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Monday, December 1, 2008

"Techno-Nationalism": Debating the "where" of innovation
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About 10 days ago I gave a presentation to a D.C. business group on "Innovation: The End? Or a New Beginning?" We got into a discussion of high-end immigration and were in general agreement that we should grant easy green cards to all STEM PhDs educated in the U.S., among other enticements to smart immigrants. One commenter then suggested this was a kind of a zero-sum race between the U.S., China, and India for the world's human capital.

I replied, however, that the technological, economic, and political advance of China and India is a good thing. Innovation anywhere in the world benefits us, too, if we are open to the global economy. For hundreds of years, North America attracted much or most of the world's financial and human capital because (1) though imperfect, we were an attractive realm of freedom and (2) much of the rest of the world was so inhospitable to innovation, entrepreneurship, education, and was generally politically intolerant. This massive tilt in our direction is now over. Other parts of the world present more opportunities for entrepreneurship and education, and we're not going to get all the smart people, no matter how open our immigration laws. Doesn't mean we shouldn't try to get the smartest people. Just that there's going to be lots of innovation and new enterprise in new non-U.S. places, and that overall that's a good thing.

So I was intrigued when an Economist article on this very topic hit my radar yesterday. Turns out Amar Bhidé of Columbia Business School has written a whole book on the subject: The Venturesome Economy.

So does the relative decline of America as a technology powerhouse really amount to a threat to its prosperity? Nonsense, insists Amar Bhidé of Columbia Business School. In "The Venturesome Economy", a provocative new book, he explains why he thinks this gloomy thesis misunderstands innovation in several fundamental ways.

First, he argues that the obsession with the number of doctorates and technical graduates is misplaced because the "high-level" inventions and ideas such boffins come up with travel easily across national borders. Even if China spends a fortune to train more scientists, it cannot prevent America from capitalising on their inventions with better business models.

That points to his next insight, that the commercialisation, diffusion and use of inventions is of more value to companies and societies than the initial bright spark. America's sophisticated marketing, distribution, sales and customer-service systems have long given it a decisive advantage over rivals, such as Japan in the 1980s, that began to catch up with its technological prowess. For America to retain this sort of edge, then, what the country needs is better MBAs, not more PhDs.

A lot to agree with. The addition of China and India to the world economy, with new minds and new centers of research and innovation, make it more likely that new general purpose technologies like the integrated circuit or laser will be invented -- maybe the next one will be in the field of biotech or energy, who knows. It will be good for humanity, at least for those open to these inventions and, yes, the commercializers. But how does clustering -- like Silicon Valley, where a whole ecosystem of talent, firms, and infrastructure spiral virtuously upward -- come into play? Does clustering mean as much as it used to in the age of instant global broadband communication? If technology and the corresponding innovations rapidly diffuse everywhere -- and they do -- it's largely a matter of who earns the profits. Who sets the standards. And which governmental jurisdictions get to tax the innovations and entrepreneurs. In nationalist terms, where military and political power derive from economic power, it is largely a competition for tax revenues.

But Bhidé, at least in this article (I've yet to read the book), I think still underplays the importance of PhDs or their equivalents who not only make the once-in-a-generation breakthroughs but also do help manufacture and commercialize these inventions. And Bhidé probably overplays the the importance of MBAs, who he says are key to our "consumer" culture. Consumers don't drive the economy. Entrepreneurs do. Yes, MBAs are good at cleaving consumers from their wallets. But consumption is a function of growth and growth expectations, which depend on entrepreneurial confidence. Supply creates its own demand.

If we had a perfectly globalized, flat, frictionless world -- it's true, the "where" of innovation wouldn't matter much. And we should basically be shooting for that type of world. But until we get there, the "where" of innovation probably matters more than Bhidé would like.

In this game, it's the farsighted innovators and consumers, who want free trade and tax competition, against the all-too-often shortsighted politicians, who seek the short-term advantage of protectionism, tax gouges, and "energy independence" campaigns. It takes real wisdom to understand that China's or India's gain is also our own.

posted by Bret Swanson @ 4:32 PM | Capitalism , Global Innovation , Human Capital

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