bridges, vol. 33, May 2012 / Innovation Matters
By Stephen Ezell

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Ezell StephenStephen Ezell

Election season is coming again to Washington – in the midst of a fragile economy that has seen US unemployment rates remain stubbornly high. In fact, the Congressional Budget Office reported in February 2012 that with three years of unemployment topping 8 percent, the United States has seen the longest period of high unemployment since the Great Depression; yet unemployment is expected to remain above 8 percent through 2014. In such an environment, it's no surprise that elected officials are looking for culprits to blame for these persistently high unemployment rates, and many have turned to a familiar bogeyman: technology, automation, and innovation.

None other than President Obama, during an interview with Ann Curry of NBC's Today program on June 14, 2011, suggested that technology and automation were in part responsible for the US economy's sluggish job growth. The President explained that, "There are some structural issues with our economy where a lot of businesses have learned to become much more efficient with a lot fewer workers. You see it when you go to a bank and you use an ATM, you don't go to a bank teller, or you go to the airport and you're using a kiosk instead of checking in at the gate."

Unfortunately, such pronouncements are part of an all-too-familiar meme among elected officials in the United States and, indeed, around the world. I have even been in rooms on Capitol Hill with US Representatives who have said, "Innovation? We don't need more innovation. Wasn't it financial innovation that got the United States into this economic and unemployment crisis in the first place?" But even putting aside the fact that so much of what passed for "innovation" on Wall Street over the past decade was in reality casino gaming – shifting money around – or outright fraud, rather than true wealth-generating innovation that produced real value for the economy, this fear that technology, automation, and innovation destroys jobs has a long history in the United States.


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