Monday, September 20, 2010

Innovation vs. Old School Short-Sightedness

Today's Financial Times, includes a news analysis quoting the former U.S. Auto Czar Steven Rattner comparing allowing the auto inustry to fail with "dropping the economic equivalent of an atomic bomb on the Midwest."

Dramatic, huh? The question is... what would constitute "allowing the auto industry to fail." See, to my mind, encouraging transformative technological advances with the potential not only to retain old jobs but create new ones is a viable alternative to injecting good cash into bad businesses.

Try this on for size: rather than propping up the behemoth auto makers, why not create a pool of cash, say $100 million (small change to what they threw at the giants) to finance a handful of awards for projects that would push the envelope, creating, developing, and commercializing innovative automotive technologies, and a whole bunch of jobs with them. It'd be a cross between SBIR and public venture capital.

Why does it have to rest on private initiative, like the Automotive X-Prize to support these sorts of projects? Rather than arguing that allowing some particular old firms to fade is the equivalent of letting the automotive industry fail, perhaps government officials would do better to think outside the box. If we're going to spend taxpayer dollars on supporting business, why not do it in a way that supports society and job creation as well?

Problem is: if you hire people like Steven Rattner, former private equity executive, to run a bail-out scheme, you're likely to get results in line with old school short-sighted thinking. Perhaps it's time to be bold!

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