American Exceptionalism: It’s in Our Genes

We must ensure that our advantage is one we continue to enhance rather than destroy.

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Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses and Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro.

America is an exceptional nation, in part because we lead the world in innovation. Yet in recent years, public discussion has centered on America's supposed decline – whether in our economy, our culture, our education system or in our innovative, competitive edge.

Recently, President Obama unveiled the BRAIN Initiative, which will invest $100 million of taxpayer money in research to map connections and activity in the human brain. While acknowledging that innovation is one of America's "core strengths," the president claimed every American innovative breakthrough – from the Internet to the GPS – has been the result of government investment.

This is not the case. Innovation is not the result of our government's "generosity." It runs much deeper, and goes back much farther into our history: It's in our culture and our DNA.

Every breakthrough Internet company is American. Look at AOL, Amazon, Craigslist, Google, eBay, Foursquare, Twitter, Wikipedia and Yahoo. Not only that, but our technology companies like Apple, Cisco, DreamWorks, HP, IBM, Intel, Oracle and Qualcomm lead the world. Let's not forget that we also have success in the motion picture, biotech, music, theater and publishing industries.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

As I speak around the world, I see firsthand that most countries look to the United States as the leader in innovation. They want to emulate Silicon Valley, to develop universities like ours and even to recruit our best and brightest to assist them in being more like America. They're trying to figure out the recipe for our special sauce.

In fact, according to the Institute of International Education, during the 2011-2012 academic year, there were more than 194,000 Chinese students studying in the United States, not just to learn particular subjects and earn degrees, but to learn how to be innovative. Even as our government seeks to send more U.S. students to Chinese schools, Chinese students still recognize the value of an American education and they flock to our shores.

America's exceptionalism in innovation stems from many factors. Most Americans are immigrants or descend from immigrants who came here seeking a new life. Our culture challenges the status quo. We are heterogeneous, which encourages us to consider different perspectives and ideas. We know how to view failure as a learning experience rather than a badge of dishonor. It's the combination of all these qualities – not government "investment" – that produces Americans who are always experimenting and trying to do better.

While we hear laments that some other countries still outperform Americans on standardized tests, I celebrate the fact that our students push back and ask questions, beginning with "why not?" U.S. students' standardized test scores are above the international average, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2011, released in December 2012, but those measures test rote learning and today facts are easily available from the Internet, just clicks away. Creativity is the higher value function!

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Our lead in innovation shouldn't be taken for granted. Indeed, a government filled with too many rules and absurd immigration policies may choke it. Too often,  bureaucratic red tape stifles the growth and activity of businesses and innovation leaders. America's current immigration policies make it very difficult to retain top talent. Foreign students come here to earn advanced degrees, but too often they are not allowed to remain here to create jobs and innovate, even though they would like to. That has to change.