Sunday, May 25, 2014

Innovation is Secondary

Ever notice how little time politicians spend debating the core issues that concern the politically literate? And how easily our media chases after, or creates, secondary issues? It was painful enough to watch the tepid and interminable process known as the presidential election campaigns. And now with mid-terms approaching, we are reminded just how shallow American elections, and the media that feeds off them, have become. What really is killing us is the abject inability or unwillingness to understand and confront our rigged and dysfunctional system. Our overclass has no intention of letting public discourse ever become constructive and insightful. Our corporate media is only too happy to fixate on the trivial, or otherwise shine its investigative spotlight on important but secondary issues, including education, the federal debt, and other seemingly constructive topics such as innovation.

As America continues to struggle, many continue to tout 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. It seems, on its face, to be non-partisan.

However, when President Obama talks about the importance of innovation, he has often, inadvertently or not, folded it in with other 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 is the central tenant of individualism.

It's all quite clever, really, for the constant adulation of individualism tends to shut down debate and analysis of US political economy. It is all up to you. The rich earned all they have, and if you don't like your lot in life, it is your fault and only you can change it. This mantra allows the overclass to largely avoid honest media examination or a concerted pushback from a mostly insouciant population that is chockablock with low-information voters, has a short attention span, allows itself to be constantly distracted by inanity, and takes solace in religion. Corporate media operates within this milieu, invariably giving voice to conservative operatives who lecture and berate as class warfare any attempt to lay bare our breath-taking inequality. The ideology of individualism allows our overclass to pin society's ills on our growing underclass.

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.

However, 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 the 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. As with the recent rounds of stimulus spending, many of those tax dollars end up in Asia. Working harder, as both Republicans and Obama have exhorted, does nothing to change the imbalances. US corporations already have what they always want; cheap labor, huge profits, and a compliant, cheer-leader government. 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? Because corporate America's profits are not high enough? 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, not because of foreign competition, or globalization, but by design. It is the direct result of illegitimate 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 middle class and techno-industrial base have. A little history shows that nations that support each of these have thrived. Those that let their financial sector dominate have crumbled. America will not be an exception.

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