American politics

Harvard's prescription for a broken American political system

June 25, 2012: 9:22 AM ET

Is there any hope for America's political process? Not much, was the answer from the group of Harvard Business School faculty gathered in Washington last week.

Updated: 6/25/2012 10:54 a.m.

By Anne VanderMey, reporter

FORTUNE -- Is there any hope for America's political process? Not much, was the answer from the group of Harvard Business School faculty gathered in Washington D.C.'s Newseum last week. Same thing from a panel of D.C. heavy hitters who also showed up for the event, including a sitting U.S. Senator and the director of policy for the AFL-CIO.

You'll also likely get the same glum response if you ask Harvard's business grads. In a survey released this year of 10,000 Harvard B-school graduates, the nation's political system received worse marks than any other institution. Some 80% of respondents said D.C. was holding the country back from competing on the world stage.

What to do about it? Faculty members at the Harvard Business School seem to have taken an end-run approach. Their recent major initiative, the U.S. Competitiveness Project, focuses on what businesses can do to improve the United States' standing without Washington's help. But they have some ideas for government, too. At last week's event, the project's co-chairs, professors Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin, unpacked a plan to address what Porter calls the greatest threat to U.S. competitiveness since World War II or before. The agenda they are putting forward is laden with what sounds like low-hanging fruit -- the trick is getting any of those apples to fall from their trees.

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A few priorities topped Harvard's wish list: Ease immigration regulations for skilled workers. Simplify the tax code and eliminate loopholes. Improve the nation's infrastructure. And enact a sustainable budget, possibly one resembling the widely praised but dead-in-the-water Bowles-Simpson plan that would have slashed the deficit.

It's hard to argue with these proposals. "We've found through our research that there are areas of wide consensus," Porter said. On several of the issues, there's even substantial overlap between labor and industry, an alliance that's hard to forge even in hypothetical terms. "These are divides that we had thought were important divides," says Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria. But wide agreement does not pave an easy path to legislation. "It's very difficult to move from areas of private consensus to actual passage in today's Congress," said Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware. More

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