So, has anyone else been watching Wall Street do the 2000 style dot-com dance while the TechCrunch-watching, TechMeme-obsessed crowd throws parties like it’s 1999? I feel for the guys at Lehman and AIG, some of them my age, now out on the street. In fact, I feel even more sorry for them than I did for the guys caught in the dot-com bust.
Those guys in 2000 had skills but no one to pay them. These guys in 2008 have no skill except moving non-existent money around. Now don’t get me wrong. I feel awful watching people clear out their offices. I’ve had to do it when I’ve been laid off. It’s no fun. You pack up the place where you spend a third of your life (8 hours a day, right?) into boxes. You turn in keys. Sometimes a guard has to walk you out. Company policy, you know.
Lehmen’s situation is so bad they’re not even doing that, they’re too busy trying to cash in their scrip at the company cafeteria to get a few meals before the food runs out. And it’s horrifying because some of these people have spent their careers at places like Lehman and Merrill Lynch, moving up through the ranks by selling and being able to sell more and more, faster and faster. They worked long, long hours. But they got huge bonuses. They got rich. I’m not so concerned about the ones who got the massive bonuses (unless they blew it all on cars and stereo gear), but I am worried about the guy at Lehman’s London office who signed a lease and now has no job. That could be me.
And that was many of the people I know in the tech industry, who are warily watching a new host of companies get huge and valuable. Google is always the example, with their buses and meals. Facebook is another one. Even smaller companies like Twitter and Qik are getting new digs and cash infusions. And the fear among many is that we’re in another dot-com bubble.
We’re not, but we could be if we’re not smart. Manufacturing jobs are disappearing overseas while the financial sector…just disappears. But Silicon Valley is doing O.K. for now.
For now. There are some monumentally stupid things that need to happen if we want to keep the tech sector, which has become our economic lifeboat, floating:
- The 111th Congress must pass an Immigration bill that has fewer H1-B visas. That’s right. Fewer temporary visas for high-tech workers. Strike that provision. Replace it with a fast-track process to give those workers green cards, and fast-track them to citizenship.
- You’ve heard this before, but our immigration policies around universities are insane and must stop. When I was an undergraduate, I was on the rowing team at the University of Wisconsin (this year’s national champions, fyi). I had a teammate who was a Chinese national. He had gone to high school in the U.S. and came to Wisconsin for college. Each year, we went to Texas for a winter training trip during our (long) winter break. Before that, people generally went home for Christmas, and went back home for another week and a half after the trip. But this kid had to stay in Wisconsin. Because if he left, it would take months to get permission to get back in. Unconscionable. My teammate couldn’t go home for 9 months. It’s harder to get a student visa than ever, when we should have more of them. Harvard and Yale and Caltech and Stanford and Wisconsin and Michigan are competing with the Indian Institutes of Technology, Oxford, Cambridge, the Sorbonne and like 50 universities in China that are churning out engineers and coders and inventors and entrepreneurs like mad. Want to come to the U.S. and study something cool? Great! Got a degree? Stay for another! Got that one? Here’s a green card! Get a job! Start a company!
- Google and Microsoft and H-P and the entire U.S. tech sector needs to give up their dirty little secret — their Chinese and Indian R&D labs. Bring some of those people back here. I know how much money you spend on lobbying, and it’s not enough when it comes to immigration. Throw your weight around and get it done. It’s OK to have people overseas, but you should keep your base here. Keep the mindshare here.
- The U.S. must have more broadband access nationwide, both fiber and wireless. Sorry Comcast, but caps won’t cut it. You need to do more. And the Government? We need a true National Broadband Strategy. Whether financed by private capital or not. The railroads powered the boom of the 1800s, the Interstate made the 20th century’s success possible. And I’m sorry to bring back this metaphor, but Broadband is the Information Super Highway. And we need it to get built, NOW. We need it built with the enthusiasm of the transcontinental railroad, the transatlantic telegraph cables, and the Interstate Highway System. Eisenhower got the idea from Hitler’s autobahns, but who has been watching Korea’s broadband network? Japan’s bullet trains? Our infrastructure must be reinvigorated with technology, like broadband, and real transit. Let people and information get around. Fast. We need more speed.
What am I saying? Lehman and Bear Stearns collapsed because there was nothing underneath. There was no product. Just empty credit and “irrational exuberance.”
Despite our fears, our Web 2.0 economy is producing something. The struggle to “monetize” will fade as platforms allow products to be built. Products. Look at the iTunes App Store. Those products are selling. How many are American-coded? Stop thinking about monetizing and advertising and start thinking about creating something of value and selling it.
The factories need workers, and the products need a way to get to the customers.
No more hollow shells. No more Webvans. No more Lehmans. They were selling each other air.
To survive, we need to attack the information age like the industrial age. 2008 is 1958 is 1888. The opportunity for innovation can keep our economy going if we develop products.
I know some will say that I’m insane, the paradigms have shifted, and we can’t exist in a vacuum. The world is flat, blah blah. If indeed the world (and the country) is flat, that flat ground is perfect for digging foundations and building new factories for new products in a new economy.