On “Innovation,” Inequality, and the State of the Union

President Obama mentioned "innovation" 11 times in last night's State of the Union address. To keep things in perspective, check out Mike Mandel's helpful breakdown of the sectors of the American economy that are most likely to lead to innovative job creation–biomedical research, for example–compared to the sexier sectors Obama actually spoke about, such as space exploration and green tech. 

And while the subject last night was economic innovation, the administration's attachment to often-wishy washy "innovation" rhetoric dates back to the Democratic primary and, later on, its launching of various social policy stimulus programs including the Social Innovation Fund, Race to the Top, and Investing in Innovation

In fall 2009 I wrote an essay for The American Prospect discussing how the administration frames "innovation" in education and urban economic development specifically as a poverty and inequality-fighting tool. It strikes me that although Obama did not mention inequality or poverty last night, there was a similar subtext in the State of the Union, as he argued that innovation is "how our people will prosper" in a harsh global economy.

This "innovation" agenda, which is largely focused on the federal government incenting various movements in the private and philanthropic sectors, may be politically astute in a climate in which the White House has decided it is impossible to argue for the largescale expansion of the government social safety net. Yet it's important to keep scale in mind; most of the non-profit and private sector efforts that have benefited from Obama's innovation agenda thus far have been rather small-bore and locally targeted, and certainly not systemic poverty fighting tools. (You can read about a few of them in that old Prospect piece I mentioned.)

The health reform act and the stimulus bill, in comparison, were truly transformative ways to fight joblessness and poverty at the national level–as would be a national daycare system, or universal free pre-school, or any one of many long-needed anti-poverty programs that are absolutely nowhere on our national political agenda.

Hat tip: Dear Ezra

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