When announcing the appointment of General Electric’s Jeffrey Immelt to lead the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness today, President Obama vowed to put “our economy into overdrive.” He meant what everybody took him to mean: we are now going to get things really going, shift America into high gear, pull out all the stops, discover our inner Edison, “build stuff and invent stuff,” and export it to the world.
But the word “overdrive” is probably not the word the President should have chosen. Or at least it commits him to positions he isn’t going to take – positions I wish he would take.
Indulge me for a moment. Overdrive is not just high gear. Overdrive also means better fuel economy. When you put your car into overdrive you get the best mileage per gallon, because the overdrive mechanism allows “cars to drive at freeway speed while the engine speed stays nice and slow.” Or, as the entry on Wikipedia puts it, overdrive “allows an automobile to cruise at sustained speed with reduced engine speed, leading to better fuel consumption, lower noise and lower wear.”
At the very heart of the President’s metaphor, then, are two ideas: one, economy, a more efficient or economical use of resources (or fuel) and two, sustainability, maintaining a constant speed without causing wear and tear. Right now, we are desperately in need of both: new ways of conserving the resources we have and a more sustainable way forward than the cycle of boom and bust, or dangerous exuberance followed by social collapse.
Those ideas were not on display today in Schenectady. There was some talk about clean energy – a business GE is in, and where, not surprisingly, Immelt thinks a “partnership” between the private and public sector is “essential.” But the main focus was on U.S. manufacturing and U.S. exports, which the President wants to double over the next five years. “For America to compete around the world, we need to export more goods around the world,” said the President. So we need to innovate and invent new “stuff,” or bring good things to life, as the people at GE used to say. “Inventors and dreamers and builders and creators,” we need to expand our manufacturing base and bring American products to the global marketplace.
Reading these remarks, I can almost hear the old General Electric jingle. “We still have that spirit of innovation,” Immelt said. “America is still home to the most creative and innovative businesses in the world,” said the President. We are “still” innovative, both leaders took care to say — almost as if we no longer believe it or doubt it’s true. We’ve still got it. Our force is not spent.
It’s great to be reassured of our continued prowess. There are, however, lots of unexamined assumptions at work here, and chief among these is one I’ve discussed in earlier posts: namely, the assumption that “innovation” is the surest path to “growth,” and that growth – even unsustainable growth – is good in and of itself.
Sustainability doesn’t really enter into this conversation – partly because, I suppose, it really isn’t a conversation. It’s all bluster and boosterism.
Nor would anyone at these events, the President least of all, take a step back and ask whether, while we are doubling our exports, we should also take some steps toward greater self-sufficiency. Doing that, especially when it comes to energy — and energy consumption — would leave us less exposed.
I’m not even convinced doubling our exports or even saying we are going to double our exports is the right thing — for the dollar, for trade agreements we have in place, for the very focus of American industry and innovation. For his part, Immelt has no doubts:
“It’s the right aspiration,” Immelt said of the president’s goal of doubling American exports to more than $2 trillion in five years, during a Nov. 6 interview in Mumbai, where he joined Obama for a meeting with business leaders. “We’ve done it in the last five years as a company.”
Maybe in the long run, or at least in five year’s time, what’s good for General Electric will turn out to be good for the republic. How could it be otherwise?