Clyde Prestowitz Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Changing Balance of International Economic Power: Conversation with Clyde Prestowitz, President of the Economic Strategy Institute, August 9, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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If students were watching this interview, and fascinated by your career, and they wanted suggestions about how one can learn to lead, how one can make the changes that you're talking about -- because you're talking about very important adjustments where government and business have to play new roles -- how do we work to do that? You started a nongovernmental organization. Is that the way to go? Is it public education?

Public education is a very important element of it. Becoming involved is a very important element of it. One of the things that I learned in Washington is that this really is a democracy that we have here. It responds to the people. A problem that we have is that we, as a people, are not active enough, we're not involving ourselves enough, to direct our own government. There tends to be a feeling that it's all in Washington, it's all so big, and little me, I can't have any impact. And that's just exactly the opposite of the truth.

The truth is that -- and in fact, in writing this book I had a very interesting experience. I'd come out here to [Silicon] Valley and talked to a lot of venture capital people and high-tech executives. And in all my interviews, particularly with the high-tech executives, I would say, "Are you concerned about the dynamics of the movement offshore of important elements of technology, and the movement offshore of important elements of services, and so forth?" And to a man and a woman, these high-tech CEOs would say, "Yes, I am concerned." In fact, Craig Barrett, the chairman of Intel, made this fantastic comment that I think captures it well. He said, "Intel's going to be okay. We've got our installations in China and India, and elsewhere, and regardless of how the U.S. government operates, Intel will be okay. But I worry. I'm a grandfather, and I do wonder what my children and grandchildren are going to be doing." I found that same concern being expressed by many executives. And then I would say to them, "Well, if you're concerned, what're you doing about it?" And the answer always was, "Well, I'm running my company and I have a fiduciary responsibility to my shareholders to run my company as best as I can, and this broader issues of U.S. long-term economic development or technological leadership -- the guys in Washington are supposed to be taking care of it."

I had to smile, because these sophisticated business leaders didn't always understand how our system works. When I explained to them, "There's nobody in Washington who's looking at that. There are people in Washington who're looking at elements of that, but the first thing that happens in Washington, if a trade negotiation is coming up, or if there's some kind of technology policy decision to be made, the first thing that the guys in Washington say is, 'Well, what does Silicon Valley think of that? What do the CEOs think of that?'" And so, it's kind of Gaston and Alphonse: "What do you think?" "Well, what do you think?" Because there's really nobody in charge. Our system is very open. The people are in charge, but if the people don't exert themselves, nobody's in charge. And we really do need our citizens to take their responsibility as citizens seriously.

But is that why you started this nonprofit?

Yes, it's the only reason I did. I started it because I felt there was a great need for public education, and I would say for young people thinking about their careers and thinking about the future, their own future in the context of the future of the country, a broad education is so important. We do live in a global economy.

Here's a factoid for you. Last year, more Chinese students in China took the SATs in English then Americans. Wherever you go in the world, whether it's China, or whether it's Europe or Latin America, those people know more about America than Americans know about them. Now, to some extent that's to be expected. We, after all, are the world power, we affect them more than they affect us. But still, we're living in a global economy. Americans typically don't speak anybody else's language, and as I said, Americans typically don't have the same understanding of the history and the background of the other guy that they have of us. We need to correct that. We need to become as broadly knowledgeable as the rest of the world.

There's a tendency in the U.S. to be channeled. Businessmen know a lot about business but not much about government. Government knows a lot about government but not much about business. The two tend to be suspicious of each other. People in nonprofits tend to know a lot about nonprofits, but the thing is that these all work together. I just can't emphasize enough the importance of a broad educational background.

Well, Clyde, on that note, I want to thank you very much for being with us today. I know people will want to read your book because it's a lucid account of all of the changes taking place in world economy and the challenges they pose for the United States. I'll show the cover of your book one more time. Thank you very much for being with us today.

It's been my pleasure. Thank you.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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