I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely that our economic engine is absolutely broken. The discussion of how to help our economy is riddled with prescriptions for on undoing “mistakes,” freeing up capital for individual small businesses, bailing out troubled homeowners, and re-building infrastructure.
All that is piecemeal. It is wasteful and wrong. We cannot fix a broken economic engine by standing still, going backwards, or incrementalizing ourselves forward. The rest of the world is no longer there.
We need to move boldly to create the future. U.S. preeminence for at least half a century has rested on superior capabilities in computer science. Many of our most profound private sector innovations (such as microwave ovens, optical fiber, and video) were built off-of defense-related research and it is no coincidence that corporate innovators developed commercial applications.
When I spoke with Kimberly Clark’s head of R&D, he explained to me why they chose to move from Wisconsin to Seoul. “We are close to infotechnology, nanotechnology, and biomedical research.” He added, “We are close to Singapore, Hong Kong, and Tokyo. And access to those communities will drive our future.”
We need to put our energy into identifying the engines of economic growth where we can be global leaders—whether stem cells, nanotechnology, infology, or energy. The American future is not in automotive manufacturing. That is our past. We need to invest in building the capabilities, communities, and connectivity to become preeminent in key disciplines. And we need to do this together – right and left; private and public sector. Without collaboration, we will fail.
Success will happen like it happened in Silicon Valley when the public sector, the academic world, the private sector and the venture capitalist work together on creating a community of capabilities that draws in other capabilities and supports one another. It is more than being an incubator for start-ups — it is creating a community and spirit that work together and grow in capabilities with common underpinnings. The public sector needs to be the standard-bearer and economic encouragement that crosses company bound and academic bounds.
The key issue is not which economic faction gets the tax cuts. The political squabbling does nothing to advance the effort to find the platform from which we can be a leader in the global economy. That’s what keeps me up at night. We are asking the wrong questions. Our goal is not to recover but create–not to regain our past strength but to build the strengths we’ll need to create the future. Let us begin by defining those.