Inventing Our Way to Prosperity

I’m not a big fan of Thomas Friedman but I must say I was taken by his opinion piece in the NYT today. In it Friedman argues that the way out of the mess we find ourselves in is to invent and innovate. Here from the Times is the essence of what he has to say:

Russia, it seems to me, is clearly wasting this crisis. Oil prices rebounded from $30 to $70 a barrel too quickly, so the pressure for Russia to really reform and diversify its economy is off. The struggle for Russia’s post-Communist economic soul — whether it is going to be more OPEC than O.E.C.D., a country that derives more of its wealth from drilling its mines than from tapping its minds — seems to be over for now.

At the St. Petersburg exposition center, showing off the Russian economy, the two biggest display booths belonged to Gazprom, the state-controlled oil and gas company, and Sberbank, Russia’s largest state-owned bank. Russian companies that actually made things that the world wanted were virtually nonexistent: Two-thirds of Russia’s exports today are oil and gas. Gazprom makes the money, and Sberbank lends it out.

As one Western banker put it, when oil is $35 a barrel, Russia “has no choice” but to reform, to diversify its economy and to put in place the rule of law and incentives that would really stimulate small business. But at $70 a barrel, it takes an act of enormous “political will,” which the petro-old K.G.B. alliance that dominates the Kremlin today is unlikely to summon. Too much rule of law and transparency would constrict the ruling clique’s own freedom of maneuver.

China is also courting trouble. Recently — in the name of censoring pornography — China blocked access to Google and demanded that computers sold in China come supplied with an Internet nanny filter called Green Dam Youth Escort, starting July 1. Green Dam can also be used to block politics, not just Playboy. Once you start censoring the Web, you restrict the ability to imagine and innovate. You are telling young Chinese that if they really want to explore, they need to go abroad.

We should be taking advantage. Now is when we should be stapling a green card to the diploma of any foreign student who earns an advanced degree at any U.S. university, and we should be ending all H-1B visa restrictions on knowledge workers who want to come here. They would invent many more jobs than they would supplant. The world’s best brains are on sale. Let’s buy more!

Barrett argues that we should also use this crisis to: 1) require every state to benchmark their education standards against the best in the world, not the state next door; 2) double the budgets for basic scientific research at the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and the National Institute of Standards and Technology; 3) lower the corporate tax rate; 4) revamp Sarbanes-Oxley so that it is easier to start a small business; 5) find a cost-effective way to extend health care to every American.

We need to do all we can now to get more brains connected to more capital to spawn more new companies faster. As Jeff Immelt, the chief of General Electric, put it in a speech on Friday, this moment is “an opportunity to turn financial adversity into national advantage, to launch innovations of lasting value to our country.”

Sometimes, I worry, though, that what oil money is to Russia, our ability to print money is to America. Look at the billions we just printed to bail out two dinosaurs: General Motors and Chrysler.

Lately, there has been way too much talk about minting dollars and too little about minting our next Thomas Edison, Bob Noyce, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Vint Cerf, Jerry Yang, Marc Andreessen, Sergey Brin, Bill Joy and Larry Page. Adding to that list is the only stimulus that matters. Otherwise, we’re just Russia with a printing press.

That paragraph about bailing out our dinosaurs is pretty strong stuff for a liberal like Friedman, which probably makes me all the more appreciative of his comments.

There are some things in his article I might quibble with but on the whole, I think it is right on the mark. And that brings me to a point I think is important. Not only are we printing money to save the old economy but we are also printing money to pursue politically correct new technologies, specifically “green” energy initiatives. Now it might be a perfectly good investment in the future but it seems as if we are placing all of our bets on this one venue.

Why aren’t we channelling money to nanotechnology, robotics, genetic engineering or any of a number ofother promising technologies. The one thing that can be counted on is that the next big wave of invention and innovation is more likely to come from someplace we least expect as opposed to the technology we try to force feed.

Anyway, a hat tip to Friedman for some very good thoughts.

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About Tom Lindmark 401 Articles

I’m not sure that credentials mean much when it comes to writing about things but people seem to want to see them, so briefly here are mine. I have an undergraduate degree in economics from an undistinguished Midwestern university and masters in international business from an equally undistinguished Southwestern University. I spent a number of years working for large banks lending to lots of different industries. For the past few years, I’ve been engaged in real estate finance – primarily for commercial projects. Like a lot of other finance guys, I’m looking for a job at this point in time.

Given all of that, I suggest that you take what I write with the appropriate grain of salt. I try and figure out what’s behind the news but suspect that I’m often delusional. Nevertheless, I keep throwing things out there and occasionally it sticks. I do read the comments that readers leave and to the extent I can reply to them. I also reply to all emails so feel free to contact me if you want to discuss something at more length. Oh, I also have a very thick skin, so if you disagree feel free to say so.

Enjoy what I write and let me know when I’m off base – I probably won’t agree with you but don’t be shy.

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