version originally appeared in Business
America remains the
world's cultural and economic engine- chalking up consistent gains in
productivity and leading the globe in new technologies and market innovations.
Is this success due to our geographic isolation? To our democratic history?
To our capitalistic system?
All of the above,
and more. But when you boil these reasons down to just one, the answer
turns out to be "people"-innovative, driven, educated people,
who, given the right conditions and sufficient critical mass, can turn
exciting new ideas into economic reality. The ability to mobilize people
to innovate on a mass scale has been a great, enduring strength of the
United States since it's founding.
Today, however, we
stand on the verge of losing that critical advantage. Other countries,
most notably China and India, have grafted enough technical and business-formation
know-how onto their national cultures to potentially shift the center
of economic innovation away from the U.S. These countries have the added
advantage of being able to tap into the tremendous emotional drive that
transforms a population when enough people suddenly realize a mere engineering
degree opens the way to a spectacular, immediate leap out of village poverty.
How can we, with our
much more satiated society, hope to compete? The answer is, once again:
investing in people. We must see to it that we have the smartest, most
motivated people on earth. To do that, we need to adopt three complementary
policies. We must return to our historic willingness to import the smartest,
most motivated people from around the globe. We must make sure that the
people we already have become smarter. And we must find new ways to motivate
the population as a whole.
I would label these
policy choices as the Three "I's:" immigration, immunization
Ask any of the foreign-born entrepreneurs we have financed-whether from
China, Russia, England, Israel, Iran, France or India-why they have relocated
to the U.S. and you'll get various predictable answers: "opportunity,"
"freedom to innovate," or "best education in the world".
Yet, all those inducements
are being overwhelmed by this country's post-9/11 restrictions on foreigners
entering this country. We've made it too hard for the world's best graduate
scientists and engineers to attend university or settle here. The critical
mass of scientific talent that we have always taken for granted is dissipating
right before our eyes. According to the American Association for the Advancement
of Science, visa applications are substantially down, and many students
now look to the EU for higher education. Twenty years ago, immigrants
came to the US, started a company and stayed. Ten years ago they came,
started a company, and a few returned home with their skills to compete
against the US. Now they don't even bother to apply for visas- something
that would have been unthinkable four years ago.
In another four years,
we will likely find that the momentum of scientific and technological
out-migration is irreversible. We must rethink our barriers to immigration
and implement more effective ways of attracting and holding onto talented
acquiescence to the loss of such foreigners underscores how little we
appreciate the role immigrants play in creating economic opportunity for
all. Immigrants have proven themselves, time and again, more loyal, more
motivated and more valuable to the economy than the native-born.From the
Scottish-born Alexander Graham Bell to the Russian-born Sergey Brin, entrepreneurial
immigrants have formed the core of the U.S.'s continuing economic vitality
and optimism for the future.
Even as we re-engage talented immigrants, we need to turn our attention
to the people already here. There, our best point of leverage is pre-
and post-natal care. That means shots, but it also means better nutrition.
Overwhelmingly, studies show that early care for mothers and children
can raise the latter's IQs by a minimum of 10 points, and dramatically
reduce later behavioral problems. The children are healthier and contribute
more to themselves and to society.
What is striking about
all such programs is how little investment is required to produce outsized
returns. Various administrations-Bush, Clinton, even Canadian-- have all
agreed on its importance, but this creeping crisis has been met with inaction.
Instead, the U.S.
has remained remarkably content to trail others -ranking, according to
various studies, anywhere from the bottom half to the bottom quartile
among all nations. Such low performance evidences itself throughout both
urban and rural America, but those of us who are economically better off
tend to dismiss it as the problem of "others." Only years later
do we rouse ourselves to address poor natal care's clear aftereffects.
Thus, for example, the remedial literacy and numeracy programs at both
community colleges and large corporations (or, for that matter, at our
exploding number of prisons). Building a smarter American starts before
Even as we develop a new critical mass of educated, technically adept
people, we need to inspire them to rise to new challenges. Great technical
challenges that offer the prospect of clearly tangible results lend themselves
to just this kind of effort. Many of us recall how our national response
to the launching of Sputnik galvanized millions of people around both
the space program and scientific education- contributing to today's technological
leadership. So did the challenge of opening the American frontier lead
to our agricultural and transportation revolutions. Every child became
an inventor - every adult an optimist about the future.
Today, we see American
students lagging their international brethren on key mathematical and
reasoning skills. Indirectly, we also feel the business impact in short-sighted
buying behavior and values-our current "twitch" life style that
leads to the seductions of instant gratification. We're breeding a society
that is forgetting that sometimes it takes a long time and a lot of hard
work to achieve something of real value. But an inspiring "grand
challenge" can wake us up from our complacency
Think, to take just
one example, what the impact would be if we as a nation would set the
goal of becoming energy-independent by 2030? It would galvanize the nation,
simplify the international political landscape, and reduce the threat
of terrorism. Everyone would know what their job was the next day when
they woke up. Some people would say that the answer is "conservation,"
and some people would say that the answer is "nuclear policy,"
and that would be a valuable debate. But at least we would all know that
we were working toward a common goal-one that would require no explanation
of its value.
Pursuing these Three
"I's" simultaneously would give the U.S. a good shot at maintaining
its technological and economic leadership. We have inherent strengths-from
our capital markets to our tradition of democracy-that other countries
will still find difficult to completely emulate and that would automatically
enhance the policies I have outlined. Even so, it will take a generation,
I believe, to restore our clear leadership in rebuilding a skilled, motivated
workforce. As a VC who works constantly with high-velocity money, I say
it's time for U.S. to invest some serious, patient capital.
Greg Blonder is a
general partner at Morgenthaler
Ventures and is based in Princeton, NJ.