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America Needs a Department of "Creative Destruction"

Rather than an "opportunity society," we need to create a more "opportunistic society," one smart and durable enough to weather change and focus on the future.
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My company has more than 1,200 job openings -- half of them located here in Silicon Valley -- many of which have gone unfilled all year. For our employment staff it is a daily struggle to even find qualified candidates to interview. Out my window are dozens of neighbor companies facing a similar dilemma, among them Google, Oracle, Apple and Cisco, not to mention legions of lesser-known companies and freshly-minted start-ups.

And Silicon Valley is not the only region experiencing this jobs imbalance. Great jobs are going unfilled in many known hot spots, from Boston to Madison, Richmond to Seattle.

Meanwhile, national unemployment rates officially hover above nine percent and some hardest hit regions have twice that rate. How can our economy be so out of synch? To quote novelist William Gibson, "the future is already here, it is just unevenly distributed."

There are many jobs being created in the U.S. -- and many more to come. The trouble is we really only measure unemployed people filing for unemployment benefits -- not unfilled jobs, and worse, their lost opportunity costs, so we don't know where the mismatches are and how to fix them.

While many future-oriented companies in global growth industries are already responding to signs of economic recovery, much of the nation lags way behind. At a time when we should be accelerating our investments -- including investments in human capital -- to capture as much future growth as possible, it seems that as a nation we cannot even recognize the myriad fantastic opportunities staring us right in the face. From clean tech to nanotech to 3-D printing, the industries of the next wave are ramping up and will need newly-skilled workers. Wouldn't it be nice if universities, government training programs and industrious workers knew what the new requirements were and could gear up for them? Our private sector employers would be very grateful to find more qualified workers.

The bottom line: our global economy is undergoing wrenching change. It's not the first time, and won't be the last. Change means opportunity. A protracted economic downturn is an opportunity to retool for the future -- we should be redesigning our national economy and workforce for the obvious next wave of global growth that has already begun. But we aren't. A killing can be made on change -- but you have to see it and respond to it first. That's a role the government can and should play in our nation's economic well-being.

They say generals always fight the last war. It seems governments always prepare for the last economy. That is bad policy. Rather than use our strained national resources to prop up dead and dying companies and industries, the best thing a government can do is help its citizens identify and prepare for the future. America needs a Department of Creative Destruction.

The concept of creative destruction belongs of course to Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. According to Schumpeter, creative destruction is a virtuous cycle, a "process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one." In other words, you have to actively kill off the old brush in order to make way for new growth. If Moore's law is the metronome of Silicon Valley -- provoking a platform retooling every 18 months or so, creative destruction is the Valley's unsentimental holy mantra. By practice, we in the Valley are quite happy to make our own products obsolete so we can replace them with something better. Nobody was better at it than the late Steve Jobs. Creative destruction ain't for the faint of heart, but the future never is.

The problem is, Washington (Wall Street and Main Street too) has too many players with a vested interest in the past -- the status quo -- not enough invested in the future. Labor unions, big hidebound companies, government agencies -- all were built around what once worked well. They know things have changed around them, but they are afraid. To them, destruction is death; they don't see a path forward for themselves through the change -- so they resist and fight to preserve the status quo for as long as possible. Perhaps if there was an orderly economic succession plan that allowed the nation to bridge from one economy to the next, we'd have more champions of change in seats of influence.

A Department of Creative Destruction would not be an instrument of central planning, or even industrial policy per se, but rather a periscope on the future -- an energy center of data, research and ideas all citizens and companies could use to reinvent themselves during periods of massive, chaotic change. The DCD would be a nexus between global enterprises, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, universities and public schools, and other government agencies helping to get us all in alignment about where the global economy is going next and how to maximize our readiness. I believe the DCD should be designed as a 'hot group' and located far from Washington, DC, probably here in Silicon Valley (I'd go as far as to nominate Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt to be the first Secretary of Change).

Rather than an "opportunity society," we need to create a more "opportunistic society," one smart and durable enough to weather change and focus on the future. After all, there is a new economic boom coming just around the corner. Followed someday by another downturn. And so it goes.

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