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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.

The video that opened the Innovation Power Panel at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) on Friday morning would have played well at a Tea Party rally.

America's "culture of freedom and innovation is under threat like never before," the narrator declared. "Bail-outs for supposedly too-big-to-fail firms are punishing competition."

And then the kicker, an Ayn Rand nightmare: "The American dream, the dream of progress on your own terms and merits, is in peril."

But the call to storm Washington with constitutionally-protected firearms never came. Once moderator Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, introduced the panelists -- GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, Cisco CEO John Chambers, and Xerox CEO Ursula Burns -- the morning settled into a discussion of the state of innovation in America and what can be done to improve it.

A debate it was not. The panelists were so often in agreement that they could have finished each other's sentences. And panel moderator Gary Shapiro could hardly have been expected to differ, having staked out a like-minded position in his recent book, The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.

But it was an informative discussion nonetheless given that everyone seemed to feel that the business community has been remiss or ineffective in communicating its views on innovation, education, immigration, jobs, and taxes to the American public.

Burns said she was optimistic but nervous about the state of innovation, noting that America's K-12 education system is failing to produce students with the skills to compete in the global market and to work at high-tech companies.

Chambers concurred. "I think education is the most important long-term challenge we have to do in this country," he said.

"As a country, the rest of the world is moving faster than we are," said Immelt, who worried that state budget problems will hurt state universities, from which GE draws significant engineering talent. "...There ought to be a call-to-arms around education in this country."

No one offered a sure-fire fix, however. Chambers suggested better measurements; Immelt suggested applying a structured business methodology like Six Sigma to schools. Shapiro wondered whether lack of parental involvement or disengaged teachers might undermine any attempt to fix the system. Burns countered it's not as simple as that.

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