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Former Secretary of Commerce Criticizes Trump Trade Agenda

Former United States Secretary of Commerce Penny S. Pritzker (R) and Kennedy School Professor R. Nicholas Burns (L) discuss current economic challenges at the Institute of Politics.
Former United States Secretary of Commerce Penny S. Pritzker (R) and Kennedy School Professor R. Nicholas Burns (L) discuss current economic challenges at the Institute of Politics. By Gabriel C. Cederberg
By Lucas Ward, Crimson Staff Writer

Billionaire business mogul and former Secretary of Commerce Penny S. Pritzker ʼ81 discussed her career at a forum at the Institute of Politics Wednesday night, criticizing President Donald Trump’s approach to trade agreements.

Pritzker—a former Harvard Overseer—recalled growing up in Chicago in a business-savvy family involved in the burgeoning Chicago hotel industry. She said her childhood experiences heavily influenced her decision to get involved in the business world as an adult.

“My childhood was growing up where the family dinner conversation was about building a business, and it was a full family affair,” she said.

At the event, Pritzker said she faced challenges even within her family when trying to enter the “all-male environment” of the business world.

“I showed up in Chicago and I knew I wanted to work with my family members, but it was an all-male environment. There were no women except secretaries, there were no female executives, there weren’t even women in the ranks really,” she said.

Pritzker added, however, that men in her family supported her interest in business.

“[My grandfather] had always encouraged me and so did my uncle,” she said.

Pritzker also discussed her tenure as Secretary of Commerce under former President Barack Obama, as well as her involvement in his 2008 campaign. Although she did not serve as Secretary during Obama’s first term, she was involved in his economic recovery advisory committee following the 2008 recession, and said she experienced up close how the Obama administration dealt with the financial crisis.

“It was a terrifying time…our banking system came very close to collapse. I was on phone calls where it was really scary to understand the depth of crisis our country was in,” she said, “[Obama] did what leaders should do: find the best and brightest in a crisis and listen.”

Pritzker also criticized Trump’s stances on trade policy, described by Kennedy School professor R. Nicholas Burns—who moderated the event—as a potential “revolution in trade.” Trump has repeatedly criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement and withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January.

“What I know about trade as a businessperson and as someone who has been in government is that trade expands our markets,” Pritzker said, “Political forces have been playing against the angst that the American people feel… the problem is the gains from globalization has not been broadly shared.”

Pritzker said she does not believe the United States should back out of trade agreements in the future.

“The solution that’s being proffered by this administration is to get a lot tougher on our trade agreements, and I just don’t agree with that. I think that instead we should be doubling down on our trade agreements that provide opportunities for us to make and sell things around the world,” she said.

—Staff writer Lucas Ward can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @LucaspfWard.

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