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Op-Ed: Cultivate Innovation To Kick-Start Economy

JOHN DONVAN, host: And now the Opinion Page. The Obama administration is expected to spend up to $1 billion to fund training and job placement for health care workers, a decision under the White House's We Can't Wait agenda. With unemployment at 9 percent, government officials have a single focus, and that is to create jobs. But inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen argues that the talk of job creation is actually setting a low standard. He says: We need more people who are passionate about finding new solutions and new industries.

Do you agree with Kamen? Tell us what you think. Our name is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Dean Kamen, you've undoubtedly seen some or all of his gadgets out there in the world. He invented the first wearable infusion pump, the iBOT wheelchair, and more recently, the Segway Human Transporter. He is an entrepreneur. He's an inventor. He's an advocate for science and technology. And he joins us from a studio in Manchester, New Hampshire. It's good to have you on the show, Dean.

Always good to be here.

So you are arguing that the government's current focus on creating jobs - which essentially is to create a system of getting wages to people now, salaries to people now - is too narrow. So what should the government's focus be?

DEAN KAMEN: Well, I'm certainly, obviously, like everybody else, concerned that people have jobs and can feed their families. But I think the dialogue has lowered the bar. You know, in the '80s, early '90s, the National Academies published a report that - at least to the people that read it - was pretty chilling, called "A Nation at Risk," which described the fact that this country is losing its technical edge. They looked around the rest of the world that was just gearing up to be able to produce high-performance, high-quality, high-tech products of every kind, and this country had sort of gotten stuck, and that it was going to come back and bite us. And they talked throughout this report about what we had to do to keep our leadership.

A few years ago, the same National Academies wrote a new report, not "A Nation at Risk," but a new one called "Rising above the Gathering Storm." And if you put the two next to each other, they're chillingly the same, except for one thing: the tense. In the new one, they talk about what America has to do to catch up, to regain, to get back. And I think the fact that Americans are now willing to accept that somehow we've lost it and are now are saying: We need jobs, we need jobs. This country used to outsource jobs. In every generation, we created something new.

A hundred years ago, it might have been cars. Then we outsourced cars when that became something that people thought a lot of the manufacturing was heavy and dirty and low-margin. And then we invented electronics. And then we invented computers. And then we invented biotech. And it seemed to me that the ecosystem of the world used to be pretty good. The inventions happened here, where people were highly motivated, very innovative, very well-educated. They created whole new industries that had high margin that solved real problems worldwide, whether it was health care or the environment or energy. And then 20 years later, patents expire. Twenty years later, people learned how to do all this stuff.

DONVAN: Well...

KAMEN: Twenty years later, it gets outsourced to the rest of the world...

DONVAN: These are the...

KAMEN: ...and gives them jobs, and we go on to the next big thing.

DONVAN: The big question in all of this: If you're correct and we let this happen, why would we let this happen?

KAMEN: I don't think it was intentional. I think, you know, a rich environment leaves you - you know, people get a little lazy. When you're a rich country - I think we've enjoyed, you know, generation after generation, always doing a little better than their parents. And I think people started to think it's simply our birthright to have high quality health care and high quality education and...

DONVAN: So - but what did we stop doing? What did - and I'm not sure which we I'm asking about, but let me put it this way: What did we - we just did a show with people about losing work and they want to work. What did we, the workforce, do wrong to contribute to this?

KAMEN: I'm not sure it's the workforce. I think we as a culture, we as a country lost our edge. We stopped investing in all the leading-edge stuff. The work ethic of your great grandparents and your grandparents - as I said, when you become a culture that seems to be born and you know the water is drinkable and the - you flip the switch and the lights go on and life is good and you have security, maybe you don't work as hard as they work around the world to pick themselves up out of poverty. But we pick the worst possible time, the worst possible generation to sit back on our laurels because the rest of the world has figured out that the model that worked so well for a few hundred years in the United States, namely highly motivated, highly educated, incentivized innovation - let the government do everything it can to create an atmosphere where entrepreneurs and innovators will risk their life and their resources and their money to create great, new things.

Well, the rest of the world is doing that now on steroids, and America, you know, frankly, a lot of what you even hear from these politicians, which I think was the original comment, saying we need jobs, we need jobs, we need jobs, I think that sets the bar too low. You know, kids don't need jobs. They need to be inspired to create whole new industries, to create great careers for themselves. I don't think, going back to Eli Whitney or Alexander Bell - I don't think the Wright brothers were out to create jobs in aviation. I don't think Edison was out to create jobs. And in our modern times, I don't think Larry Page and Sergey Brin started Google to create jobs. And I think the government of the United States shouldn't set as its threshold to success that we found a way to give people jobs. You know, kids get jobs working at a fast food place, on their way to building careers that will allow them to go and grow and allow our whole country to do better than it did in the past, to take on the great global problems that we all have.

DONVAN: All right. But Dean, where is the spark got to go now? You know, if anything we - again, we were just listening to a rash of people who are unemployed and want to work. They didn't sound lazy or unmotivated to me in any way. And you're saying that somebody kind of needs to move, to make a move. But where does that move need to come from? Does It come from the government? Does it come from the bottom up? Does it come from a teacher to his student in a moment of inspiration? And I assume we've had teachers inspiring students, and that that has never stopped. So I'm looking for, in a way - and I'm not sure - you're saying you have it, the cure right now.

KAMEN: Well, I think it's a little of everything you said. But as it relates to government, I don't think government ever did or ever will create jobs. I think what government can do is create an atmosphere in which entrepreneurs and innovators will create solutions to problems which in themselves will create the industries that create all the jobs. What government can do can create a world-class educational system that gives kids the tools to fill those jobs by making the next generation of exciting careers. I think government is sort of like the referee. They are the ones that help make the game fair. They can do a lot of things, but they're not in the ring. They're not playing any game. They never have...

DONVAN: No. But they're also - at the game, they're sort of - they're the hot dog salesman as well, in a way, in keeping the fans fed. And you're talking about - I think you're talking quite clearly about improved education. And my question is does government funding come in there?

KAMEN: Well, I think this confused...

DONVAN: And those will be jobs for teachers.

KAMEN: Well, this - I think our country always had great public education. It used to be one of the few places in the world where you could get a great public education, and I think that's in large part why we were so successful in outpacing the rest of the world. Now, as I said, a lot of the rest of the world has figured out that their kids are going to be world class in math and science education. And in this country, we're not keeping up with that kind of support, particularly for science and technology education.

DONVAN: And some of those kids are coming here to study. Our guest is Dean Kamen. He's an entrepreneur and inventor, classic innovator, definitely fits the description, arguing that we need spirit of innovation more than we need the creation of jobs by government at the moment. Do you agree or disagree with Dean Kamen? Tell us what you think at 800-989-8255. I'd like to bring Mark(ph) into the conversation. Mark, you're in Detroit. Is that correct?

MARK: Yeah.

DONVAN: Yeah. Share your view with us.

MARK: Well, you know, I think the innovation is here. I'm a middle school teacher and, you know, not everybody is going to be an innovator. And - but I think where we have the problem is - in the States is somehow being able to keep it here. I mean, look at the fiasco with the whole solar panel deal, you know? China was able to undercut us. And, you know, the bottom line is a big issue. But also, you know, people having to, you know, young people are great at innovating. But the people that are going to help implement that whole program, you know, are the older people. They have to be willing to have some foresight. I mean, the guy that revolutionized the Japanese auto industry was an American. And the, you know, the American car companies didn't want anything to do for him. I forget his name.

KAMEN: Deming.

MARK: But, you know, the Japanese say, well, come over here and talk to us, and now look at them, you know?

DONVAN: That's a great example and I think goes was exactly to what Dean's talking about. And I don't want to ask you though. Is that what you're talking about, Dean? Why did that guy ended up working for us.

KAMEN: I think he's got of exactly right, and I agree he's got it exactly right that kids are all born innovators. They're all born excited about learning new things. And what our government has to do is support our teachers and support the teachers giving kids the tools to do that innovation. And I'm happy to point out - I love the fact that they picked somebody in Michigan because that has - that state has the highest concentration of support for our FIRST program. It's got more schools involved in science and technology, innovation through our FIRST program than any state in the country.

DONVAN: Dean - I'm sorry, Mark, I meant to say, in everything that Dean's talking about, in terms of creating jobs, the government essentially filling payrolls. Do you agree with him that that's not appropriate action? And the trick to the question is, what if those payrolls are teacher's payrolls, since you're a teacher?

MARK: Ah-ha. Well, the teacher's payroll could always be improved, I'll tell you that. But, you know, I think that, you know, there's never one magic bullet. I mean, innovation is great, but implementation takes time. It's kind of like the old, you know, drilling for oil. You know, because they drill, drill, drill, drill. Well, you know, you can start drilling now, but it's going to be, you know, quite a number of years before those wells produce. So in the meantime, you know, we need jobs to get us there, you know?

DONVAN: All right.

MARK: And besides, and besides, funding innovators is a great thing, but I think our country is going the wrong way in terms of expecting everybody to be college educated, innovative, you know, people. We got plenty of people that need just regular manufacturing jobs and so forth...

DONVAN: All right. Dean, thank you. Thank you very much for your call. We're talking with Dean Kamen, inventor and entrepreneur, about his view that all of this talk about we need to create jobs now is missing the point and setting the bar too low. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Dean, the title of the legislation that the government is talking about right now, the Obama administration, is We Can't Wait. And there is a sense to the situation we're in that there's a house on fire right now, and that creating jobs, creating these payroll situations for individuals across the nation, is something that we need to do now regardless of whether there's a need for innovation or not. What about that?

KAMEN: Well, again, I'm certainly not in favor of everybody that wants to work - having a job to create an ability to feed their families. All I'm suggesting is that in the long term, unless those jobs are actually creating real wealth and competing in realistic way against people that are more than capable of doing the same thing somewhere else in a much lower cost, you're just fooling yourselves. You're just kicking a can down the road. I think what the government ought to be focusing on doing is making sure that everybody out there is capable to filling a job, which is a high-added value, sustainable way to create real wealth for themselves and for the country. And one way that the need to look at this is the fact that the rest of the world is creating an ever-more competitive, more capable workforce that are playing with newer and better technologies at the manufacturing level and at the product level.

DONVAN: We have an email I wanted to get to from a John Pushtay(ph) in Cleveland, who writes this: We cannot become a country solely of inventors and entrepreneurs. We need a balance of manufacturing, retail, technology, inventors and entrepreneurs. As far as manufacturing goes, we used to have something called on-the-job training. Manufacturers simply cannot plump down a plant and expect instant workforce. No company should expect that. I'm interested in his first line, that we cannot become a country solely of inventors and entrepreneurs because I'm not sure that that's what you're arguing. But I want you to clarify.

KAMEN: I'm not arguing that at all. Henry Ford created jobs for hundreds of thousands, and if you include the steel industry and the glass industry and the rubber industry, millions of job. There are always industries as, you know - Google has created tens of thousands of jobs. I'm not suggesting that everybody needs to be an entrepreneur or an innovator. What I am saying is that unless this country creates a workforce that is capable of the, quote, "jobs" in those new, exciting, high-margin, high-added value industries, the jobs we create will either be so low paying we will have become the country to which, you know, the low-paying jobs get outsourced, something that this country was used to doing for a hundred years. And we won't like it, and it won't support our standard of living.

But you can't just wish that problem away. You have to have people properly trained and properly motivated to take on the next generation's new and exciting jobs, which are the high-value added, wealth-creating jobs. And we need to focus on doing that. And if there's any place that government ought to put its resources, it is to create the infrastructure and resources and educational system that allows the average kid in the current generation growing up, looking towards a career to have the skill sets to compete for the exciting, high-margin, high-value careers of the future, when our kids are competing with 6 billion people around the world that are getting really, really top-notch education and are focused.

DONVAN: We have an email from David Logan in Port Charlotte, Florida, who asks about the demonization of corporations in the current debate with the Occupy movement, et cetera. And he's asking this: Do corporations help to drive innovation or are they hoarding all of the resources?

KAMEN: Ha. I suppose there's probably a good example of any extreme. I think in general, history has shown us that competition and capitalism work. And I would say that it's from companies, typically, I'd like to think small startup companies that great innovation emerges. Some of it grows them into giant companies. Others, it gets sold into large companies that can then leverage it to the major global solutions to problems. But, you know, you can always find bad examples of everything. I think we need to focus in this country once again on creating an atmosphere that inspires kids to be innovators.

DONVAN: You hear that music? That's the music that tells us that that flourish was fantastic ending. Thanks very much for joining us, Dean Kamen, who also founded FIRST, a robotics competition that helps encourage students to move in to careers in science and technology. Tomorrow, after the allegations of sexual abuse at Penn State, we'll talk about what help is available for victims. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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