U.S. Innovation and Competiveness Strategy: ‘All Hands On Deck’

Okay, I’ve never been shy about contributing my ideas on myriad social, educational and economic matters, through written public commentary, in appearances before legislative bodies, during one-on-one or community roundtable discussions or even in town hall-style settings.

In fact, I have to say that throughout my life and career, I’ve been close to fearless when it comes to expressing my ideas on these topics.

In the countless instances where I’ve engaged others on important matters facing our nation, and especially challenges and opportunities critical to Black Americans, I cannot ever recall asserting that I have “the” answer to a problem.

This instance, however, is different.

On this day, I declare that I have “the” answer to a seemingly intractable problem. The problem: What must America do to ensure our continued ability to produce meaningful innovations and successfully compete in an increasingly and uncompromisingly competitive world?

The answer is clear and simple — as a matter of national policy that involves states, municipalities and even our neighborhoods — America must conceive, form and adopt the “All Hands On Deck” innovation and competitiveness strategy.

Presently, all American hands are not on deck. We are not all able to seize 21st century opportunities. We are not all exploring new innovations and raising the nation’s competitive position in comparison to others. In short, we are not all connected to today’s Innovation Economy.

The “All Hands On Deck” strategy would have but one goal: to ensure that every American has a fair opportunity to self-select to innovate and compete in — and otherwise join — the 21st century Innovation Economy.

While the “All Hands On Deck” strategy is clear and simple, and is “the” policy answer — admittedly, its fulfillment is certainly is not easy.

So what? It’s not easy.

We’re Americans and our history is replete with examples of the nation achieving things that were not easy. From the British Surrender at Yorktown to Appomattox Courthouse to the Emancipation Proclamation to the Women’s Suffrage Movement to the Civil Rights Movement to landing the first man on the moon to inventing the Internet — America does things that are not easy.

What kind of policy goals and incentives would an “All Hands On Deck” innovation and competitiveness strategy include?

Here are four strategic policy considerations:

1. Federal and state policy should incent our leading research universities — many of which are also collegiate sports powers — to employ the same level of vigor in the development and recruitment of urban STEM students, as they employ in the development and recruitment of urban student-athletes.

2. Many of today’s unemployed are our most talented and highly academically trained citizens, i.e., many are our “best and brightest.” They have been downsized or replaced by machinery or foreign workers. Under the current system, the unemployed are provided compensation only if they work full-time looking for a job. Why not create new incentives for the unemployed to not only obtain new jobs as quickly as possible, but to also pursue their entrepreneurial interests?

In other words, recognizing the unique attributes of this “economic reset” and what may be a historically deep pool of out-of-work talent, the same unemployment compensation that is paid to help people obtain new employment could be used to incent — and perhaps even inspire — those Americans to use their talent to create new jobs.

3. The explosive, 30-year growth of our nation’s venture capital industry is a direct result of the U.S. Department of Labor’s interpretation of the Employment Retirement and Income Security Act (ERISA) to allow public-defined pension plans to invest money into private venture capital funds. Although these public pension plans contain money earned by every kind of American, our private venture capital industry — which has delivered outstanding returns to these pension funds — has not yet matured to connect to the entrepreneurial aspirations of every kind of American.

Accordingly, a combination of the following may help create these needed connections:

  • Federal capital gains tax reductions to incent high-net worth individuals to invest in venture capital funds targeted to underserved markets, and
  • Require “good faith outreach efforts” to underserved markets for venture capital funds that receive public pension fund investments.

Recognizing that any policy intervention into our thriving venture capital industry would be highly contentious, it is important to note that these modest outreach incentives and requirements do not mandate any particular investments — fund managers would retain exclusive control over investment decisions. Rather, as public pensions are funded by all kinds of Americans, investment opportunities should be available to all kinds of Americans. These policy prescriptions are designed to connect opportunities to fairly compete for startup and early-stage company investments to many Americans who have been heretofore disconnected from such opportunities.

4. To help all Americans self-select to connect and contribute to the Innovation Economy, federal, state and local policy should incent the creation and funding of regional intermediary organizations. These organizations would act as hubs, where citizens can obtain needed resources, find news and information, mentoring, investment and collaboration opportunities that can further empower them to meaningfully contribute to the nation’s productivity and ability to compete in the 21st century global economy.

Yes, I have “the” answer to America’s innovation and competitiveness challenges — the “All Hands On Deck” strategy. However, yielding to my inner governor that bends toward reasonableness, I have to admit that my policy prescriptions are far from infallible.

Though I firmly believe in the strategic direction of the policy considerations I propose, I welcome their further development and refinement.

What do you say?

Johnathan Holifield, Trim Tabber

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