Harvard Business School’s (HBS) recently released study on competitiveness stands apart from traditional academic studies: It has the aim of getting directly into the hands of politicians to pull them away from finger-pointing and petty politics.
Why the business school decided to conduct the study
HBS Dean Nitin Nohria told Yahoo Finance that ever since he was appointed to his position in 2010, he has been constantly pressed with questions about the recent recession, with many wondering if the crisis reflected something fundamentally wrong with the US.
“A lot of people were beginning to ask the question, ‘Is this something that’s cyclical or is this something that’s structural? Are we gonna recover from this?’” he said. “That conversation had occurred in so many places that I felt it was really important for us at Harvard Business School to investigate that carefully and deeply.”
The Competitiveness Project, which has spanned five years and issued key economic recommendations throughout, has called on top professors at HBS to study this problem while also surveying alums, current students and the general population.
Five years on, key economic problems still persist
Since the project was launched in 2011, Nohria said many of the same problems prevail.
“In some ways, it’s depressing to think that even though there’s a sense of urgency that we all feel, that America needs to do better, that so little has really occurred in these last five years,” Nohria said.
Nohria added that while we should take some comfort that the financial crisis did not end up totally melting down the global economy, we didn’t do much to address the underlying structural issues plaguing our economy, including poor K-12 education, a disadvantaged tax code and outdated trade policy.
What’s the reason? Politics.
“What we are finding in this study is that the political gridlock that we all experience in Washington, D.C. right now, particularly at the federal level, does end up being systemically one of the major reasons why we can’t seem to address these structural issues,” Nohria said.
The global impact of the US competitiveness study
Importantly, the lackluster survey results could have broad implications beyond the US to the global economy.
“When the US grows at 2%, it means that there is no growth opportunity for everybody else who also wants to sell into the US market,” Nohria said of the largest economy in the world. “America is so deeply intertwined in the global economic system that if America has a bad time, then you can literally see it.”
Nohria added that in his recent travels, the US doesn’t seem to be the envy of the world in the way it once was.
“Now you’re often asked questions, ‘What’s going on? Why can’t Washington seem to get its act together and get things done?’ So there is a real sense in which the admiration for the American political system has come into question,” Nohira said.
Perhaps, though, the fact that these problems can be discussed and studied in the US via avenues like the competitiveness project—as opposed to in places like China where there are stringent censorship policies—means solutions await.
“On the one hand, you can feel a little discouraged that in the last five years not much has been done,” Nohira said. “More fundamentally, I still believe that in a country in which there’s free speech, in which you can in fact do the kind of work that we’re doing, over time it creates the foundation on which you can respond.”
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