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Too late to rebuild IT?

CNET News.com's Charles Cooper says the debate about how to dramatically improve the IT infrastructure needs to get going soon.

Now that Nicholas Carr--he of "IT Doesn't Matter" fame--has enjoyed his 15 minutes in the spotlight, Intel CEO Craig Barrett says the industry ought to get itself worked up over an issue that's really going to affect the future. Just one problem: Few people seem to care.

"The U.S. has a whole series of complacencies about it," according to Barrett, who recently sat down for a wide-ranging interview with a team of CNET News.com editors and reporters.

Barrett may be famously cranky, but I think he is on to something. The building blocks of national competitiveness--from education to infrastructure to research and development--continue to receive short shrift from the nation's elites, who still seem more interested in debating the relative merits of offshore outsourcing.

I'm not downplaying the human costs. No one can help but be moved by the plight of a 55-year-old single mother whose textile factory job winds up overseas. But few serious thinkers believe that offshoring poses a widespread threat to American jobs.

The bigger worry is that the United States is falling behind from an infrastructure standpoint, while the education system is (charitably speaking) in worsening shape.
The bigger worry is that the United States is falling behind from an infrastructure standpoint, while the education system is (charitably speaking) in worsening shape. Yet how many elected officials are particularly vocal about the implications of a nation in decline? Instead of acknowledging the existence of competitive threats and challenges, we get grandstanding politicians looking to bash Benedict Arnold CEOs who dare hire foreign employees.

Consider countries like Japan or Korea, where you can get 20- or 30-megabit DSL (digital subscriber line) capability nearly anywhere, and compare that with the limited rollout of broadband in the United States (not to mention the relatively slowpoke transmission rates that prevail on these shores). Fixing the problem will take time and effort--two commodities in short supply in Washington.

"The mentality today is, 'What can you do for me yesterday?'" according to Barrett. "It's not, 'What can you do for me 5 years from today?'"

Even in an election year, the good news is that the situation is not hopeless. But how do you get the ball rolling? I thought you'd never ask.

For starters, how about implementing the recommendations of the Glenn Commission on the state of science and math education? (That was September 2000!) The report set out clear goals and an accompanying road map on how to improve the quality of instruction students receive in math and science.

Double the National Science Foundation budget. This isn't a freebie for companies. The NSF is the country's basic research lab and winds up supporting universities throughout the country. As the business jargon du jour would have it, it's a win-win for everyone.

Enact permanent R&D tax credits. If you want to promote spending on infrastructure, this is the easiest way to prime the pump.

Of course, it would be even better if we could get an honest sense from the candidates whether they're really interested in doing more than pay lip service. Talking in gross generalities may be fine for the campaign trail but sooner or later something needs to get done. If not, you should expect today's trickle of overseas outsourcing to become a veritable deluge.