The myth of the innovation nation

Post-speech reaction: Just like Beaver Cleaver's mom used to make

President Obama is absolutely right to focus on innovation and competitiveness in his State of the Union. The United States' strength and stability depend on it, and they are both areas in which the government has a vital role to play -- as history has shown with every expansionary leap in U.S. history from the railroads to the Internet.

But there is one trap associated with this approach that the president and the country need to beware. It is the widely subscribed to notion ... often cited by politicians and op-ed writers ... that somehow there is something special, some gene in American DNA, that makes us uniquely capable when it comes to innovation. This idea is offered up like it is our ace-in-the-hole, our economic Get Out of Jail Free Card. Once we tap into this unique dimension of the U.S. character those Chinese and other Asian robots won't be able to hold a candle to us. They lack our creativity. They lack the United States system's special innovation ecology -- built around ideas like the degree to which we welcome failure and let the resulting Schumpeterian winds fill our sails propelling us onward to our next great triumph.

Now, there is certainly some truth that other societies are less welcoming to the errors which often are part of the innovative process (some have, for example, inadequate bankruptcy laws, others risk-averse cultures). And there is also truth to the idea that some societies promote conformity in creativity-suppressing ways. And of course there is considerable truth to the fact that America has been the home of some great innovation and remarkable stories of entrepreneurship that have made us a world leading economy for decades. But the reality is that the idea that the United States has somehow cornered the market on innovation is an overblown myth.

Take the most important inventions in history. Naturally many of them actually were created in other hotbeds of innovation that existed long before the United States -- whether it is the Chinese invention of gun powder or paper, or the Arabic invention of algebra or the printing press, progress somehow muddled through without the United States. If you take more modern innovations however, it is not exactly as though the United States has dominated when it came to the big ones.

For example, go to About.com and look up the top inventions researched by their readers. While it's as arbitrary as any other such list the top ten are: the telephone, the computer, television, the automobile, the cotton gin, the camera, the steam engine, the sewing machine, the light bulb, and penicillin. Of these, the phone was "invented" by Alexander Graham Bell in the United States, he was born and raised in Scotland, moved to the United States as an adult and died in Canada. And, of course, prior to his patenting of the phone, original work was done on its invention by a range of others including Innocenzo Manzetti in Italy, Charles Bourseul in France, and Johann Philipp Reis in Germany. The fathers of computing from Babbage to Turing lived in Britain. The first television was invented by a German, Paul Nipkow, and the term was coined by a Russian, Constantin Perskyi. The first self-propelled vehicle was invented by a Frenchman, Joseph Cugnot, and the first practical car by Karl Benz. The camera's origins were in France with Niepce and Daguerre. The first steam engine was developed by Thomas Savery in England and improved upon by Scotland's better-known James Watt. Sewing machine? Invented by French tailor Barthelemy Thimonnier. The light bulb? No, not Edison. Probably the first credit should go to Humphry Davy of England or Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, also of England. Penicillin? A Scots-born Englishman, Alexander Fleming.

Want to argue these? You say the car was popularized by Henry Ford or that Edison "perfected the light bulb" as Philo Farnsworth did the TV? Well, that's just the kind of imitation and replication, of incremental gain, that we often accuse "less" innovative nations of (see attacks on Japan circa 1990). Want to talk about other inventions? The European origins of the airplane? The Englishman who invented the World Wide Web? Where the cutting edge green technologies are currently being developed today?

The point is that big ideas do not happen exclusively or even predominantly in the United States. And while U.S. patents are, of course, primarily won by Americans...the point regarding the patents opens another hole in the Innovation Nation theory. The trick with innovation is not just having the idea, it's bringing it to market. This in turn means bringing it to scale. Well, for much of the past century the natural place to do both was the U.S. because of our manufacturing prowess and because we were the world's biggest market. Well, guess what? Manufacturing is now less than 20 percent of the U.S. economy and falling fast. We are losing some skill sets permanently. Biggest market? In terms of GDP, while we still have an edge, China is closing quickly and in terms of number of potential 21st Century consumers? We're not even close for many products. We're not even second or third. (India and the EU will finish ahead of us.) Investment capital? This key fuel for growth is flowing to new markets with ever greater velocity and many are homes to huge and growing pools of local money, as well.

It's these changes that are hinted at by the fact that the past decade is the first in U.S. history in which we have actually not only not created a net new job, we've lost a couple million. That fact should raise an important question in the minds of the president, Congress and all who truly want to enhance U.S. competitiveness: what happened? Was it the rise of new markets? A fall in our educational standards? The rise in the standards of others? Our failure to invest in infrastructure? The fact that as we are winding down our programs of research and development -- including, for example, the innovation driving space program -- others are starting up new ones?

The answers are likely to confound and frustrate many. The United States' only path to renewed growth and sustained leadership is via innovation and enhanced competitiveness. But we have no natural right to lead in these areas. We have no special "gene."

Indeed, the greatest threat to the U.S. economy may not be those costly, financially rickety entitlement programs most politicians are afraid of touching. Rather it may be a different kind of entitlement altogether, the sense of entitlement many Americans have to a position of global economic leadership that is vouchsafed to no nation and indeed, is regularly passed on from one era's great nation(s) to a new set of leaders in the next.

For more: Here's my reaction to the speech.

National Archive/Newsmakers

David Rothkopf

State of the Union score sheet (and drinking game)

The State of the Union Address has, in keeping with all things American, gone all steroidal on us. In what used to be a humble effort to meet  a Constitutional requirement that was once fulfilled with a message from George Washington that was not much longer than this post, we now find an extravaganza with national television coverage, pundits commenting on the reaction of pundits, an official opposition response, its own logo and theme music on the networks, and a host of set pieces (like the First Lady's box filled with notable Americans with heart-warming stories -- this year, that's means heroes and victims of the Tucson shooting.) It's got just enough calculated drama and just as little connection to the day-to-day life of average citizens to actually be a reality show. The only problem is there is not enough drinking. (But we will take care of that shortly.)

In fact, typically, the State of the Union Address is the political equivalent of the Super Bowl: A mid-winter ritual that combines hype, meaninglessness and boredom in equal parts. If only the president's address had good advertisements to liven up the action ... but maybe next year... (I'd love to see the Budweiser Clydesdale's take on health care reform.)

To help alleviate this, as a public service, let me offer the following score sheet. Simply watch (or listen to) the address and score per the instructions. Then see the key below to interpret the speech. The objective is to help determine whether the speech rises to the level of something actually newsworthy (not to mention worthy of the time of the president, his cabinet, the Congress, the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the news media and, most important of all, viewing audiences across America.) The scoring approach is simple: the president gets points for actually rising to the potential of the occasion and  has them deducted for pandering, filling time, engaging in empty rhetoric, or worse. The score sheet is broken into several categories corresponding to different dimensions of the speech.


  • Any mention that balancing the budget involves both real spending cuts and real tax increases together, add 5 points.
  • Any mention that responsibility for U.S. competitiveness lies primarily with private citizens and private sector but that government has an essential central role to play, add 5 points.
  • Any mention that he has actually made mistakes during his first two years in office, add 5 points. Enumeration of such mistakes with conclusions as to how he will do better, 1 point each.
  • Listing more than 3 possible mistakes: start deducting 5 points for each. There is such a thing as too much honesty in one of these speeches.
  • Any pandering or overplaying the Tucson tragedy card beyond dignified references to those in the box with his wife, deduct 5 points.
  • Every reference to competitiveness that uses China as a foil and suggests the reason we must grow is to beat them or the way we must grow is to emulate them, deduct 5 points.

Foreign Policy

  • For any mention of materially cutting defense budgets, add 5 points.
  • For any mention of meeting or beating withdrawal deadlines from Afghanistan, add 5 points.
  • For any mention getting tough with either side of the Israeli-Palestinian issue add 2.5 points. Both sides: 5 points. Introduction of any new idea that has not been mentioned in a previous State of the Union, 10 points.
  • For any mention of committing to pass a trade measure, add 1 point. For Korea, Colombia, Panama, the Doha Round and any other (Trans-Pacific Partnership, etc.) all together: 5 points.
  • For any statement offering specific sanctions against China for currency manipulation, IP policies, or unfair trade practices: 5 points.
  • Any reference to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim's sisters Kourtney and Khloe, deduct 5 points. Any implication that our policies in North Korea are actually working in any meaningful way, also deduct 5 points.
  • Failure to claim credit for real progress on Russia with new Start treaty, withdrawal from Iraq, international economic coordination efforts that forestalled global market turmoil, even progress with Iran delaying their nuclear program, also deduct 5 points for each.
  • Failure to acknowledge the precarious nature of the Eurozone and other factors that may threaten global recovery, deduct 5 points.
  • Failure to address the increasingly complicated nature of the terrorist threat, deduct 5 points. Over-playing the 10th anniversary of 9/11: deduct an additional 5 points.

Domestic Policy:

  • For any mention of material cuts to entitlement programs: 5 points.
  • For any mention of supporting broadly the recommendation of the deficit commission: 5 points.
  • For any mention of explanation of difference between spending and investment and any more detailed program for investments in infrastructure: 5 points.
  • For any mention of need to actually increase revenues to help balance the budget (that's tax increases of one sort or another): 5 points.
  • For any serious effort to reduce regulations impeding investment in creating jobs here in the U.S.: 5 points.
  • For every time the president mentions a spending program without mentioning a way to pay for it: deduct 5 points.
  • For every time the president mentions a spending cut under $10 billion as being material or implies the same: deduct 5 points.
  • For every time the president implies that the recovery on Wall Street or the restoration of GDP growth is the same as a recovery for most Americans: deduct 5 points.
  • If the president fails to mention the municipal and state financial crisis and at least one concrete way of dealing with it (like bankruptcy-like provisions for the states), deduct 5 points.
  • If the president talks about strengthening education without any reference to a national curriculum, ending teacher tenure/focusing on merit promotions, using existing technologies to enhance teacher efficiency, or materially raising standards, deduct 5 points.


  • For every mention of every specific idea designed to create jobs: 1 point. (See below. This could be a very high number.)
  • For every mention of every specific idea designed to enhance U.S. competitiveness: 1 point.
  • For every mention of civility: 1 point. (Also see below. Should also be a high number.)
  • For every singling out of a good idea from the Republican side of the house: add 5 points.
  • If he delivers the speech well enough to produce post-speech gushing from MSNBC: 0 points. Post-speech rants from Fox: 0 points. Post-speech gushing from Fox: 10 points. Mid-speech weeping by John Boehner: 10 points.
  • Every time he goads or bashes the opposition in a visible way that undercuts the civility message: deduct 5 points.
  • Every time he glares at Samuel Alito: deduct 5 points.
  • If he announces appointment of non-Chicago resident Rahm Emanuel as Civility Czar: deduct 10 points.


  • Every minute the speech is under 45 minutes, add 1 point.
  • Every minute the speech is over 45 minutes, deduct 1 point.
  • Every joke that produces bi-partisan laughter, add 5 points.
  • Every comment that produces an outburst from an out-of-control Republican House member, add 5 points.
  • Every minute over 2 that it takes him to make his way through the crowd to the podium, deduct 1 point. (Seriously, the only thing distinguishing this entrance from the Academy Awards red carpet is the absence of Ryan Seacrest and Joan Rivers. Inviting either of them to a future State of the Union: add 10 points.)

The scoring key is:
50 points or more:
Rooseveltian (pick your favorite Roosevelt)
40-49 points: Reaganesque (or Truman-esque, you pick)
30-39 points: Kennedy-esque (pick your favorite Kennedy)
20-29 points: Eisenhower-esque (What he lacked in style he made up for in substance)
10-19 points:
Clinton-esque  (I'd rate him higher but I served then...don't want to appear biased)
0-9 points:
Bush 41-esque (He was a better president than his speeches)
-1-10 points: Carter-esque or Ford-esque (In the interest of bi-partisanship)
-11-20 points:
Bush 43-esque (He was not as good as his speeches)
-21-30 points:
Nixonian  (It's complicated...)
-31-40 points: James Buchanan-esque
Below -40 points:
Introducing your next president, Mitt Romney    

If this doesn't work, try the State of the Union drinking game. This year's key word is: civility. Any use of this word, a variant of it, or concepts associated with it, and you take a drink. Any bi-partisan applause, you take a drink. Any breakdowns in civility or displays of partisanship, you take two drinks. I say you're unconscious even before those Americans who pass out due to boredom. However, if you seek an even quicker buzz, switch to the Advanced SOTU Drinking program where you can take a drink every time the words job or any employment related term or concept is mentioned. Don't hesitate to share your colorful drinking game stories.

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