President Donald Trump’s memorandum establishing the White House Office of American Innovation sounds great. It appoints his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as its head and aspires to “bring together the best ideas from government, the private sector, and other thought leaders to ensure that America is ready to solve today’s most intractable problems.”
We hear lots of talk in the business community about the need to innovate to stay ahead of the competition. But what does “innovation” really mean? Merriam-Webster defines it as “a new idea, device, or method.” If Trump and Kushner intend to import the private sector’s ideas, devices, or methods into government, we should take a closer look at how innovation works in the business world.
The federal government is a large organization; in fact, it is the largest employer in the U.S. followed by Walmart. So if innovation is going to work in the federal government, it would need to follow the same model of innovation at large private sector organizations.
But the tough truth is that it’s really hard to innovate in large private sector organizations. There are really only two ways to do so effectively: acquire those that innovate or innovate internally.
In 2009 when my colleagues at the National Bureau of Economic Research and I began planning a conference for a project we’re running on the global financial crisis, we were concerned that the material would no longer be timely when the symposium actually occurred. We needn’t have worried.
I’ve just returned from Washington, DC, where our symposium was held, and again financial crises were the topic of the day. Three years after cracks in the subprime mortgage market erupted into the most severe and synchronized global financial crisis and recession since the Great Depression, the world economy is once more in dangerous territory. What began as a singular sovereign debt problem in Greece has spread to the rest of Europe, and now threatens to become a second act to the first financial crisis. How did we get here? And how can we keep it from happening again?
The summer debate that has dominated Washington seems straightforward. Under what conditions should the U.S. government be allowed to borrow more money? The numbers that have been bandied about focus on reducing the cumulative deficit projection over the next 10 years, as measured by the Congressional Budget Office.
But there is a serious drawback to this measure because it ignores what will probably prove to be the U.S.’s single largest fiscal problem over the next decade: The lack of adequate capital buffers at banks.