In a widely read cover story published earlier this month, Business Week's chief economist Michael Mandel asks, "To what degree has American innovation been 'interrupted'?" Mandel argues that the economic crisis is partly the result of America's failure to generate high-impact commercial innovations.
What if, outside of a few high-profile areas, the past decade has seen far too few commercial innovations that can transform lives and move the economy forward? What if, rather than being an era of rapid innovation, this has been an era of innovation interrupted?
The crux of his argument is that many, if not most, of the big breakthrough innovations that were supposed to occur over the past decade or so have failed to materialize. His article provides a raft of compelling examples of once-heralded innovations - in areas from biotech to micro-machines - that have simply not panned out. This failure to commercialize and diffuse these new breakthrough innovations - America's inability to set in motion the great gales of "creative destruction" identified long ago by Joseph Schumpeter as key to capitalist growth - he argues, is a key contributor to both the financial bubble and the economic crisis.
But since there is compelling evidence that the figures are overstated by the credit bubble and statistical problems, we can construct a plausible narrative for the financial bust that gives a starring role to innovation-or rather, to the lack of it. It goes something like this: In the late 1990s most economists and CEOs agreed that the U.S. was embarking on a once-in-a-century innovation wave-not just in info tech but also in biotech and many other technologies. Forecasters upped their long-run growth estimates for the U.S. economy. Consumers borrowed against their home equity, assuming their future incomes would rise. And foreign investors lent America money by buying up U.S. securities, assuming the country would come up with enough new products to pay off the accumulated trade deficit.
Mandel lists four areas in which America's recent performance has been lackluster: stock market performance in the pharmaceutical, biotech, and life-science sectors; declining real wages for highly educated workers; a mounting trade deficit in high-tech sectors (which grew from $30 billion U.S. surplus in 1998, turning into a $53 billion deficit by 2008); and little improvement in the death rate (which he sees as a measure of the failure of breakthrough medical technologies to materialize) as evidence for the failure of American innovation.
It's no secret that I'm a big fan of Mandel and I find his general thesis about lagging U.S. productivity and job growth over the past decade or so to be both intriguing and plausible. And since so much of my own work focused on the relationship between innovation and American competitiveness was flagging, I find myself particularly drawn to his most recent "innovation-interrupted" thesis.
My first book, The Breakthrough Illusion, written with Martin Kenney in 1990, argued that the U.S. system of venture capital-backed breakthrough innovation was skewed to encourage short-term super-returns from new breakthrough innovations, and was structurally ill-suited to capturing the longer-term wealth derived from developing these innovations into successful products and industries. That work drew upon the intriguing thesis of innovation theorist Henry Ergas, who argued that the U.S. had developed a shifting system of innovation geared to near-constant development of new products through new firms, as opposed to a deepening system (think of German cars) which continuously adds technology to upgrade existing industries. According to Ergas, the key to long-run prosperity lies in synthesizing both strategies - cultivating an economy which could deploy new technologies in new sectors while at the same time deploying them to upgrade and revolutionize old ones.