Monday, June 21, 2010

They Get Rich, We Get Ho-Hum Gadgets

Too Much

by David Prosser

Our economy would become the world's most innovative, our elites assured us, if we gave our rich enough incentives to innovate. We kept to our end of the bargain. So where's the innovation?

The pollsters at Gallup have never asked Americans to name the world's most technologically advanced nation. Neither, apparently, have any other pollsters. But we don't need a pollster to know how Americans would answer that question.

Most Americans, without a moment's hesitation, would almost certainly name the United States as the global techno tops. No other nation, after all, can lay claim to the iPhone or Microsoft or Google. We must be number one.

Only in our dreams. The latest stats show the United States lagging far behind on the high-tech benchmarks that matter most in our daily lives. On broadband speed, for instance, the United States ranks 15th globally in one international comparison, 29th in another.

Indeed, earlier this month, Bloomberg News noted that the federal government's current "national broadband plan," if successfully completed, would give most American homes a decade from now "the same connection speeds available today in Portugal and Japan." 

Singapore, news reports last week indicated, will have by 2013 a broadband infrastructure fast enough to let the nation's every home download a DVD in just a few seconds, at speeds hundreds of times faster than the current U.S. average.

Other nations are also jumping to the global high-tech forefront. Belgium leads the way in smart IDs, the Netherlands in health tech, South Korea in the "telematic" application of info technology to transportation.

The United States has become, in effect, a technological also-ran in one area after another. How could we not know that? What explains the breathtakingly wide gap between technological reality and how Americans perceive it?

Our gullibility may be the culprit. Our rich have spent the last 30 years promising us the best of all possible worlds — if in them we put our trust — and we put our faith in that promise.

We let our lawmakers lavish tax breaks and other incentives on rich people because we believed the rich when they told us these incentives would encourage badly needed investments in innovation.

We let corporate CEOs rake in unspeakable fortunes because we believed these execs when they told us they needed rewards bountiful enough to get their entrepreneurial juices flowing. 

In the end, our movers and shakers guaranteed, everyone would benefit from all these incentives and rewards. Investors and executives would become richer, and the rest of us would enjoy the privilege of life in a sublimely innovative economic powerhouse that delivers endless prosperity and great gadgets.

We average Americans, over the past three decades, have done our best to move this storyline along. And things have worked out fairly well — for investors and executives. They have most definitely prospered — and continue to prosper, even in troubled times.

The latest evidence: the just-released executive pay data from Silicon Valley. Eight execs from Northern California's high-tech heartland took home over $10 million last year. Silicon Valley's top 155 CEOs, the San Jose Mercury News reported last week, together pulled in $579 million.

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