Fast Company

Innovation Nation: Obama's State of the Union Speech and Dambisa Moyo's New Book Call for American Enterprise

"Americans in particular are renowned for bouncing back," says the bestselling author and economist. "... Things are going to get much better."

Dambisa MoyoDambisa Moyo is out with a new book, titled How the West Was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly--and the Stark Choices Ahead, following her bestselling Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way For Africa. In the earlier effort, the economist critiqued a well-intentioned but inefficient aid system, and called for celebrities like Bono to quickly remove themselves from the charity ballgame, generally, and to specifically get out of Africa before they do more damage.

Moyo's new book takes the same tone of calling into question well-meaning intentions and pushing us to think about better implementation of policies; she also spends significant real estate detailing how some of America's most pressing challenges--in education, energy, and health care, for example--are structural issues that need long-term foresight, instead of a quick fix. "This book is very much in the same vein. There's an overarching umbrella of unintended consequences and good intentions," Moyo tells Fast Company.

In that regard, Obama's State of the Union speech could not have come at a better time. Last night he touched on just about every theme that Moyo explores--debt, competition, technology, clean energy, to name a few--but the most significant and shared theme between the two boils down to innovation.

The innovation competition between Asia and the West is a significant theme at the moment and Moyo's book capitalizes on that theme as well, but instead of making it out to be an East versus West issue, she says it's the West versus "the rest."

Zambia-born, Moyo's thoughts on American competitiveness echo those of popular American sentiment--that Americans have a special disposition, one that makes them extremely resilient and innovative in times of crisis. While concerns are raised about the demoralization of Americans, as they watch other countries grow and prosper, Moyo is quick to say that she doesn't think the American public is that quick to lose hope.

"Americans in particular are renowned for bouncing back. We've seen this time and time again and that is in part the purpose of my book--a call against complacency. Things are going to get much better," says Moyo.

As for how to bounce back--that's the real question and Moyo persistently raises the issue. "I'm talking about policy and intentions--we want people to have housing and pensions, but the way that they've been structured, such as the idea of providing housing for all, has led to a lot of debt."

In reference to Obama's State of the Union speech, Moyo asks, "Are we really surprised as global citizens that we need to invest in infrastructure and education?"

"The problem is with execution. What are we actually going to do? Obama has already pledged toward science and education. And there's a general consensus that there are problems around energy, for example, but the question is, specifically, about the implementation."

So what do China, India, and "the rest" have on us anyway?

"Where labor is concerned, the OECD statistics show that the U.S. and other countries are dwindling downward in terms of education and other sectors," says Moyo. "China doesn't have the looming health care concerns that the U.S. does. And China has posted the largest gains in productivity."

Moyo cites Skype and Google as examples when talking about the United States's current top position on the innovation ladder, but she's concerned about a struggling research and development (R&D) sector and the low marks of American children in math and science--and how those two trends stack them up against counterparts in other countries. "There are criticisms about Chinese eduction and although there are critiques, we are seeing improvements in education in China. They are making significant strides." This is the same concern that researchers, policy-makers, and scholars have been raising for the past couple of years.

But the most pressing questions, in every sector, are about implementation. Obama nodded at this in his State of the Union Speech, saying: "By 2035, 80% of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all–and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen."

His speech also took the tone of moving the country forward. "So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s," he said. "We cannot win the future with a government of the past."

Throughout the speech Obama pointed to ways the U.S. can be more competitive, such as allowing immigrants to stay on longer and contribute to domestic innovations. "Let’s stop expelling talented, responsible young people who can staff our research labs, start new businesses, and further enrich this nation," he said, referring to illegal immigrants.

"Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you’ll feel the impact."

The U.S. faces critical challenges at the moment--debt and competition are just two--but if Obama and Moyo have anything to do with it, America will be flying into the next great period of innovation aggressively in the coming years. Unless, of course, China, India and "the rest" lure away all our innovators.

Read more State of the Union coverage

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