We have bemoaned the level of discourse in the presidential debate, but more specifically, the candidates’ neglect of the single most important issue we face: raising worker productivity. “Right now our productivity stinks,” explained GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt at the Aspen Institute/Atlantic’s Washington Ideas Forum today. We can get to $35-per-hour jobs, but not by protectionism or much of whatever else the candidates are spouting off about. “It takes investment to get productivity. If productivity [growth] is zero, your destiny is low-paying jobs,” he said.

It was both refreshing and saddening to hear Immelt describe what is actually going on in U.S. manufacturing and lay out a policy agenda that would spur wage growth — refreshing because the ingredients for immense technological and economic advancement are present, and saddening because our political leaders are playing dumb, or really have no idea what to do. And when I say politicians, I also include the slew of commentators and activists who’ve never worked in manufacturing or any part of  the private sector at all, are detached from economic realities and recommend counterproductive or simply useless ideas.

No, we don’t need mammoth tax cuts for the rich. No, we don’t need tax hikes on the rich. No, we don’t need to round up millions of illegal immigrants. Immelt has it right when he says we need infrastructure improvements, research and basic science (for example, strides in materials science that may be of use 10 to 20 year down the road), regulatory reform and training.

As he explained, infrastructure means you “win twice” — once in the initial job creation and second in the added production you can achieve with improvements in transportation, communications, etc. On the regulatory front, he chastised people who say things like “Get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency!” Instead, he described the need to consolidate regulatory agencies and speed up approval processes (so it doesn’t take 12 years to get a permit for a power line or a port). In his terms, “There is no accountability for cycle time.”

On the education front, it is eye-opening to hear how manufacturing companies have become software companies and how essential a trained workforce is. Jobs go “begging” because we do not have the skilled technicians and engineers to fill the slots. “Business can serve a common good,” Immelt noted. “There is no reason business shouldn’t be on the hook [for training].” Here it seems is a no-brainer for the next president: a joint public-private initiative for everything from community colleges to apprenticeships with a goal of closing the gap between the workforce we have and the workforce we need to fill jobs.

Asked about protectionism, he was candid. GE is a multinational company that can and has built factories all over the world. It will survive with trade deals or no trade deals. Immelt, however, implored politicians to, for example, complete the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. If it fails, “GE will be fine. The country won’t be fine,” he counsels. With about 5 percent of the world’s population and about 25 percent of the world’s GDP, trade is an economic necessity. “We’re a net loser,” he says, if we cut ourselves off from the rest of the world. Moreover, if we do not complete deals like the TPP, we lose “clout” and allow China, for example, to seize the economic and diplomatic lead in the region. He chided both candidates for playing into the protectionist frenzy.

Perhaps what was so striking was the sophisticated and reasonable articulation of the country’s economic needs or the simple expression of fundamental decency. (“We treat people with respect. As a human being we don’t tolerate discrimination.”) At some point it became clear that we could actually use a real chief executive with a broad and deep understanding of the 21st-century economy. Not a life-long pol and not a TV showman/huckster in an industry (real estate) divorced from the realities that affect most other businesses, which require overseas markets and must invest heavily in their own workers. It’s a shame a person both with business and technological sophistication and basic decency, someone who has been accountable to others for results and subject to financial scrutiny, is not running for president. We could use someone like that.

Few people would quibble with the assertion that many of our business people, educators, scientists, teachers and innovators have a better grip on economic realities than do politicians. But frankly, the economy and the country are too important and face such great perils that business people, educators, scientists, teachers and innovators cannot leave the public discussion to the politicians. They all better get in the game, rebut the nonsense that comes from pols, help the voters appreciate what the real economy looks like and what it needs and help inform the discussion. Otherwise, as Immelt says, GE will be fine — but the country won’t be.