Innovation and Competitiveness

            In late September I attended the Silicon Flatirons conference on Innovation Policy and National Competitiveness at the University of Colorado here in Boulder, Colorado.  It was fascinating.  In a single afternoon the conference illuminated both the problem and the solution to effective government policy.
            A deeply left-wing city and county, Boulder provides an unsurpassed quality of life.  Athletics and healthy habits are not policy but a cultural obsession.  But Boulder is not an indebted left wing decaying city such as Baltimore where I spent eight years.  The economy for start-ups and venture capital is vibrant.  Unemployment is well below the national average and dropping.  Housing prices, while down, are a factor of single digit percentage drops. 
            It is the quality of life, the availability of highly educated workers, and high quality public schools with non-ideological school choice that generates a culture of over achievement in personal and business life.  It is a culture that overcomes heart disease, statewide cuts to public schools, and drives innovation.   Ask a person in Boulder to complete their fastest ironman or to turnaround a company and the response is “can do”.  What matters in Boulder is not your politics but results.
            The panels at the conference were mixed with academics, government policy-makers, and entrepreneurs.  Over the course of five hours the entrepreneurs, whether it was a Tech-Stars entrepreneur or Irwin Jacobs, discussed the same three basic policy problems to innovation in the United States:  education, legal immigration reform, and funding for basic government research.  What none of them asked for was more policy papers, more investment capital from the government, or trade wars.  What every government policy-maker and many academics advocated was more policy papers, more investment capital from government, and trade wars.
            Apparently, if you are a government policy-maker you have had your auditory nerve removed to prevent listening to others.
            The entrepreneurs asked for the following:
            1. They cannot hire workers with advanced degrees in the sciences, math, and engineering.  The job openings exceed the supply of qualified Americans.  There was a time in the mid-1990s when I signed off on temporary visas for foreigners in our business and wondered if it was taking American jobs – given American graduation rates in math, sciences, and engineering there is no evidence for that now.  Republican stonewalling on immigration is actively prohibiting employers from hiring a ready supply of legal immigrants graduating from American universities with the precise degrees needed in the economy.  Of course these graduates will return to India and China when Republicans block their path to citizenship.
            2.  We need more money for education devoted to new technology, math, science, and engineering.  Irwin Jacobs, the founder and former Chairman and CEO of Qualcomm spoke quietly and without conceit of the millions of dollars of his own money given to support schools and alternative educational techniques such as e-textbooks.  The need is a far cry from test taking and the games that surround it.  If a public school in Boulder is failing, parents can send their kids to any other public school in the county.  In Boulder we do not engage in a useless partisan debate over whether to divert public money to private and religious schools to achieve choice.  We establish public school choice and the market does the rest.
            3.  Jacobs began his career under a block grant to DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) at MIT.  He did not spend his time filling out grant requests or sweating out government reviews on an annual basis.  He spent his time innovating.  Then, he built one of the great American technology companies in part upon publicly financed and available basic research. 
            Not a single policy-maker, including the Vice-President’s domestic policy advisor or Eric Shapiro of the Council of Economic Advisors had a proposed a plan on how to remedy these three items.    I have an idea for budget cuts – fire every government policy-maker on those panels. 
            A very concrete example of the incredible frustration of the day was the Solyndra discussion.  Comments from the policy-makers ranged from “failures like this happen all the time in private enterprise” to “we have to take these types of risks to innovate”.  The loss of a $500 million investment because of inadequate due diligence and capitalization does occur all the time.  And the result is not a cushy panel seat, but an immediate firing.  And that record of incompetence follows the fund manager or executive to their grave.  It is not lost into the ether with no consequence.
            Note to the President, the Speaker, and Senator Reid – listen to the people without ideology who have created hundreds of thousands of US jobs and are changing the lives of school children with their own private wealth.  Immediately reform legal immigration for foreign nationals earning US advanced degrees.  Immediately begin shutting down the Department of Education, distribute block grants to the states with total Internet based transparency, and public school choice.  Immediately stop trying to be a private equity house and focus on funding basic research and broadcasting it results so that the entrepreneurs can relight our economy.
            I have been a Democrat my entire adult life.  Stop whining about the Republican House.  Do you think President Roosevelt and President Reagan faced no opposition?  How about Hitler and Soviet Russia? Great leaders are not formed in easy times, but in the toughest of times.  Either start leading, overcome obstacles, solve the problems right in front of you, or I suspect millions of Democrats will vote Republican for President.  And I suspect voters will throw out many Republicans – those who have favored ideology over problem solving. 
            It is way past time to return to “can do”, because the heart of American innovation beats as strongly today as at anytime in our history. If you will not join it, then get out of the way.


  1. Not just well said, John, but well WRITTEN! Your policy proposals are ones that any American should/could support. No one wants to go backwards. We're Americans, and we believe in the potential of our country. We all want results, not empty rhetoric. Or more importantly, what we all want is a true LEADER.


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