Who's to blame for America's loss of innovation?

I blogged about one study of forty nations that showed the U.S.
Written by Harry Fuller, Contributor

I blogged about one study of forty nations that showed the U.S. falling in competition and innovation. Down to 6th from its former leadership slot. Can we stop the slide?

The talkbacks posit various interesting theories and placing of blame. Several indicate the deteriorating state of American education. I suspect that is part of the problem. The easy grading of today vs. decades earlier makes it impossible to find out if a "good student" really knows anything. And many of our schools seem to be simply teaching craft not research or logical thinking. [poll id="96"]

It took five minutes for this talkback to appear, read all of it below. "America's future youth is sitting around eating junk food playing XBox Live and PS3. Mean while other countries are making the xboxes and ps3. America will continue to slip farther... down the list unless the country as a whole changes ... attitude. America is a wonderful place but we are becoming fat and stupid." I wish I could disagree. I have two well-educated sons who're successful, one in business, one a scientist with a PhD. Neither lives in the U.S. and it's unlikely they would return. Better jobs, students and working conditions elsewhere.

One talkback says "Oh, Mr. Fuller, I think the primary cause of our "brain-dead" society is not a lack of government funding, but rather the "brain-dead" students turned out by a public school system that cares more about teacher benefits than student achievement. For how many decades have we read about how the average student overseas scores higher on standardized tests than our best and brightest? Thank the enormously-powerful teacher's unions for that."

I understand that unions are cursed among much of the American body politic. I once had a union job for awhile and found the union leaders to be Neanderthal and out of touch. That said, the average student now spends about 30 hours per week in school for about thirty-five weeks per year. The rest of the time he or she is far away from those evil union members. Video games. Two working parents. Endless TV trash. Facebook and email. Cell phones and texting. Earbuds and vacant stares. Don't think the teachers alone are the problem here.

Another talkback: "Our kids spend their time shooting each other on game consoles, and our college students spend their time partying. You didn't really think that this was going to be the kind of preparation that was going to maintain world leadership in anything?"

Hey, a party animal from a rich family can become a two-term President of the U.S. with a C-grade average. What's so bad about partying? Besides the rising tide of American anti-intellectualism from 1980 through 2008 doesn't encourage the kid who is smart and really does want to learn. Our government spent years denying global warming. We're forever fighting over evolution and stem-cell research. That doesn't bode well for science and technology.

One talkback urges, "Don't be political." I'd say, don't be naive. Everything we do, everything we buy or sell, everything we eat or don't eat--all political decisions. Putting paper into a printer has political effects. For too long we've pretended that business, investment, sports, drug regulations, dietary choices, transportation, education can be somehow politically neutral. And it's gotten us where we are today: a corrupted monetary system and an endangered planet. John Muir's Law: everything is connected to everything else. Every decision we make personally or within any group is political. As some guy in Washington keeps saying, time we took a little personal reposnsibility. You could lay-off every union teacher tomorrow and our youngsters wouldn't suddenly go home and study while parent(s) are out hustling work or hanging onto a job.

But innovation needs more than education. It needs drawing the smartest, risk-energized folks from other nations as well as encouraging homegrown brains like Edison and Steve Jobs. It's having the confidence and the capital to support ideas that might not work. That's where Singapore is now more attractive than the U.S. it seems. From Audubon to Intel's founding, the U.S. was where you came to have the freedom and encouragement to create. Now there are other places, perhaps with less crime, more formal encouragement, more openness to immigrants with ideas.

My favorite culprit in the private sector: new style CEOs. As one friend said, when your company's being run by a lawyer or somebody from accounting, your company is doomed. CEOs who don't know the business but only know the numbers cannot encourage creativity or innovation because a new idea might fail and cost money, lowering profits. When I was committing TV back in 1995 the network types refused to even talk about the Internet. Duh.

And the current freaked-out economy is not good for innovation because it's reduced VC money, long a great support for real business innovation in the U.S.

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