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Three Innovative Ideas, Which Could Help the Economy,...but No One's Talking About Them

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I have been working on this topic for about five weeks, pretty much since I posted "Whatever Happened to 'the Vision Thing', Revisited". It was always my intention to follow that up with an explanation of how a vision for the future could serve as a meaningful organizing principle for a comprehensive and holistic plan to restructure and reposition the U.S. economy for future growth and prosperity.

My interest in continuing what I had hoped would be the beginning of a healthy dialogue generated by that blog entry intensified when, the following week, I offered "Too Little, Too Late: The President's 'Big Jobs Speech'"; what I thought was fair criticism of the president's address to a joint session of Congress on September 8th. That "fair criticism" drew 238 comments; very few of them flattering to the author. More than one commenter wondered about my ideas, sarcastically looking forward to seeing my vision (the clear implication being that I had none).

One commenter really threw down the gauntlet:

"Just exactly what would this 'expert' propose to do, other than criticize. I read nothing in the article suggestion [sic] that he had a clue. Maybe instead of writing that we need a 'bold vision' he could maybe give some details of what would be included in his 'bold vision'."

Ouch. If I had feelings, they'd be hurt. I don't think putting "expert" in quotes is intended as a compliment. If only punditry paid better.

So here I am, some six weeks later, ready to revisit this issue of the importance of having a new and bold vision for our country. And certainly neither the poignancy nor irony of the October 5th death of Apple co-Founder and former CEO, Steve Jobs, one of America's greatest contemporary innovators, has been lost on me in the process. I promise my four or five devoted followers, as well as my legion of torch-and-pitch-fork-wielding critics, that I do, indeed, have my own vision for our future,... which I will happily share with all,... eventually.

But only a fool would believe to single-handedly hold the key to America's future. So any discussion about an economic recovery plan crafted cohesively around a singular vision of a new, resurgent United States of America, would be well-served to at least consider some innovative ideas crafted and/or promoted by others. I offer here summaries of three innovative concepts to be explored more fully over the next several weeks.

The Good Corporate Citizen. The vernacular phrase for this concept is "doing well by doing good." On Monday, October 3rd, Charles Schulz, CEO of Starbucks, announced the Create Jobs for USA program, which will provide loans to underserved community businesses, and is being seeded with a $5 million contribution from the Starbucks Foundation. Of course, Starbucks is only one of a handful of successful U.S corporations to suggest that it is possible to combine profit motives with a business model that favors workers, communities, and the planet. These "socially responsible companies" integrate such ideals into their business models and practices.

In 1993 Paul Hawken, co-founder of garden supply retailer Smith & Hawken, published The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability, offering a vision of corporate sustainability in which profitability and respect for the environment could be successfully blended. Retail companies like Smith & Hawken, Starbucks, and Chipotle (promoting organic and local food sourcing for its restaurants), as well as manufacturers including 3M, Adidas, and BMW, have recognized social responsibility programs that are integral to their business models. At a time when the three-week old Occupy Wall Street protest has expanded into the nationwide Occupy Movement, and there is increasing suspicion and even growing animosity among a majority of American voters and consumers toward business in general, those that sincerely embrace social responsibility may fair much better with consumers in the future, particularly those consumers with more limited dollars to spend.

Reducing Our Reliance on Foreign Oil While Increasing the Viability of Energy Alternatives. This is a topic that, in reality, gets talked about a lot but neither seems to gain much traction with the American public nor lead to new solutions upon which economic growth might be founded. In fact, the emerging P.R. campaign for approval of the Keystone XL Pipeline pits job creation against serious environmental concerns, uncoupling rather than dovetailing these two issues. The Solyndra bankruptcy, following a $535 million federal loan guarantee, hasn't helped either.

Efforts two years ago to do something legislatively creative through the Administration's carbon cap-and-trade proposal were summarily killed in Congress, primarily by lobbyists for the largest carbon emitters in the U.S., who didn't want to suffer a competitive disadvantage because of their polluting ways. Nonetheless, there is strong merit to the notion of carbon pricing as a means of accounting for the societal costs of poor air quality practices. Moreover, using some form of carbon tax and/or low carbon-emission credits to create funding mechanisms to promote Green Energy production would certainly help create jobs in the short term and a cleaner environment in the long-term. And, indeed, many of the recently created manufacturing jobs in the U.S. have been "green energy jobs" such as battery production for electric vehicles.

Three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author and New York Times OpEd Columnist Thomas L. Friedman, in a September 13, 2011, OpEd entitled "Is It Weird Enough Yet?" had this to say:

"We need revenue to balance the budget. We need sustainable clean-tech jobs. We need less dependence on Mideast oil. And we need to take steps to mitigate climate change -- just in case Governor Perry is wrong [about the lack of scientific evidence of man's role in climate change]. The easiest way to do all of this at once is with a gasoline tax or price on carbon. " [Emphasis added.]

I rarely find occasion to argue with Mr. Friedman's facts or logic.

Changing the Public Education Paradigm. Sir Ken Robinson believes the public education system in Britain needs to be fundamentally reformed. His views are directly applicable to the American public education system, which has gotten way off track, most recently with an over-emphasis on standardized testing as the metric by which we judge how good a job we're doing of educating our children. The RSAnimate video "Changing Education Paradigms," graphically presents some of Robinson's thinking on the subject.

Reforming the U.S. public education system to make it less like a factory processing future workers, and focusing instead on creating a nation of thinkers, might seem counterintuitive to matching up high school and college grads with scarcely available jobs. And, indeed, this kind of "trade school approach" to recasting secondary and post-secondary education is something recently suggested by The Economist's Matthew Bishop, author of "The great mismatch," Sept. 10, 2011.

However counter-intuitive this notion may appear, fostering a nation of creative thinkers will serve the U.S. well in an increasingly global and technological economy. After all, one of the most successful and profitable companies in the world (high-tech or otherwise) is Apple. Until August 25, 2011, Apple was led by CEO Steve Jobs, who stepped down (for the second time) for health reasons. Jobs was one of the most creative thinkers of the past 50 years and was not trained by the American university system for such greatness. He was a creative thinker, not the toiler of a particular trade conferred upon him by some professional degree.

The potential, long-term implications for the U.S. economy of each of these innovative ideas will be explored more fully over the next several weeks, along with ways in which promoting these ideas could help the U.S. economy in the short-term (e.g. through the immediate creation of job opportunities).