I’m Voting for the Long View

USGS satellite image of Washington, D.C., modi...

USGS satellite image of Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Seal of the United States Office of Science an...

Office of Science and Technology Policy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m in my favored place for writing, which isn’t even a coffee house (my second choice) but an airplane. Just enough room to type, zero distractions (United Airlines has yet to discover wifi), and as often happens stimulating company. This time, bumped into an old friend. He’s in the space sector, which after nearly half a century of hibernation has suddenly awakened. SpaceX Dragon. NASA’s Mars Curiosity. Suddenly after all that clunky Shuttle stuff (which was also vastly expensive), and the bakolite Space Station, America seems to be moving again.

There are big issues at stake in November, and we take sides. Some of us are highly partisan and fiercely loyal. Others are more nuanced – or more cynical. But through all the electioneering, a striking fact bridges the parties. Washington is too little interested in the one thing that is most in its interests, and ours: The Long View.

What’s even more striking, I confess, is how little engaged corporate America is in pressing The Long View on Washington. Of course, at one level, public corporations operate year-to-year and quarter-by-quarter. But successful corporate leaders are smart at aligning short-term market accountability with long-term growth.  How is it that these smarts don’t survive crossing the Beltway?

Before you say I am making this up, here are some recent conversations I have had. Not naming names, though if you doubt me I will supply them in confidence.

  • I chatted with the CEO of one of the largest tech corporations. Why don’t you guys press for the Long View in DC, I asked? “I really hadn’t thought about it quite like that,” he said. He then introduced me to his top lobbyist in DC.
  • “Why did he send you to see me?” asked the lobbyist. “That’s not what I’m paid to do. We work with the electoral cycle.”
  • Then, meeting with the CTO of another tech giant and several of his execs, I put it this way: “You have a strategy unit in your Chairman’s office with a 10-year time horizon. You have R and D people all over the world thinking 7-8 years ahead. Why do you tell your Government Relations guys the horizon is 18 months? Why don’t you align these units in your own company?” ( His lobbyist was in the room and said didn’t disagree with me.)
  • Then, in a roomful of lobbyists tearing out their hair as the federal budget’s haircutting undermined their efforts (and in some cases I suspect their bonuses), I stated: “There are other groups who can guarantee long-term a vote in the House, whoever wins the election, such as the major pro-Israel lobby, and the NRA, and National Right to Life.” I wasn’t being tactful. “Why haven’t you taken The Long View and worked district by district like they have to get Washington to take it? You have far more money.” Silence.
  • Then, chatting at length with a former senior exec of another of the biggest tech companies, I make the same point. “Oh we had big disagreements about that. There are now four people assigned to think long-term about policy; with everyone else it’s 18 months. Only one of the four is in Washington.”

I’m not here to challenge the wisdom of the Founders in setting a two-yearly cycle for the House, or the ultra-short-termism of the market. But both of these seem to me crazy ways to do business in a Moore’s-Law-driven world. As I go around saying to business leaders and any pols who will listen, the faster change is taking place the more vital it is to scope the future. It’s counter-intuitive, because the faster things change the more difficult it is. But it’s a core principle of good decision-making. You can’t make today’s choices without Asking Tomorrow’s Questions. The further you go from “political” Washington, the more people get the point. They get it in the strategy and R and D units of these self-same corporations who insist that their hugely-influential representatives in Washington focus simply on the short term. They get it in the less political reaches of the federal government. Few years back I was privileged to be a non-federal participant in Project Horizon, a large-scale strategic planning project led by the Department of State with other agencies – looking 20 years ahead.

But it’s “political” Washington, the democratic driver of every big decision, that is locked into a suicide pact with the “political” levers of corporate America. How could anyone make this stuff up?

I once sat in the office of one of our top VCs out in Silicon Valley to ask for his help in turning all this around. Before politely showing me the door, he said a number of things I shall not easily forget. One was this (it’s close to the exact wording): “When I look out of my window, I see China. We regard Washington as a European city. Why should we be interested?” I mildly offered two points in response. One was the argument I have just been making, that his investment time horizon was out of kilter with Washington’s policy horizon. Another was that every single day inter-governmental organizations (WIPO, WTO, ITU, ILO, G-whatever) have more influence over the outcomes of every dollar he was investing than they had the day before; and the only access point he would ever have to them would be through Washington.

Of course, there are many reasons why we have arrived at this situation. The old-time, regulated tech sector, driven by telecoms but with pharma and others in the vicinity, has a (generally proper) symbiotic relationship with the regulatory agencies and a forward position in ensuring that the legislative environment is favorable (note that I have avoided using the pejorative term rent-seeking . . .). Even moreso, the defense sector – on both the government and corporate sides – work closely on long-term procurement and R and D issues. As a result, these major slices of the tech economy are preoccupied with their own interests in Washington. And while they collaborate in trade groups and coalition settings, their chief DC interests are narrowly defined.

It’s worth noting several sectors for which this approach is especially inappropriate. One is energy. Another is space. Another is infrastructure, but old-style transportation emerging tech-related. Another is the group of industries with high environmental impact. And back of every sector lies the need for policies favorable to innovation. This is not an argument for the feds to get more into regulating or funding new technologies. It certainly is an argument for the long-term impacts of technology, the special needs and opportunities of its innovators and manufacturers, the values concerns that ultimately shape markets and thereby drive value – for these and other considerations to rise up the policy agenda. And if you are seeking metrics: Would it not be interesting if the House Science, Space and Technology Committee were the one on which every top legislator aspired to serve. If the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) had the clout of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). If every policy choice in the legislative and executive branches were rigorously assessed in light of its impacts over 10 years and its integration with anticipated developments in science and technology. For example.

So, how about it, America? I want to vote for The Long View.

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