Commerce Department’s steps to spur innovation

Despite what you might hear on cable news, both the Democratic and Republican parties are in broad agreement that the private sector has always been, and always will be, the engine of innovation and job creation in America.  

Unfortunately, the cynical debate about whether America is undergoing some type of economic drift toward European-style socialism is obscuring real and dramatically different economic visions being staked out by both parties.

The Republican Party in 2010 continues to read from the same old hymnal of anti-regulatory and anti-government fundamentalism, even though this laissez-faire philosophy enabled Wall Street speculators to ruin America’s economy and throw millions of people out of work just two years ago.  

We saw this intransigence on full display in the last few weeks as Congressional Republicans voted almost unanimously against the strongest financial reforms in more than 75 years and filibustered a relatively modest $30 billion jobs bill that would have funneled badly needed resources to states to avoid layoffs and benefit cuts and also would have extended unemployment insurance to 1.2 million people out of work.

Endlessly bashing government makes for great 30-second ads, but it’s not going to solve the immediate unemployment crisis that is threatening so many American families.

The fact is that when you look at America’s history, the government has a critical complementary role in helping the private sector create jobs.  

We may have seen the Internet come of age in Silicon Valley, but it first came to life in the labs of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.  

The folks at Tempur-Pedic have given us mattresses that make us feel like we’re sleeping on a cloud, but they are using technology that was first developed by NASA.  

UPS can get a package to your door overnight, but those brown trucks are driving on the government-funded interstate highway system.

These are the types of investments — in basic infrastructure and in R&D in emerging areas like energy, healthcare and IT — that play a key role in President Barack Obama and the Commerce Department’s economic recovery efforts.  

These efforts are putting people back to work now while also shoring up America’s position in the increasingly competitive world economy.   

Take for example, the administration’s $7.2 billion effort to expand high-speed Internet access throughout the country.  

According to recently released data, 36 percent of Americans do not have high-speed Internet access at home — which, in effect, means 36 percent of our citizens are prevented from fully participating in the 21st century global economy.

The Commerce Department is playing the lead role in this expansion effort, and in the near term, we’re helping put thousands of people to work developing designs, digging trenches and laying down fiber-optic cable.  

But high-speed Internet expansion will also catalyze economic growth for years to come by connecting countless small businesses to national and world markets.

Then there is the work of Commerce’s statistical agencies and research labs, which are providing the basic data and technical standards that enable companies to develop new products and identify new markets.  

One of our research agencies is creating the standards that private companies will need to develop a national smart electric grid and health IT software that will enable us to share medical records.

Commerce is also undertaking aggressive efforts to safeguard these new innovations. We’re reforming the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) – which by last year had a backlog of almost 800,000 patent applications and a three-year wait for patents to be granted or denied.

That is simply unacceptable. This backlog has been, and still is, impeding the rapid entry of new technologies and new ideas into the marketplace that can help create jobs.  

Under the leadership of the PTO’s new director David Kappos, our goal is to reduce initial patent evaluations to fewer than 12 months for those who want it and improve patent quality to prevent inventors and other patent holders from being tied up in years of costly and often unnecessary litigation.

And as the Commerce Department takes these important steps to spur American innovation at home, we are also playing a lead role in implementing President Obama’s recently announced National Export Initiative (NEI), which aims to double American exports during the next five years and support several million jobs here at home. 

Commerce has a global network of trade specialists in 77 countries who can serve as indispensable, on-the-ground advocates for U.S. companies, helping connect them with new customers and vendors and navigate local rules and regulations.

These ambitious efforts by the Commerce Department and throughout the Obama administration will not be able to reverse overnight two devastating years of recession — a period during which we lost 8 million jobs.

But it is making a difference. Consider that the U.S. economy has now added jobs for five consecutive months — about half a million in 2010.  

When President Obama entered office, we were losing well over half a million jobs a month.

Whether its critics like it or not, the Recovery Act worked, and while economic pain remains, the simple fact is that it would be much more severe without it and countless more Americans out of work.

We still have a long way to go, but we are moving in the right direction.  We’ve got to keep pushing until jobs and opportunity spread to every corner of America.

Locke is the Secretary of Commerce.