On Wednesday, The New York Times on the Web flashed a headline that caught my eye: "U.S. to Unveil $1 Billion Aid Package to Repair Georgia." Wow, I thought. That's great: $1 billion to fix Georgia's roads and schools. But as I read on, I quickly realized that I had the wrong Georgia.
We're going to spend $1 billion to fix the Georgia between Russia and Turkey, not the one between South Carolina and Florida.
Sorry, but the thought of us spending $1 billion to repair a country whose president, though a democrat, recklessly provoked a war with a brutish Russia, which was itching to bash its neighbor, makes no sense to me. Yes, we should diplomatically squeeze Russia until it withdraws its troops; no one should be invading neighbors.
But where are our priorities? How many wars can we fight at once without finishing even one? Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and now Georgia. Which is the priority? Americans are struggling to meet their mortgages, and we're sending $1 billion to a country whose president behaved irresponsibly, just to poke Vladimir Putin in the eye. Couldn't we poke Putin with $100 million? And shouldn't we be fostering a dialogue with Georgia and with Putin? Otherwise, where is this going? A new Cold War? Over what?
And that brings me to our election.
What I found missing in both conventions was a sense of priorities. Both Barack Obama and John McCain offered a list of good things they plan to do as president, but, since you can't do everything, where's the focus going to be?
That focus needs to be on strengthening our capacity for innovation our most important competitive advantage. If we can't remain the most innovative country in the world, we are not going to have $1 billion to toss at either the country Georgia or the state of Georgia.
While we still have enormous innovative energy bubbling up from the American people, it is not being supported and nurtured as needed in today's supercompetitive world. Right now, we feel like a country in a very slow decline in infrastructure, basic research and education just slow enough to lull us into thinking that we have all the time and money to play around in Tbilisi, Georgia, more than Atlanta, Georgia.
As Chuck Vest, the former president of MIT, said to me: "Both candidates have spoken a lot about 'change,' but in most areas of need, innovation is the only mechanism that can actually change things in substantive ways. Innovation is where creative thinking and practical know-how meet to do new things in new ways, and old things in new ways.
"The irony of ignoring innovation as a theme for our times is that the U.S. is still the most innovative nation on the planet," Vest added. "But we can only maintain that lead if we invest in the people, the research that enables it and produce a policy environment in which it can thrive rather than being squelched. Our strong science and technology base built by past investments, our free market economy built on a base of democracy and a diverse population are unmatched to date, but we are taking it for granted."
A developed country's competitiveness now comes primarily from its capacity to innovate the ability to create the new products and services that people want, adds Curtis Carlson, chief executive of SRI International, a Silicon Valley research company. As such, "innovation is now the only path to growth, prosperity, environmental sustainability and national security for America. But it is also an incredibly competitive world. Many information industries require that products be improved by 100 percent every 12 to 36 months, just for the company to stay in business."
Our competitiveness, though, he added, is based on having a broadly educated work force, superb research universities, innovation-supportive taxes, immigration and regulatory policies, a productive physical and virtual infrastructure, and a culture that embraces hard work and the creation of new opportunities.
"America is still the best place for innovation," Carlson said. However, we are falling behind in K-12 education, infrastructure and in tax, regulatory and immigration policies that no longer welcome the world's most talented minds. "These issues must be at the top of the national agenda because they determine our ability to provide health care, clean energy and economic opportunity for our citizens."
(For a good plan, read the new "Closing the Innovation Gap" by the technologist Judy Estrin.)
Alas, though, the Republicans just had a convention where abortion got vastly more attention than innovation, calls to buttress Tbilisi, Georgia, swamped any for Atlanta, Georgia, and "drill, baby, drill" was chanted instead of "innovate, baby, innovate."If we were serious about weakening both Putin and Putinism, we would be investing $1 billion in Georgia Tech to invent alternatives to oil the high price of which is the only reason the Kremlin is strong enough today to bully its neighbors and its own people.
Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist.