Interview with Jeff Finkle – Economic Development Expert
Jeff Finkle is President and CEO of the International Economic Development Council (IEDC). He is a native Buckeye with a wide range of experience in economic development. Jeff sits on the Consultative Committee of the World Association of Investment Promotion Agencies (WAIPA). He has advised on economic development in China, Europe, Latin America, and Oceania. He serves on the Board of Directors for Climate Prosperity. Inc., a company based on creating important regional economic outcomes – green savings, green opportunity, and green talent – while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Jeff is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, where he oversaw programs such as Community Development Block Grants and Urban Development Action Grants. Jeff writes and lectures frequently about economic development issues and advises Congressional Committees. Jeff has had appearances on CBS Sunday Morning, Fox television and the Journal Report on PBS.
In addition to his depth of knowledge on economic development, I admire Jeff because he "gets it". Jeff sees the need and opportunity to strengthen Brand America. He has been an unselfish source of guidance and insight, and his help on this project is greatly appreciated. Since I have learned so much from Jeff over the years, I thought it would be good to get his unique perspective on Brand America. I hope you enjoy the interview. And, (shameless, unsolicited plug) if you are an economic development professional and are not yet a member of IEDC, I encourage you to consider joining. The Organization provides a wealth of knowledge and will quickly become a key professional resource for you. You can register by clicking here.
- Question: How would you articulate Brand America’s promise?
America was branded long ago by the first settlers of the colonies and by the trailblazers that traveled to the western shores, and later by immigrants coming to this "new" country at the turn of the 20th century, that labeled America as the "land of opportunity". The promise of Brand America has traditionally been symbolized by the Statue of Liberty and a certain idea of hope and freedom.
This promise is conveyed in the sentiment that all hardworking people are welcome, that anyone who is entrepreneurial has a chance to succeed, regardless of place of origin or background, and where innovative thoughts are encouraged rather than suppressed.
- Question: What are the challenges that Brand America must address to consistently be seen as "walking the talk"?
Upholding the freedoms and openness that characterize Brand America has not always been easy. Brand America has been challenged by economic, political, and social demands that have tested its ability to sustain the promise. The Great Depression of the 1930s, the Second World War, McCarthyism, unpopular wars and unpopular Presidents, the fear of Japanese economic takeover in the 1980s, unprecedented terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, and economic threats of the BRIC countries today, as well at the recent financial crisis, have tested the political and business leadership to maintain the same standards of openness, cooperation and innovation that they are known for.
Today we need to address neglected infrastructure, education and workforce issues, as well as the high costs of production in the U.S. as compared to other countries, which is often a deterrent to investment. However, despite current obstacles – and regardless concerns over the weakening of the brand – Brand America has been able uphold to its promise and sustain its place in the world scene. Notably, in terms of FDI, the U.S. remains a top investment destination and ranked #2 after Switzerland in the 2009-2010 Global Competitiveness Report published by the World Economic Forum, underscoring that even with today’s challenges, there are still assets that continue to work in Brand America’s favor.
- Question: What are the traits of Brand America that people around the world are likely to find appealing?
In terms of business and investment, Brand America can tout a generally positive business environment, with the ease of hiring and firing and in purchasing property, as well as proximity to major markets and a relatively uncomplicated regulatory system as compared to other developed countries. In addition, the U.S. has 42% of the global consumer goods market and maintains free-trade agreements with 14 partner countries, giving foreign investors in the U.S. access to diverse markets around the globe. The regulatory and safety scheme in the nation is among the best the in world in terms of consumer protection.
Significantly, Brand America has a competitive advantage in terms of intellectual property rights (IPR) that fosters R&D ventures. Notably, of the 158,000 patents granted by the U.S. Patent Office in 2007, nearly 50% of the applications originated from a foreign country. These assets – along with the large available talent pool in the nation – makes doing business here very appealing. And despite flaws in our infrastructure, it is still an attractive asset and federal Recovery Act monies that are being pumped into state and local economies for infrastructure improvement are compelling to foreign investors who wish to participate in large scale public-private projects.
Moreover, the U.S. market is still a safer bet than many emerging economies, as their unstable political environments and uncertainty over the democratic process helps to elevate Brand America’s standing in that sense. Our rich and diverse market place is supported by a political system that encourages innovation, development, and investment, which keeps capital flowing. And despite recent bumps in the road in the financial sector, the U.S. financial markets are among the most highly developed in the world and the U.S. dollar remains a medium of exchange for many international transactions. The U.S. advantages therefore include the promise of a good return, secure political institutions, and a vast depth of financial expertise. Our nation’s most recent efforts to improve governance in the banking sector should be viewed as yet another positive trait in Brand America’s ability to bounce back in times of crisis.
Notably, there are certain intangible American traits that continue to attract investment, tourists, and talent, known ubiquitously as the "American Spirit". This spirit gets translated into an image of fostering entrepreneurship and innovation, providing a cooperative regulatory system, and of supporting R&D and commercialization. Concretely, the Anholt-GfK Roper Nation Brands Index (NBI) – that examines issues like human rights, education, culture, sporting prowess, and even "kindness to strangers" – reports that the value of Brand America has increased by $2 trillion to $11.8 trillion, an increase from $9.7 trillion in 2008, despite the 2.3% drop in U.S. GDP over the same period.
- Question: What are the different ways Brand America can keep its promise?
Maintaining strength in the areas mentioned above is essential to keeping the promise relevant. Brand America was able to hold on to the #2 spot for FDI in the world, but just a few years ago, it held the #1 position. Threats abound from both inside and outside the nation, and business will seek compelling reasons to not only stay the U.S., but to expand within our borders.
Beyond concentrating on efforts to retain the businesses already located here and upgrading material assets like infrastructure, we will need to leverage advantages in IPR and R&D by maintaining an innovative business environment. This can be done by fostering relationships with universities, research labs, incubators, hospitals, and corporations with significant R&D components. Further, we need to strengthen our workforce and talent pool so that we have a ready and skilled labor force to meet the needs of companies both within and outside our borders, and we should also focus on expanding exports to get our balance of trade in order, and engage in more positive discussions with the Chinese over the exchange rate so that the U.S. maintains its competitive position.
- Question: What is the importance of Brand America in the world?
Brand America holds an important place in the world and has been known as the leader that others strive to emulate in terms of innovation, entrepreneurship, and endurance. Brand America gives hope to others that are trying to obtain an open, innovative, and vibrant society and the traits of ingenuity and reinvention are admired worldwide. A strong Brand America also translates to a stronger global society, as strength and wealth spreads beyond borders in today’s globalised world economy. A strong Brand America provides a sense of stability and security to our allies providing the basis for increased trade, exchanges, and cooperative agreements.
- Question: Who benefits from a strengthened Brand America?
The simple one word reply is “everyone”. As stated, strength and wealth spread in today’s global economy, so as the U.S. prospers, so does the word.
Despite the recent downturn and financial collapse, the U.S. is gaining ground on Europe and Japan in terms of economic growth. If the U.S. economy grows at the 3.6% that has been predicted by Macroeconomic Advisors, it will create $513 billion in new economic activity, the equivalent of the GDP of Indonesia. The U.S. ability to process failure, restructure, and do more with less is a trait that continues to provide hope to others, and a strong Brand America means more opportunities, more competition, more trade, and more exchange for all. It may mean that the U.S. needs to work harder as others benefit, but it is a healthy balance.
- Question: Do you believe Brand America has a relevant, competitive and authentic promise?
Yes, but we need to work harder at fostering an innovative environment to sustain and grow Brand America in this volatile world economy. We need to address the threats that we face from the BRIC countries on the outside, to our own strained visa system, and inadequate education and training in key areas on the inside. I truly believe that by addressing domestic issues such as upgrading our infrastructure, investing in education and workforce development, and nurturing the export market, we will stymie any threats from the outside and remain as competitive and relevant in the 21st century as we have been in the past generations.