As America continues to struggle, many have reminded us of the value of innovation-- in technology and commerce, mostly, --but also in education and government. President Obama himself has often stressed the importance of innovation; how we once had it in abundance, how it now is eroding, and what we must do to get it back. The value of innovation would seem to be something that progressives and conservatives could mostly agree on, and that helps explain why the President talks about it. There is, of course, less agreement on just how innovation should be enhanced, and what the proper role of government should be.
When President Obama talks about the importance of innovation, he has often, inadvertently or not, draped it in conservative talking points. We need to "work harder", "stay in school", --or go back to school-- and get that degree or those credentials. It's a competitive world out there; if you can't get the job you want, it's because you are not properly trained and credentialed. And, of course, you cannot blame corporate America if you don't have the proper skills. We must not let down them down; work harder and prove your value to the job creators.
This storyline is not so wrong as it is incomplete. Obviously, there is much to be said for staying is school, seeking additional training, or more broadly, the role of innovation. American commerce still provides sundry example of where hard work and innovation can take you; they are the twin edges we must sharpen if we are to meet future challenges.
Every speech devoted to either of these takes the focus away from the underlying causes of US difficulty; jobs, to be sure, but also wage levels for the jobs we still have. Most people are in fact employed, and most jobs have not been outsourced or lost to foreign competition. What is not being acknowledged is that a disproportionate number of the jobs Americans now have face little foreign competition. That's the good part; the bad part is modest wages, benefits, and skill requirements for so many of these jobs. You don't need a degree to work fast food, retailing, and the like. And what about that other more technical job you went to back to school for, got a degree in, and now are heavily in debt for? Sorry, that job has been filled.
The problem of our sluggish economic growth is not a lack of innovation. We have bought into an economic doctrine that sanctifies free trade, financial deregulation, including unfettered flow of capital, and an obsession with credit and debt. It is a system designed by and for banks and the investor class, with little regard for main street or the middle class. The result is an indifference to massive trade deficits, dangerously leveraged banks, and an increasingly ability of the wealthy to avoid taxation and accountability.
Employees are seen as a mere input in this profit model. Low wages are good since they improve the bottom line. If workers are recalcitrant and actually want a living wage, management should be free to outsource production to low wage countries. To hear some tell it, management is virtually obligated to fire its American workers and seek cheap unregulated workers abroad, for improving the bottom line is management's only real responsibility. It's what the investors want, you know.
And the people who work for the company? That's labor, an input. Lower input costs mean higher profits. Why pay more? Any manager who does not seek to maximize profits is doing a disservice to investors, just like they were all taught in American business schools. It's all very rational and efficient, don't you see?
Innovation does not directly address any of this. We have innovated like crazy and what are the results? Entire industries have been shipped overseas. Because we have allowed our industrial base and concomitant skills to erode, seeking out overseas producers has become a default position. A generation has grown up assuming that American reliance on foreign manufacturers is the natural order of things.
Nor do the calls for greater innovation say who will benefit from the results. Asia is a huge beneficiary of US economic policy. For generations our tax dollars have poured into basic R&D, much of it going to public universities. It has been a great success story, and it has played a key role in America's development. And like the recent round of stimulus spending, much of those tax dollars ends up in Asia. Working harder, as even Obama has exhorted, does nothing to change the imbalances. US corporations already have what they always want; cheap labor, huge profits. The investor class took a hit in 2008, but they have recovered nicely, and have fat dividends and lightly-taxed capital gains to show for it.
So the middle class needs to work harder? For them? Because the job creators need help? Americans are already working harder than elsewhere in the OECD; we also have, in recent decades, relatively little to show for it. Wages have been suppressed, union membership has plummeted, and pensions and benefits have become even more rarefied. All of this is the direct result of flawed policies made in response to legitimate economic challenges.
Innovation will help; it always has. But the role of innovation has been undermined for the same reason our techno-industrial base has. Economic history is very clear on this: Nations that vigorously promote and defend their industrial and technical base have thrived. Those that didn't, and let their financial sector dominate, have crumbled.
America will not be an exception.