SALT LAKE CITY — For a guy who's best known for his monotone delivery and a face as deadpan as an Easter Island carving, lawyer/actor/economist/author Ben Stein was pure passion on Tuesday as he spoke about the economy, the state of Utah and President Donald Trump.
Stein came well prepared for the keynote of the fifth annual Utah Global Forum at downtown's Grand America Hotel, heaping praise on the state's economic success while highlighting what he saw as the keys to Utah's long-running prosperity.
"Utah is mostly a state of mind," Stein said. "Utah is, in a way, the largest small town in the world. It is a state with a small town's love of neighbors, a small town's love of God and a small town's love of family."
Stein made repeated, and celebratory, reference to the state's newly formed inland port in Salt Lake City.
"There's no more perfect spot on this earth for a new, giant super trade zone than here in Zion," Stein said. "Where the geography of the earth meets the geography of the soul."
International trade and diplomacy and the state's reliance on global economic interactions as an essential element of its overall business portfolio were topics at the heart of the forum, hosted by the World Trade Center Utah, the Salt Lake Chamber and the Governor's Office of Economic Development.
Chamber President and CEO Derek Miller told the audience of about 500 that today's economic prosperity in Utah owed a debt of gratitude to planning that took place decades ago and that future prosperity would be anchored, at least in part, on three very large current projects — the Salt Lake International Airport rebuild, the redevelopment of the Draper prison site and the inland port zone.
"The fact that we're having all three of them happening at the same time is truly remarkable," Miller said. "The significance of this cannot be overstated."
Miller noted the projects will all contribute to expanding Utah's global connections and continuing to build "one of the fastest-growing export economies in the country."
World Trade Center Utah President and CEO Miles Hansen echoed Miller's optimism and noted Utah is poised to bear great benefit from the Fourth Industrial Revolution — the advent of cyber-physical systems that will see highly digitally connected systems. Picture automated manufacturing processes connected directly to consumer orders in a system that requires little to no human intervention in the pipeline from factory to purchaser.
Hansen said the revolution is already underway and he believes Utah is very well positioned to grow its trade and commerce as technology becomes more embedded and integrated into everything we do.
Hansen listed the requirements for a community to become a successful global economic crossroads as one having "a highly skilled workforce, an ecosystem of innovation and collaboration and the ability to move products to key markets."
"We're talking about Utah," Hansen said.
While Stein noted his support of Trump and said the national economy since the president took office was "going great … going fabulously well," he did take issue with some of Trump's economic policy decisions, like instigating new tariff's on some global trade partners.
"Tariff's are bad things," Stein said. "Trade wars waged in tariffs are no one's idea of a good time.
"Let's leave it enough alone until we need it on a life-and-death basis, and we are well away from a life-and-death basis."
Stein also expressed his worries about the growing national deficit, currently over $21 trillion, and what he saw as a mistake, on Trump's part, to cut taxes, particularly decreasing taxes for the most wealthy Americans.
"I think the president was wrong in passing a substantial tax cut," Stein said. "If interest rates go up at all we're going to have a very hard time servicing the national debt. There's so many incredibly rich people who could pay more taxes, we don't need to be lowering taxes on them."
In response to a forum attendee's question about whether he agreed with the president that the press was "the enemy of the people," Stein veered away from Trump's proclamations, but noted he found some understanding with the underlying hostility.
"To say that the press is the enemy of the people is painting with way too broad a brush," Stein said. "But, the press has been very, very hard on Donald Trump and I don't blame him for being resentful at all. You could see why he'd be angry with them."
Stein also expressed his pessimism about the outcomes of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the likelihood of continued advances in robotics and artificial intelligence leading to a reduction of the human workforce in some industries.4 comments on this story
"If there really is going to be a rise of the robots, it's going to be a true nightmare for real workers," Stein said. "It's a terrifying prospect. I don't know how it's going to work."
Forum hosts also recognized two individuals and a company for their contributions to Utah's global growth. International Person of the Year, David Utrilla, founder and CEO of U.S. Translation Co.; International Company of the Year, Lifetime Products; Lifetime Achievement Award, Stan Rees, founder of Salt Lake Community College's Global Business Center.