Paper Trail: Excerpt from ‘The Comeback’

April 26, 2011

Gary Shapiro is president and chief executive of the Consumer Electronics Association, the Arlington-based trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies. This excerpt is taken from his recent book: “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.”

Almost every week, I experience a tale of two cities as I travel from Washington, D.C., to Detroit to see my wife and toddler son. For Washington, it is the best of times.

The Washington economy is supercharged by the inflow of new federal government spending and the legal and lobbying business generated by the government proposing and issuing new federal laws and regulations. Even the quiet missions of Washington trade associations are growing as the government rushes to legislate and regulate.

For Detroit, it is the worst of times and has been for some time. Over the last fifty years, the city has lost more than half its population. As they say, people vote with their feet, and the flight from Detroit mirrors a larger national trend, with states like Michigan, New York, and Illinois suffering net population losses over the past ten years. People go where there’s opportunity, and there simply isn’t any in Detroit.

Of course, Detroit’s decline is tied to the absolute and relative decline of the Big Three auto manufacturers, which remain the city’s largest employers. Fifty years ago, these distinctly American companies were the Dells, Microsofts, and Apples of the American economy. Although the United States didn’t invent the automobile, this country made it its own—indeed, never in the history of mankind had such an advanced technological achievement been available to so many.

And although the car is very much still with us, Detroit’s day is, as I look out the window, all but over. It survives only by the largesse of that other city I call home: Washington. The relative opulence of Washington compared to the distress of Detroit epitomizes a challenged nation. With apologies to Dickens, this tale of two cities is the story of the expansion of the public sector and the decay of the private sector.

Preserving the dream

If we want to preserve the American Dream, we need a framework for America’s future.

Fortunately, the way forward isn’t a total secret. It’s the same path Americans from every age have followed. We are a nation of pioneers and innovators. We aim higher and go further than any other people on the globe. We look at barriers and see opportunity; we look at our lives and want to make them better.

What separates America from any other nation on the planet? Just this: We give our citizens the freedom to succeed, or at least we used to, and we reward those who see further or more creatively than anyone else. It’s what I call innovation, and it’s the key to our current troubles. It’s what built once-great cities like Detroit, and its decline is what has ruined them. Innovation is the engine of human progress, and for the last one hundred years, America has led that progress. It’s time to lead once again.

Paper Trail is an occasional feature focusing on documents of interest to the region’s business community.

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