Daily Breakthrough: America’s Future is Up in the Air

January 12, 2010 | Yael Borofsky,

Has America forgotten its own history? Do we remember nothing about what made us a great nation?

Americans are like screaming schoolboys over the latest technological toy - iSlate! Google phone! 3D TV! - without acknowledging, for even a minute, that so many fundamentals for these technologies, and many more, were delivered by Defense Department contracts.

Given our collective technology amnesia it's little wonder that America's Most Important Columnist has convinced so many Times readers that pollution regulations rather than government investments in technology are crucial to America winning what he cheesily calls "the Earth Race."

Office Space: Revkin interviewed 48 energy experts for one article on clean tech innovation; his comprehensive reporting could offer serious insight to those who insist we can carbon price our way to a clean energy future.

If Thomas Friedman needed a refresher, he could have easily met his colleague Andrew Revkin by the water cooler and asked him to summarize the state of clean energy innovation and the technology gap we need to overcome. Revkin would have directed Friedman to read something like this piece, that Revkin wrote for the Times in 2006.

This past Sunday, Friedman pointed again to China's emerging dominance of clean tech and suggested the best way for America to compete is through cap and trade and putting a price on carbon, just like the Chinese.

What's that? China has neither cap and trade nor a price on carbon? How can it be, then, that it is surging ahead of the U.S. in clean tech?

Friedman never says. But his argument is clear. China is passing us by in clean tech because of their massive government investments in infrastructure and technology. Therefore, he concludes, we need to do the exact opposite by instating "a price on carbon and the right regulatory incentives" and "a price on carbon" and, again, "a price on carbon."

In "Up in the Air," George Clooney plays a management consultant who is hired by companies to fire people. He's the best at what he does. Given that he spends 300 day of the year in and out of airports, hotels, and rental cars, he does his best to construct a comfortable bubble around himself.

Remind you of anyone?

Bubble Boy: Like George Clooney's character, Friedman is looking to make a connection. But the elusive link between China's growing clean energy dominance and what the U.S. must do to compete is more obvious than he thinks.

The more Friedman travels, it seems, the less he learns. He's writing from-the-ground in China, but he would have done better staying home and reading Stanford-trained historian Christophe Lecuye's "Making Silicon Valley" or any number of other histories of high-tech America. "Military funding was critical for the rise of Silicon Valley from the very late 1930s to the early 1960s," Lecuye told the SF Chron -- and of course it has been important ever since, funding everything from microchips to Google.

Ah, but we all know Friedman's response in advance: Washington just isn't going to make the investments in clean tech that you want it to!

Bizarre, then, to see President Obama so excitedly announcing $2.3 billion in manufacturing credits last Friday. It wasn't actually news - the money had already been allocated through the stimulus. But the White House, apparently filled with seasoned political advisers who don't understand Washington, seemed to think it was good PR to have POTUS touting the very same Washington's investments in clean tech.

Friedman reassures himself that the U.S. will still do the brainy stuff like innovation and China will be happy to do all that dumb stuff, like manufacturing.

Swift Kick: Dreams of a symbiotic clean tech relationship between China and the U.S. may leave the U.S. woefully unprepared as China looks to excel at both innovation as well as manufacturing.

It's a fantasy. China wants brains and brawn. As we wrote last week, it is now wooing top researchers from the U.S. to China, and is today building 16 new clean energy R&D centers.

Friedman imagines a divide between innovation and manufacturing that doesn't exist in the real world. Breakthrough Senior Fellow Greg Nemet's work (here and here) shows that innovations in things like solar panels have happened from all that dumb manufacturing, not just in R&D, a sector China already dominates.

Thanks to this kind of muddled thinking shared by America's Most Powerful Think Tank, America's Most Important Liberal Blogger, America's Most Prominent Nobel Winning Economist, and, last but not least, America's Most Important Columnist, America remains conveniently forgetful of past government investments in technology.

And thus America's future, like the clean energy race, remains completely up in the air.