Quinn: Anna Eshoo is all ears on the innovation economy
By Michelle Quinn
Given that the tech industry is red hot, it may be tempting to think there is little need to bother about the care and feeding of the so-called Innovation Economy.
But that would be a mistake, key political leaders say.
On Monday, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, the Palo Alto Democrat, convened local tech, government and academic leaders with U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, as part of the Democrats’ “listening tour” to find out what is needed to make the U.S. the world’s innovation capital.
Wait, we’re not already?
According to the 2015 Global Innovation Index, the U.S. ranks fifth in the world when it comes to innovation based on 79 indicators, such as the quality of a country’s education institutions, its workforce, its market sophistication and the impact of what is actually produced. We are behind Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Sweden and the Netherlands. But we are ahead of Finland!
A decade ago, Eshoo helped launch a similar effort, and from those yearlong discussions, an “innovation agenda” was born.
The wheels of government move slowly, but the economic crisis of 2008-09 put a fire under public officials. Major policy changes included public investment for cleantech projects through the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the expanded deployment of broadband and, most recently, making permanent the research-and-development tax credit.
So why do it again? People are still being left out of the opportunities created in this economy, that’s why, Eshoo said.
“It’s depressing,” Eshoo said, that “a large number of people are not participating in the innovation economy who could. Where there is potential opportunity, we need to optimize that. A lot of these jobs didn’t exist a decade ago. Why wouldn’t we take that on? That’s our moonshot.” She wants the innovation economy to both grow and include more onramps for Americans to be part of it.
Eshoo, the ranking member of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee who has been in Congress for two decades, says the time is now for an Innovation Agenda 2.0.
For my money, the term “innovation economy” is a little shopworn because it conjures up the struggles of the 2008-09 crisis and the strenuous effort undertaken to get the levers of the economy working again. I almost want to bring back the even harder-to-understand New Economy — not just for nostalgia’s sake but because at least that would indicate potential and momentum.
But whatever it is called, a strong economy with high-growth industries such as technology doesn’t spring from the ground wholly formed, no matter what some in Silicon Valley think. It takes a supportive ecosystem of education, financing and, yes, federal policies to lay the framework for success.
Also, disruption isn’t pain-free and often disrupters struggle against the status quo, which knows how to work the levers of government and enjoys regulatory protections.
“What innovation represents is the unknown potential of the future,” said Mitchell Baker, executive chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation. “It’s the hope of the future.”
Top of Silicon Valley leaders’ agenda will likely be immigration reform, particularly difficult during this presidential election season. It’s hard to imagine any major change in the U.S. immigration policy given the GOP candidates’ divisive rhetoric on the issue.
But Eshoo says immigration reform “is not over. It can’t be over. It’s not only a humanitarian issue, it’s a top line economic issue.”
Other policies the tech industry will want in the bucket include tax reform and cybersecurity.
Democrats, of course, want to cloak themselves as the innovation party, particularly as they try to keep the White House and try to become the majority again in the House and Senate.
But efforts like the one Eshoo is launching tend to be the quiet, low-profile work that spans White House administrations. Away from the noise of the presidential debates and news cycles, they establish a foundation of knowledge that is eventually shaped into legislation and policy tweaks that mean a lot to those affected.
Innovation needs a friend in Congress. I hope that Innovation Agenda 2.0 fosters the right environment to include more people in the next economy, whatever we call it.