The Brookings Institution convened a gathering of business, policy and their own resident thought leaders Friday to discuss how the United States can foster growth through innovation. Guests included Monumental Sports and Entertainment founder and majority owner Ted Leonsis and Commerce Secretary John Bryson.
The conversation ranged from job creation and U.S. competitiveness to media, information technology and local- and state-level innovation. The Brookings Institution Web site and cable’s C-SPAN 2 offered live footage of the event. A vibrant coverage also happened online, particularly on Twitter.
The hashtag of the event was #BiJobCreation, and many of the salient quotes and moments were captured on the social media platform.
Business leaders’ attitudes were predictable, with many calling for changes to existing visa laws to make it easier for immigrants, particularly those trained in the United States, to stay in the United States. Another popular topic was the challenge the United States faces in terms of its competitiveness, with Bryson citing oft-mentioned but still concerning statistics on U.S. infrastructure and education. Bryson steered clear of mentioning the president’s plan to merge several trade and commerce agencies, which Obama presented Friday afternoon after Bryson’s morning remarks.
U.S. manufacturing wasn’t written off, however. According to Bryson, a majority — 67 percent — of innovation in the United States comes from the nation’s manufacturing sector. Bryson called it “the biggest source of innovation in the U.S. economy.”
But Tom Connelly, Executive VP and Chief Information Officer at DuPont, was stark in his assessment of U.S. manufacturing’s past vs. its future: “There are no low-tech manufacturing industries left,” he said flatly. In order to foster growth, Connelly and others said the manufacturing sector would need to enter the new digital economy — an economy that, at least according to Bryson, a third of the United States is still unable to participate in, given the lack of universal broadband access.
“We are going to have to change institutions,” said Brookings Senior Fellow William Galston. Changing business incentives, and subsequently their actions, is one of the necessary changes the United States needs to make in order to foster growth. But, standing in the way of progress is the nation’s biggest problem: its political system, which Galston described as ”dysfunctional” and “like hell” — something America must go through to fix and not around.
“There is an almost complete discontinuity” between what was being discussed at Brookings and the conversations happening on the campaign trail, “and these are bad leading indicators” for the fall, said Galston. He proposes solving this, at least in part, by tying congressional pay to results produced while in office — something unlikely to happen, given how Congressional pay is determined.
The conversation frequently touched on the progress — or the lack thereof — made by developing nations, including India and China. But a notable outcome of the discussion was the importance placed on Africa.
“Nigeria will have more babies born than all of Europe combined this year,” said Worldwide Managing Director at McKinsey & Company, Dominic Barton. Lagos, Nigeria’s former capital, has been the locus for large, five-day anti-government protests against spiraling fuel prices.
The overall attitude of the morning portion of the event was a mix of optimism for the nation’s future and its ability to institute change, and dire tones over its current political and economic challenges. Summing up the nation’s uphill climb, Galston rhetorically asked how well the United States was doing in terms of adjusting to “dizzying changes” domestically and internationally.
“Not well at all,” he concluded.
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