- - Thursday, October 18, 2012

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney have mentioned U.S. competitiveness on the campaign trail. Neither, however, has laid out how he would turbocharge our economic engines for the hypercompetitive race ahead. With Nov. 6 approaching quickly, time is running out for the candidates to tell us what they would do.

America as a place to do business: The reality is that businesses will locate and invest in any part of the world they think will help them achieve a competitive advantage. America is becoming a more costly place to do business. The structural cost burden on U.S. manufacturers — what they pay for taxes, employee benefits, torts, environmental regulation and energy — has increased 20 percent relative to costs for their counterparts in our nine largest trading partners.

Taxes: Compared to many competitors, our businesses face a tax system less favorable to business investment and growth. The basic U.S. corporate tax rate at 35 percent is much higher than the average of 23 percent paid by many of our biggest competitors — higher than in Canada, Germany, Japan, Korea, Mexico and the United Kingdom. U.S. multinationals have $1.4 trillion parked overseas because if they brought that cash home, they’d be double-taxed. Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney, how would you change our taxes to make the United States a more attractive place to invest and do business, and encourage U.S. multinationals to bring money home and put it to work in U.S. factories, service businesses, research and innovation?

Regulation: Businesses have an overarching concern about regulatory uncertainty. It’s paralyzing and affecting their investment decisions. Regulation is strangling our small businesses, which play a large role in U.S. innovation and have accounted for two-thirds of net job creation for more than a decade. How would you clear the air of uncertainty with a balanced approach to regulation that would ensure safety, corporate responsibility and environmental protection while reducing the heavy burden on our businesses and encouraging innovation?

Entrepreneurship: Americans are entrepreneurs, risk-takers and innovators. Yet new-business formation has tanked. What would you do to ignite U.S. entrepreneurship and promote new businesses from startup to scale-up?

Energy: Game-changing developments in the U.S. energy sector give America a golden opportunity to improve energy security, reduce energy costs, revitalize manufacturing, create millions of jobs, transform us from a foreign-energy-dependent nation to an energy-producing exporter and reduce the geopolitical leverage of the world’s petro-powers. Advancements in technology have put an energy bonanza within our reach — a 100-year supply of natural gas we can tap in U.S. shale formations. How would you balance energy and environmental regulation in a carbon-constrained future, while fully developing America’s vast energy potential — both fossil fuels and renewables — to power up our homes, industries and economy with affordable energy?

Trade: For decades, America led the world in open markets, free trade and fair trade. Now the global trade agenda simmers on the back burner while some of our competitors gain an edge by stealing our intellectual property and hiding behind high tariffs, state-sanctioned protections and subsidies, forced technology transfers for market access and, yes, currency manipulation. At the same time, other democratic economies of the Americas are soaring, yet we have failed to move beyond the North American Free Trade Agreement to establish strategic trade partnerships right in our own backyard. What would you do to reassert U.S. leadership in the global trade arena, open more markets, expand trade and forge new trade partnerships with the growing economies in our hemisphere?

Education and training for jobs: We can’t compete with low wages, low skills or in commodity goods production. We can’t compete against machines that are increasingly capable of doing tasks that have made up jobs for millions of Americans. Too many Americans have faced these competitive realities lacking the level of education, expertise and skill that would enable them to thrive in a complex, knowledge-intensive economy. How would you use federal leverage to overhaul our learning enterprise — from kindergarten through 12th grade to the most advanced learning in science and technology — to ensure that Americans of all ages have lower cost, easy access to the highest-quality education and training on the planet?

Innovation and manufacturing: The world

is racing toward the cutting edge of technology — digital technology, nanotechnology and biotechnology. U.S. investment in research and development has grown to $400 billion annually — more than twice as much as the world’s next biggest spender, China. Still, we often fail to turn the fruits of research into wealth-creating innovations. What will you do to increase the return on our investment in research to get more economic growth, jobs, business formation, domestic manufacturing and higher wages for Americans?

Despite the long campaign, many questions remain. Hopefully, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney will take note.

Deborah L. Wince-Smith is president and CEO of the Council on Competitiveness in Washington and served as assistant secretary of commerce for technology policy in the George H.W. Bush administration.