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Fareed Zakaria thoughts have blanketed both traditional and internet media outlets, spanning everything from Newsweek to Time, and the New York Times (NYSE:NYT) to CNN (NYSE:TWX). With an undergraduate diploma from Yale and his PhD from Harvard, Dr. Zakaria has built up quite a following, especially when it comes to foreign affairs.
In his latest Time magazine article, Can America Keep Pace?, Zakaria addresses the role of innovation in the U.S., “Innovation is as American as apple pie.” The innovation lead the U.S. maintains over the rest of the world will not evaporate over night because this cultural instinct is bred into our DNA – innovation is not something you one can learn directly from a textbook, Wikipedia, or Google (NASDAQ:GOOG). With that said, the innovation gap is narrowing between developed and developing countries. New York Times (NYSE:NYT) columnist Tom Friedman captured this sentiment when he stated the following:
“French voters are trying to preserve a 35-hour work week in a world where Indian engineers are ready to work a 35-hour day.”
The fungibility of labor has pressured industries by transferring jobs abroad to much lower-cost regions like China (NYSE:FXI) and India, and that trend is only expanding further into countries with even lower labor cost advantages. Zakaria agrees:
“America’s future growth will have to come from new industries that create new products and processes. Older industries are under tremendous pressure.”
The good news is the United States maintains a significant lead in certain industries. For instance, we Yankees have a tremendous lead in fields such as biotechnology (NASDAQ:IBB), entertainment, internet technologies, and consumer electronics.
The poster child for innovation is Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), which arose from the ashes of death ten years ago with its then ground-breaking new product, the iPod. Since then, Apple has introduced many innovative products and upgrades as a result of its research and development efforts, including the recently launched iPad.
The Education Engine
Where we are falling short is in education, which is the foundation to innovation. In a country with a high school system that Microsoft Corp.’s (NASDAQ:MSFT) founder Bill Gates calls “obsolete,” society is left with one-third of the students not graduating and nearly half of the remaining graduates unprepared for college. In this instant gratification society we live in, the long-term critical education issue has been pushed to the backburner. Other emerging countries like China and India are churning out more college graduates by the millions, and also dominating us in the key strategic count of engineering degrees.
With the massive debt and deficits our country currently faces, an ongoing debate about the size and role of government persists. Zakaria makes the case that government must place a significant role when it comes to innovation. Unfortunately, the U.S. wastes billions on pork-barrel projects and suboptimal subsidies while dilly-dallying in political gridlock over critical investments in education, infrastructure spending, basic research, and energy policies. In the meantime, our fellow competing countries are catching up to us, and in certain cases passing us (e.g., alternative energy investments – see Electric Profits).
Zakaria makes this point on the subject:
“The fastest-growing economies are all busy using government policy to establish commanding leads in one industry after another. Google’s Eric Schmidt points out that ‘the fact of the matter is, other countries are putting a lot more money into nurturing new industries than we are, and we are not going to win unless we do something like what they’re doing.’”
As a matter of fact, an ITIF (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation) study measuring innovation improvement from 1999 to 2009, as it related to government funding for basic research, education and corporate-tax policies, ranked the U.S. dead last out of 40 countries.
Not All is Lost – Pie Slice Maintained
Although the outlook may sounds bleak, not all is lost. In a recent Wall Street Journal interview with Bob Doll Chief Equity Strategist at the world’s largest money management company (BlackRock (BLK) has $3.6 trillion in assets under management), he makes the case that the U.S. remains the leading source of technological innovation and home to the greatest universities and the most creative businesses in the world. He sees this trend persisting in part because of our country’s relative demographic advantages:
“Over the next 20 years, the U.S. work force is going to grow by 11%, Europe’s going to fall by five, and Japan’s going to fall by 17. This alone tells me the U.S. has a huge advantage over Europe and a bigger one over Japan for growth.”
So while emerging markets, like those in Asia, continue to gain a larger slice of the global GDP pie, Mark Perry at Carpe Diem shows how the U.S has maintained its proportional slice of a growing global economic pie, over the last four decades.
Growth is driven by innovation, and innovation is driven by education. If America wants to maintain its greatness, the focus needs to be placed on innovation-led growth. The world is moving at warp speed, and our neighbors are moving swiftly, whether we come along for the ride or not. The current, sour conversations regarding deficits, debt ceilings, entitlements, wars, and unemployment are all essential discussions, but more importantly, if these debates can be refocused on accelerating innovation, the country will be well on its way to curing its ills.
Wade W. Slome is a CFA and CFP® at Sidoxia Capital Management.
Disclosure: Sidoxia Capital Management and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in any security referenced in this article.
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