Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Point Missed in the Budget Debate

It's become all the rage in Washington to froth over the federal deficit and produce sound bite-driven proposals on how to reduce it. In the relentless quest for media coverage, everyone involved in the budget debate has something accusatory to say about someone else. As in sports, trash talking and cheap shots get more attention than real accomplishments.

The lack of attention to real accomplishments allows an important point about the budget deficit to go unnoticed. When we talk about splitting up a pie, the size of the pie is crucial. A large, fast growing pie is much easier to divide than a smaller, slowly growing pie. A stagnant or shrinking pie can be poisonous to the debate. Right now, we have a slowly growing pie that may go stagnant or shrink soon given the rising costs of energy and food. And the debate is indeed poisonous.

We need to focus more on expanding the pie, not in the Federal Reserve short term-next quarter, money printing, inflation-risky way, but for the long term. We also can't look to the federal government to solve all our problems. At the risk of asking Americans to behave like adults, it would be better if we looked for some non-federal ways to boost long term economic growth. There is a limit to the effectiveness of federal policies, which are mostly subsidies and handouts, and we pretty much surpassed that limit a while ago. What should be done?

Embrace Innovation. Innovation was the key to America's spectacular growth in the past two centuries. Railroads, the telegraph, the telephone, the airplane, automation of farming, new energy technologies, electronics and computers were essential factors in making America an economic powerhouse. We celebrate the concept of innovation today, but don't encourage it enough. Immigration rules for the highly educated should be relaxed--we'll never recapture manufacturing from Asia, but we can try to bring more of their brainpower to America. Many of Asia's smartest people want to live here, at least for a while and maybe for the rest of their lives. Brains produce innovation; tariffs don't. America's economic future will be in the production of high value added goods and services. (And not, contrary to what the Fed thinks, a revival of housing, which can't be revived by the government because it remains buried under a crushing load of bad debt, and only politically unacceptable levels of taxpayer subsidies will revive housing.) Innovation was the key to America's past prosperity and will be the key to its future.

Hug nerds. America's educational system is roundly criticized for failing to teach many students the basics. That's a valid point, but we're too focused on making America's schools training facilities for corporate employers. Schools should also be a place for exploration and creative thinking. They're not. Today's elite universities' admissions standards place enormous emphasis on being well-rounded, having not only fantastic grades, but athletic achievement, public service, experience in the arts, internships left and right, and international travel. The people admitted will make good corporate executives, management consultants, corporate lawyers, accountants, and doctors. Those with good math skills may become Wall Streeters. Most likely, none will create innovative technologies or establish major businesses. It's not an accident that Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Ellison were all college dropouts. (So was Mark Zuckerberg, although it's not yet clear if Facebook is a transformational company or a fad-and-fade like Yahoo.) America's leading universities don't embrace original thinkers; they favor compliant kids who know how to manipulate and please their elders. Today's elite schools don't encourage or even tolerate the wacked out thinking that transformational economic change requires. Gates, Jobs and Ellison had to swim upstream to accomplish what they did. One can only wonder how many dozens, hundreds and maybe thousands of other free thinking, but slightly less determined kids have been discouraged from fostering innovative change. We need to think outside the box to make America grow again, and one way would be to encourage, and indeed embrace, kids who think outside the box.

Improve transportation and communications. America is a big country. Look on a globe, and you'll find very few other countries as large. We need really good transportation systems, because ultimately goods and many services need to be physically delivered. One can't live off Internet access alone. State and federal governments in the 19th Century did a much better job in this respect than their counterparts today. The Erie Canal was sponsored by New York state. The railroads were subsidized by the federal government. In the 20th Century, air transportation and the interstate highway system were creations of federal policy, and local governments took on much of the burden of building suburban infrastructure. America became wealthy from the massive markets permitted by these government supported transportation systems. Today, highways need to be maintained, bridges repaired, and subway systems renovated and expanded. Suburban roads need maintenance and improvement--remember that most economic growth is in suburban areas, in spite of renewal in a few urban areas. Roads and other transportation systems don't have powerful lobbyists, so they are easily ignored. That is a serious mistake.

Fostering high-speed Internet access for all should be a priority. This would include hard wired access and wireless access. The easier it is to communicate, the more innovation we'll have. And, let's face it, the more consumption we'll have since we're approaching the point where you can buy almost anything over the Internet. Way too many people share way too much about themselves in the Internet. But speed of communication speeds up economic activity. Even if some people are tacky and tasteless, others will increase their productivity--and, along with it, our prosperity.

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