necessity for international cooperation on commerce.

“You can’t do much unilaterally … and commerce is a great way to develop multilateral relationships,” Pritzker said. “And that's what TPP is about. It’s about creating rules … that bring your countries together.”

The TPP is a pact signed by the United States and 11 other countries in February 2016 to improve economic ties among the countries by slashing tariffs while increasing trade and promoting growth. Trump withdrew the United States from the pact on the first day of his presidency, believing that the deal hurt American industries.

During the Q&A portion of the lecture, a student asked Pritzker what she would do differently if she had the opportunity to return to her position as commerce secretary. Pritzker responded saying she regretted the TPP failed to be enacted.

“I had a leader of one of the TPP countries from Asia say to me about three weeks ago, ‘You know, America is off the playing field in Asia,’” she said.

Pritzker concluded her thoughts by encouraging the students in the audience to volunteer on behalf of the country.

“If you get the opportunity to serve … do it,” she said. “And if you have the chance, even for a year or two to go and work in Washington, do it. Because we need the talent, we need the perspective, and particularly folks that come from these great research universities, you have a lot to offer.”

Andrew Breed, a U-M Dearborn alum, left the talk believing Pritzker’s approach to tariffs would be more effective than Trump’s approach.

“The tariffs that President Trump is talking about imposing on aluminum and steel … to me it’s really scary the way he’s going about trying to fix our economic situation,” he said.     

Business graduate student Parker Caldwell was also captivated by Pritzker’s story and her transition from business to government.

“I thought it was really interesting her backstory — getting involved in the Obama campaign and getting started in the government,” he said. “It was surprising by how organic it was.” 

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