Interesting piece by Michael Mandel making a case I’ve made idly in the past — that maybe a cause of our current predicament is insufficient innovation. Really.
The gist: We have convinced ourselves that we live in revolutionary innovative times, but we have much less to show for it than we should. In a sense, we staffed up for the coming rush of new-new things — took on credit, hired like mad, and spent wildly anticipating growth — only to find that new products took much longer coming than anyone expected. As a result, the binge left us a tottering and insolvent mess.
Read this excerpt from Mandel’s piece:
But there’s growing evidence that the innovation shortfall of the past decade is not only real but may also have contributed to today’s financial crisis. Think back to 1998, the early days of the dot-com bubble. At the time, the news was filled with reports of startling breakthroughs in science and medicine, from new cancer treatments and gene therapies that promised to cure intractable diseases to high-speed satellite Internet, cars powered by fuel cells, micromachines on chips, and even cloning. These technologies seemed to be commercializing at "Internet speed," creating companies and drawing in enormous investments from profit-seeking venture capitalists—and ordinarily cautious corporate giants. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan summed it up in a 2000 speech: "We appear to be in the midst of a period of rapid innovation that is bringing with it substantial and lasting benefits to our economy."
With the hindsight of a decade, one thing is abundantly clear: The commercial impact of most of those breakthroughs fell far short of expectations—not just in the U.S. but around the world. No gene therapy has yet been approved for sale in the U.S. Rural dwellers can get satellite Internet, but it’s far slower, with longer lag times, than the ambitious satellite services that were being developed a decade ago. The economics of alternative energy haven’t changed much. And while the biotech industry has continued to grow and produce important drugs—such as Avastin and Gleevec, which are used to fight cancer—the gains in health as a whole have been disappointing, given the enormous sums invested in research. As Gary P. Pisano, a Harvard Business School expert on the biotech business, observes: "It was a much harder road commercially than anyone believed."
If the reality of innovation was less than the perception, that helps explain why America’s apparent boom was built on borrowing. The information technology revolution is worth cheering about, but it isn’t sufficient by itself to sustain strong growth—especially since much of the actual production of tech gear shifted to Asia. With far fewer breakthrough products than expected, Americans had little new to sell to the rest of the world. Exports stagnated, stuck at around 11% of gross domestic product until 2006, while imports soared. That forced the U.S. to borrow trillions of dollars from overseas. The same surges of imports and borrowing also distorted economic statistics so that growth from 1998 to 2007, rather than averaging 2.7% per year, may have been closer to 2.3% per year. While Wall Street’s mistakes may have triggered the financial crisis, the innovation shortfall helps explain why the collapse has been so broad.