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CES: Innovation Under Threat

The CEOs of GE, Cisco, and Xerox say America's K-12 education system, immigration policy, and tax rules need to be fixed, fast.

If a path to better K-12 education wasn't immediately apparent, the panelists were clearer about the need for graduate and post-graduate talent. Chambers chided the government for hanging out an unwelcome sign that deters foreign students from coming to the U.S. and staying.

"We're kicking out students as soon as they graduate," concurred Shapiro, a practice Burns called "an absolutely horrible idea."

Immelt recounted how he has been visiting customers at the Saudi Electricity Company for years and observed that they all used to be educated in the U.S. Today's Saudi students, he said, are studying in Canada and Australia, a trend that's eroding the common ground upon which successful business relationships are often built.

"Our immigration policy used to encourage the best and brightest to start companies and stay here, now it's the reverse," bemoaned Chambers.

Burns suggested that the economic downturn has made it easy to demonize foreigners and suggested that the heated border control debate has ended up harming businesses that depend on foreign talent. Shapiro wondered whether the business community can get past the emotional aspect of immigration to make people understand that no country can innovate as an island today.

Burns said business leaders have to do so. Chambers called for easing the path to citizenship to keep talent here.

Casting access to talent as an existential issue, Immelt said, "We've got to fight for our future,"

The panelists were equally in agreement about the need for more business-friendly tax rules. Burns said that U.S. policies discourage the hiring of Americans because the cost burden of U.S. employees is so high.

Chambers decried U.S. tax rules which effectively impose a double tax on revenue earned abroad and brought back to the U.S. His company, he said, had $40 billion in overseas subsidiaries. It can't bring the money back to the U.S. unless it wants to be taxed a second time. So Cisco is likely to invest that money abroad, creating jobs abroad.

"What good is it doing the U.S. to have a trillion dollars overseas?" he asked.

Burns scolded the government for its export policy, calling it illogical. "I'm on the President's Export Council and I was amazed at the illogic," she said, pointing to trade restrictions with South Korea as an example.

The general sentiment was the that U.S. cannot close itself off; rather it has to be more open to remain competitive in the global market.

Immelt framed the issue quite simply: "Technology innovation is what creates wealth," he said.

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