Doubling down on the future: Why I’m supporting Alec Ross for Governor of Maryland

As technology entrepreneur and former State Department senior advisor Alec Ross suggests in his New York Times best-seller, The Industries of the Future, prosperity goes to societies "that don’t just double down on the past but that can adapt and direct their citizens toward industries that are growing."

As an entrepreneur and investor, I’ve always focused on the future, because as Alec suggests, it’s the industries of the future where innovation occurs, where new products and services create new opportunities, new markets, and ultimately new jobs. An entrepreneur or company that doesn’t actively invest in the future will ultimately lose out to competitors that do. The same is true for countries. That’s why it’s so concerning for America’s future – and the future prosperity of its citizens, especially in places where industries have declined and the economy has stagnated — that President Trump is so focused on doubling down on the past.

For example, when the president announced in early June that the U.S. will be leaving the Paris climate accord, he touted "a big opening of a brand new [coal] mine" in western Pennsylvania as evidence of the kind of economic dynamism we can unleash if we just forsake our global obligations and alliances and put America First.

In reality, U.S. coal mining employment peaked in 1923, at 862,536 miners.

By the time Donald Trump was born in 1946, the coal mining industry had already lost around half of those jobs to automation, even as the industry’s overall productivity continued to grow. In recent years, the ascendance of natural gas has led to even further job loss in the U.S. coal industry. Today it employs around 50,000 coal miners — and the new mine President Trump touted won’t change that much.  It will create approximately 70 to 100 full-time jobs.

Cheerleading for the coal industry may be the cheapest and most effective way to get scientists and environmentalists hot under the collar, but it will do little to improve the nation’s overall economic prospects. Instead of betting on an industry that peaked as a source of employment in 1923, we should invest in the future — and pursue programs and policies that help people prepare for careers in emergent technologies like AI, robotics, big data analytics, and genomics. While many entrepreneurs, investors, and Fortune 500 CEOs understand this basic fact, we need government leaders who embrace it as well — through education, entrepreneurism, and innovation.

That’s why Alec Ross’s decision to run for Governor of Maryland  is so important for America’s future, and why I am strongly supporting his campaign.

In recent years, America has been polarizing into high-output counties marked by economic dynamism, and low-output counties that are stagnating. To reverse this trend, and ensure that American productivity and prosperity are more broadly distributed, we need to elect forward-thinking mayors and governors who are committed to creating better pathways to meaningful, well-paid work in their local communities.

Alec started his career as a public school teacher in Baltimore. Recognizing the opportunities and potential inequities that the Internet had begun to create in the 1990s, he became an early advocate for bringing broadband access and technology training to low-income communities. In 2000, he co-founded a non-profit called One Economy Corporation that helped hundreds of thousands of people access the Internet and new sources of information about job training, healthcare, and other vital services.

It was in this era that he and I first connected, as he reached out for advice on how best to leverage the power of networks to scale social impact in the way that consumer Internet companies were beginning to do with communications services and e-commerce. In 2008, the Obama campaign tapped Alec to oversee its technology policy. In 2009, Alec joined the State Department, where he helped integrate technology into U.S. diplomacy efforts in more than 80 countries, addressing everything from healthcare and ethnic conflicts to entrepreneurism and innovation.

Alec’s experiences have left him with knowledge that is both broadly strategic and critically hands-on. He’s seen how the right technology policy can lift a country’s economy, and how the wrong one can drive it into decline and irrelevance. During his time in Washington, Alec forged strong points of connectivity with Silicon Valley, as he worked to infuse more innovation, entrepreneurism, and new technologies into America’s international diplomacy efforts. 

But while Alec understands that government needs to learn from business, he also recognizes that government is not a business. The challenges and obligations of the government are ultimately much broader than even the most broad-based businesses. A government must serve all its citizens, not just those it deems most profitable or most productive.

Along with this mandate, though, government must also learn to act more entrepreneurially. It should incorporate innovation into its day-to-day processes just as strongly as businesses do. It should regularly experiment and refine and learn from feedback.  That’s why I support organizations like Code for America, which helps government agencies deliver services more effectively to the citizens they serve, and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, the Bill Gates-led initiative to facilitate public-private partnerships in the clean-energy sector.

Governments aren’t and should never aspire to be businesses. And it is important that we elect leaders who have experience with public service, who understand that their job is to serve all their constituents in ways that give the greatest number of people the widest range of opportunities to achieve good economic and cultural outcomes for themselves.

One crucial component to creating the jobs of the future involves putting a strong educational infrastructure in place, so companies have talented, well-trained people to hire.

Here, the contrast between Alec and President Trump is significant. The latter regularly tweets that he wants to create JOBS! JOBS! JOBS! And, following the lead of President Obama, who expanded support for apprenticeship programs during his time in office, Trump says he will do the same. But he’s only asking for a slight increase in the apprenticeship program budget — while simultaneously proposing to cut the U.S. Labor Department’s job program budget by 40 percent.

Recognizing the growing demand for highly skilled workers who can thrive in a 21st century economy based on innovation and technology, Alec has a plan to bring computer science education to every public school in Maryland – a huge improvement from the 40 percent that currently offer it. What Alec understands is that high-quality public education is a massively effective economic policy, one that will create far more long-term benefits for America’s economy than a nostalgic bid to resurrect the soot-covered industrial dynamism of 1923.

While President Trump believes that too much globalization and automation are killing jobs, what he fails to acknowledge is that globalization and automation are the great forces driving innovation now. Throughout history, innovation is what has created jobs, and thus, innovation is what America needs more of now.

Demonizing automation, robot workers, and AI and ceding the development of such technologies to other countries that will use them to produce goods even faster and less expensively than we do, is a fast track to ensuring a future that puts America at a global disadvantage. Instead of burying our heads in the sand, or hoping that a handful of new coal mines will turn things around, we should embrace these new technologies — and also invest in the educational infrastructure and training programs that will help more people capitalize on the new jobs and opportunities they create. Innovation that simply boosts productivity is not enough. We need inclusive innovation that helps create meaningful work and stronger economic pathways for a broad middle class.

Another key factor in creating the jobs of the future involves openness — a subject Alec explores in depth in his book. Today, networks, big data, robotics, and other new technologies all make it possible for entrepreneurs, companies, and even countries to punch above their weight in ways that were impossible when natural resources, brute manpower, and physical capital were the primary sources of wealth and power.

Competition is strong. Conditions change quickly. So speed matters. A flexible, collaborative mindset matters. To be successful in today’s new global information-based economy, Alec writes, "A society must be open in order to exchange new ideas, conduct research free from political interference, and pursue creative projects, even if they fail. Innovation requires this stripe of openness. It cannot see outside markets as enemy territory."

This is exactly the kind of forward-looking, technology-first leadership that America needs to succeed in the 21st century. While it’s important to support entrepreneurs who think like this, it’s equally important to support elected officials who do as well.

These days, I’m often contacted by political candidates who say they are reaching out for ideas but really want campaign contributions. Alec, however, reached out to me years ago, not as a political candidate but rather as a former schoolteacher who’d had the foresight to see how digital technologies could help millions of under-served citizens achieve broader access to various forms of information that could dramatically improve their lives. In the years that followed, we maintained a wide-ranging and productive dialogue on evolving digital technologies and the opportunities they were creating.

Now, Maryland has an opportunity to elect a governor who understands how to create long-term economic prosperity and opportunities for the people he serves. That’s why I’m contributing the maximum amount to Alec’s campaign, and why I strongly encourage others to join me in making a contribution. America’s need for smart, entrepreneurial leaders who understand that jobs and prosperity come from doubling down on the future, not the past, has never been so great.