Old World Lessons2011-05-25
Innovation is one of the most overused adjectives in our lexicon. If you believe advertisers and marketers, no one simply builds a product or delivers a service anymore that isn’t ground-breaking, revolutionary or cutting edge. The great irony is that true innovation has been happening since ancient civilizations ruled the planet, and it was those innovations that made these civilizations worth studying.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit Israel and Egypt (Note: I had nothing to do with it) and since returning I’ve watched some of the public policy battles rage over health care, security, tax rates, energy and sustainability with the nagging feeling that the only thing new is what we’ve forgotten.
Take for example our tax system; you’d be hard pressed to find 10 people in a nation of 300 million who think its fair, simple or equitable. Yet the ancient Egyptians built monuments lasting thousands of years on a simple revenue system--the nilometer. It worked like this: in a year of average rainfall as measured by a ground well that connected to the Nile River, every Egyptian would pay his fair share of earnings to the government based on their lands and harvest. If there were floods, taxes were suspended for a year; if there was drought, taxes were suspended for two years. Simple, fair, and apparently successful: no home mortgage deductions, corn subsidies or tax cuts for the wealthy.
Egyptian priests were the Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert of their day, writing hieroglyphics poking fun at those who begged for special favors from the pharaohs, and the pharaohs who granted favors at the expense of the state. Trace Egyptian history and you’ll see a direct correlation between the amount of hieroglyphic satire and the state of the union. Sound familiar?
While America is still a beacon for people around the world, our lack of cohesion, short-term decision making, lack of historical context and impatience is undermining us as we enter a new era.
Example? Israel has no coal or oil reserves (and few nations willing to sell it to them), but the roof of every building in Jerusalem has a solar hot water heater that generates electricity at a cost per kilowatt hour far cheaper than our most optimistic projections.
Both Israel and Egypt have learned the link between higher eduction and innovation, which is why public universities are free, and the most expensive private one costs about the same as an average state school in the U.S.
Create national unity and purpose? Try the Egyptian and Israeli model of universal public service to the country, mandatory for the kids of the cab driver and the kids of the Cabinet minister. No one is exempt. There’s the answer to why the Mubarak regime fell with minimal loss of life.
Health care? Free. Even conservatives wouldn’t dream of dismantling it. Cell service? Better in the 4,000-year-old Valley of the Kings than at JFK Airport in Queens.
Speaking of airports, the only one with long security lines was in New York. While our nimble response to 9/11 has been billions in slow, invasive screening systems, millions more in futile public relations efforts to convince us we’re safe, and the bad taste of eroded civil liberties, airports in Cairo and Tel Aviv have thousands of people wearing hijabs and kafiyas who pass through every day quickly and safely on their way to conduct business in Europe and Asia.
Technology still rules in the U.S and can never be outsourced--the argument goes--and it’s true iPods and Nintendo games are abundant, but when there are more Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises facing the streets than Chevrolets driving through them, its equally clear we need to do better in our patent production than just nine original herbs and spices.
In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death and the Arab Spring of Freedom, it’s become unmistakable that most people living in the Middle East would rather sell to the world than shoot at each other, but we’ve already lost the battle to manufacture the cheap consumer goods the global emerging middle class wants. Our only path is to own the race to create the intellectual property for the next generation of smartphones, battery storage, biofuels and building materials.
The reality of our situation was brought home to me by a reverent, well dressed 30-something Egyptian gentleman who sat next to me on the plane ride home from Cairo. In between his silent prayers and multiple meal services, he told me he’d been hired as an engineer to work in New Jersey, and was excited about living in America because it was the key to a more prosperous life. In the middle of our conversation, I complemented his silk tie, and asked if it was from native Egyptian silk; he flipped it over to read the Arabic lettering on the back. “Made in China,” he said wryly in nearly flawless English. “Everything is made in China.”