America makes a grievous error if it dismisses the weak economic expansion — this month marks the fourth anniversary of the end of the Great Recession – as nothing more than the expected aftermath of a deep downturn and financial crisis. Sluggish GDP growth and yet another “jobless” recovery point to a secular problem rather than merely cyclical forces at work.
The US entrepreneurial spirit may be faltering. Check out these data points from The Wall Street Journal: a) In 1982, new companies made up roughly half of all US businesses, according to census data. By 2011, they accounted for just over a third; b) from 1982 through 2011, the share of the labor force working at new companies fell to 11% from more than 20%; c) Total venture capital invested in the US fell nearly 10% last year and is still below its prerecession peak, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.
New companies are best at creating what business guru Clayton Christensen has termed “empowering innovation” (creating new consumer goods and services) as opposed to process innovation (creating cheaper, more efficient ways to make existing consumer goods and services). Empowering innovation produces new jobs, while efficiency innovation eliminates them, often through automation.
Don’t let Apple and Google and Facebook fool you. Right now, Christensen wrote in The New York Times last year, “efficiency innovations are liberating capital, and in the United States this capital is being reinvested into still more efficiency innovations. In contrast, America is generating many fewer empowering innovations than in the past.”
Not only do we need a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem so startups can flourish and generate disruptive innovation, these new entrants raise the competitive intensity for established players to become more innovative. In other words, explains banker and entrepreneur Ashwin Parameswaran, “unless incumbent firms face the threat of failure due to the entry of new firms, product innovation is unlikely to be robust. The role of failure in fostering product innovation has sometimes been called the ‘invisible foot’ of capitalism.” Big business must be subject to maximum competitive intensity.
In the WSJ piece, reporter Ben Casselman offers several possible causes for the decline in risk taking from the aging of the US population to rising health care costs to increased state and local licensing requirements: “One recent study found that roughly 29% of U.S. employees required a government license or certificate in 2008, up from less than 5% in the 1950s.” Parameswaran thinks Washington’s backstop of “too big to fail” banks play a role by encouraging the financial sector to take on macroeconomic risk of the sort the Federal Reserve worries about (housing, derivatives) rather than lending to small business or new firms. Another factor could be restrictive land-use regulations that prevent our most productive cities from being as populous as they could be. And Christensen sees schools at all levels failing to teach the “skills necessary to start companies that focus on empowering innovations.”
US workers need America to be as entrepreneurial and innovative as possible. So does the global economy. But right now we are taxing capital, educating kids, regulating banks, and managing cities in ways that are crippling America’s greatest economic asset.