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Tom Davenport: Memo to the Candidates

Our companies increasingly look offshore for knowledge-intensive work and workers, so it's critical that our next President focus on how we're going to make a living in fhe future

My hope in this presidential election is that more attention would be devoted to how we are going to make a living in the future. The United States was once the world's leader in knowledge work: science, technology, engineering, analytics, and the application of computers and communications to business. While we still do reasonably well in some of those categories, few would debate that our lead is slipping. Our students are not well-educated, our science policies have been ineffective at best, and our companies no longer lead the world in basic research. Several other countries, from China to Ireland, have focused much more on competing in the knowledge economy than the United States. Our companies increasingly look offshore for knowledge-intensive work and workers.

The question of how to return our competitive edge has no simple answers, but we do know the categories. Candidates who care about how the U.S. fares in the knowledge economy emphasize funding for science, better education for children as well as for retraining adults, widespread availability of technology and Internet access, and a renewed emphasis on science and technology within our society. The more aggressive candidates venture into the tricky territory of "industrial policy," picking industry winners for investment and policy support. Perhaps needless to say, these are more Democratic issues than Republican ones. Republicans, including our current president, have largely assumed that the market would solve these problems for us. So far it hasn't.