I love Jackson Hole, Wyo. It is one of the most extraordinarily beautiful settings in the world. One cannot help being in a good mood when observing the breathtaking wildlife, open sky and the awe-inspiring Grand Tetons.
Thus, reading the reports from last weekend’s annual economist confab in Jackson Hole could not have been more depressing. If the practitioners of the dismal science sound this pessimistic amidst such an uplifting setting, what will their attitude be when they trade in their cowboy boots for green eye shades and return to their drab offices to stare at spreadsheets? A usually staid Allen Sinai sounded positively hyperbolic, yet apparently spoke for many at the conference, when he told New York Times: “I’m more worried than I have ever been about the future of the U.S. economy. The challenge is unique: poor and diminishing growth, a sticky unemployment rate, sky-high deficits and a sovereign debt that makes us one of the most fiscally irresponsible countries in the world.”
In his Oval Office speech on Iraq Tuesday night, President Obama acknowledged his concerns about the economy and declared, “Our most urgent task is to restore our economy and put the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs back to work. … We must unleash the innovation that allows new products to roll off our assembly lines, and nurture the ideas that spring from our entrepreneurs.”
So here’s what I don’t understand. If everyone, including the president, believes that supporting innovation and entrepreneurship is the best path forward, why aren’t the policy leaders taking action? Thomas Friedman of the NY Times has been hammering on this issue for the past year, calling on the president to “launch his own moon shot” and make innovation and supporting the startup economy his top priority.
First, let’s review the data. The Kauffman Foundation did a comprehensive study of historical job creation and, not surprisingly, found that small businesses are the main source. “Without startups,” writes Senior Fellow Tim Kane, there would be no net job growth in the US economy. This fact is true on average, but also true for all but seven years for which the US has data going back to 1977.”
But despite the obvious data and the presidential rhetoric, we are not seeing any action from policy leaders on either side of the aisle. It’s almost as if the policy makers think speeches exhorting innovation are more important than doing the hard work of pushing forward legislation that will actually positively impact the innovation economy.
I’m no policy expert, but it strikes me that there is a clear innovation agenda that has been put forward by those who are the most knowledgeable about the issues. A few of the ideas being proposed seem obvious, but are stagnating due to a lack of leadership. For example:
• We need to make it easier for immigrants to start companies in the US. The Start-Up Visa movement addresses this issue squarely in the head and yet the bill proposed by Senators Kerry and Lugar six months ago (!) appears to be caught up in the more partisan immigration debate.
• Sarbanes-Oxley needs to be reformed. We may have had too little regulation of complex financial instruments like credit default swaps and other derivatives, but we clearly have too much regulation being imposed on the public selling of the securities of $100 million companies that are very simple for investors to understand. Why haven’t Facebook, LinkedIn, Zynga and many others gone public? It’s just too onerous and expensive. You want to unleash innovation? Make it one-third as expensive for small companies to comply with public regulations. There have been numerous proposals in the past to rethink Sarbanes-Oxley, we need to see some form of them come to light.
• Other important policy ideas have been put forward by the National Venture Capital Association and others – such as patent reform, increased investment in broadband, increased investment in NIH funding, reforming the FDA approval process.
The amazing thing to me is that none of these ideas – and many others floating around the entrepreneurial community – require big dollars. Instead, they require big leadership. Where is that leadership going to come from? Who will be our champion for entrepreneurship? Ted Kennedy played this role in health care. John McCain played this role in campaign finance reform. Who will step up and be the champion for entrepreneurs?
Here are a few other ideas:
• We have two former venture capitalists in the Senate and House (Mark Warner and Scott Murphy), a former high-tech entrepreneur in the Senate (Maria Cantwell) and a former venture capitalist running the Small Business Association (Karen Mills). They probably know what to do to unleash innovation in this country, but they’re just not empowered. Why not cut through the hierarchy of party leadership and have the president create a special Bipartisan Commission on Entrepreneurship – similar to what has been done on September 11th and Deficit Reduction?
• When President Clinton was elected in 1992, he convened a televised economic summit, bringing together the best minds on the economy and conducting, in effect, a “national teach-in” for the broader public. Let’s have the president convene an Entrepreneurship Summit – invite top entrepreneurs, VCs, angel investors to sit alongside policy leaders – and have TechCrunch.tv broadcast it. Discuss immigration reform, Sarbanes Oxley reform, FDA approval streamlining and all the rest. Imagine the impact that would have and the focus this would provide.
• Faced with criticism that he’s not in touch with business, President Obama has had a series of CEO lunches at the White House. Looking at the list of invitees, it is shocking how few are entrepreneurs. I counted two (Jeff Bezos and Howard Schultz) among 28. And none of them are in the business of helping create the small businesses that create jobs. The president’s lunch list needs to change radically and instead invite the leading thinkers in entrepreneurship and innovation to a series of lunches. If accomplishing nothing else, it would force Brad Feld to wear a tie.
When you look at the exciting progress being made in global broadband access, the Human Genome, ubiquitous wireless access and devices, energy innovation and so much more – it is clear that we are living in an extraordinarily unique time, truly a golden age for technology and innovation. If only we could get our policy leaders to take big actions to match their big rhetoric. Then next year’s Jackson Hole conference might be a lot more fun for everyone.
Jeff Bussgang is a general partner at Flybridge Capital Partners and an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Harvard Business School. He is the author of “Mastering the VC Game,” writes the blog Seeing Both Sides and can be followed on Twitter @bussgang.