At the annual National Retail Federation conference in New York, one unexpected speaker came to the stage to discuss the bigger issues facing the retail industry and the wider U.S. economy: former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Paul Ryan.
In conversation with Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the NRF, and Kara Swisher, co-founder and editor at large at tech publication Recode, Ryan, currently a visiting professor at the University of Notre Dame, expressed optimism about the American economy and discussed several fronts to pursue continued growth.
The U.S. is unprepared to deal with China’s growing power
Swisher argued for more government investment in technology to keep up with China, stating that the U.S. is unprepared for the next Industrial Revolution-level changes that are coming. But Ryan argued that the federal government does not have a good track record of picking winners in applied research, and believes that the private sector should handle that arena. The government’s strength, he said, is in basic research.
“We are in a tech race, whether we like it or not,” Ryan admitted. “Basically, what I see happening is a fight between democracies and autocracies. China’s going to have a surveillance state. They’re going to help other autocracies fund their surveillance states, and we as democracies have to do a better job working together to counter this.”
Ryan said not only is China copying America’s technology, but it is stealing it.
“We will not win a race with China if it’s all about spending money,” Ryan said. “They will outspend us. The question is, can we use the better attributes of freedom, of free markets, which are innovation incentives, free enterprise, private property to make sure that we can excel in this area and win this competition?”
Regulating big tech isn’t a black or white issue
As numerous leaders in government and the tech world continue to call for regulation on some of the world’s biggest technology companies, Swisher argued the government does need to get involved. Ryan disagreed slightly, stating that “every time the government does it, it goes poorly and it gets corrupt and it gets politically influenced, and you have a lot of mistakes.” However, he did concede that some sort of regulation needs to exist to prevent monopolies, while at the same time balancing the need to further innovation.
“You have to have regulatory structure, but you have to [have] ongoing expertise [on] how it works that can see around the corners,” Ryan said. “The laws that govern these regulators have to be laws that protect our principles and our problems.”
But Ryan is not optimistic that the current political climate is prepared to regulate tech in this manner. Republicans and Democrats have differing views on how to handle the situation, with some government officials happy to simply regulate tech giants while others call for breaking them up.
“There’s a space in between there where I do think you’ll get consensus, but we’re just not there yet,” Ryan said.
Ryan admitted that the government is woefully unprepared for the future of tech, partially because of lot of politicians don’t understand it. In that sense, Ryan called on industries to regulate themselves, since they are the experts.
“Industry understands itself better than bureaucrats and politicians,” he said.
Closing the education gap
The discussion between Ryan, Swisher and Shay led to the education gaps that need to be addressed in order to continue fueling innovation in the U.S.
Swisher said innovation in certain categories has stalled because certain tech giants own massive categories, such as Google with search. She pivoted the point to retailers, and added that when a company like Walmart is the “underdog” (at least, presumably, in comparison to Amazon), the odds stacked against smaller businesses can seem insurmountable.
Ryan said one way to lower the barrier to entry for entrepreneurs is by reducing the education gap to create a “playing field that is more level and can continue to disrupt and prevent incumbents from basically coming up behind them and throwing the key away.” Ryan pointed to reinvesting in associate and technical degrees as an example, as they give people a chance to train in some of these emerging industries and create more jobs.
“This non-four-year, skill gap-closing associate degree has got to be where this is done,” Ryan said. “If we get the education part of this right, we’ll be able to have a great 21st century.”
One example Ryan pointed to is the career and technical education program in his home state of Wisconsin, which he said was reconfigured to cultivate a Silicon Valley mindset. He said the first stages of this educational transformation have arrived thanks to the presence of electronics giant FoxConn in the area (though the company’s role in creating jobs for Wisconsin remains contested).
Still, Ryan is sticking to his belief in limited government, which he doesn’t believe should dictate which technologies to foster and invest in.
“The government clearly has a role to play, but it’s not in trying to pick which technologies to back,” he said. “It is to fund the basic research with proper regulatory and tax policy and incentives for the tech community to go research, innovate, produce new things.”