An unfinished legacy: President Reagan and the Socrates Project

Michael Sekora Contributor
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In the closing days of his administration, President Reagan had an executive order drafted to create a new government agency — the first new federal agency since the creation of NASA in the 1950s. Why would a president who built his reputation on reducing the size of the government want to create more government?

Reagan recognized that America’s future depended on remaining an economic superpower. He also recognized that America’s competitiveness on the world stage was declining and that countries like China and India posed a significant threat because of their ability to use technology-based planning to gain a long-term competitive advantage.

During Reagan’s two terms in office, a program within the US intelligence community uncovered data and drew conclusions about the cause of America’s declining competitiveness. The program, called the Socrates Project, also developed the means to reverse our decline and sustain our leadership in the world for decades to come.

The Socrates team used all-source intelligence to generate a holistic, bird’s eye view of competition worldwide. Their view and understanding went way beyond, in terms of scope and completeness, that which was and is available to the university professors, think tank analysts and consultants. A key finding was that at the end of WWII decision-makers throughout the US began shifting away from technology-based planning and began adopting economic-based planning.

In technology-based planning the foundation of all decision-making is the acquisition and utilization of technology (where technology is any application of science to accomplish a function) to produce the best product or provide the best service. Technology is manipulated, both offensively and defensively, to acquire and maintain the required competitive advantage. In contrast, in economic-based planning, the manipulation of the funds is the foundation of all decision-making, and the measure of success is the efficiency of the economic manipulation.

As US decision-makers began utilizing economic-based planning as a standard, unchallenged foundation for decision-making throughout industry, government and academia, the rest of the world continued using and refining their technology-based planning. While we in the US were coming up with increasingly sophisticated economic shell games to maximize profits, China and India were systematically out-maneuvering us in the acquisition and utilization of the technology to eliminate our ability to produce products and services that had a competitive advantage in domestic and foreign markets.

President Reagan, and the Socrates team, saw that to rebuild America’s competitiveness we had to re-introduce technology-based planning as the foundation for decision-making in the US. But he also saw that the US could not just adopt the level of technology-based planning that US decision-makers had used before WWII. To regain and maintain our economic health, US decision-makers needed to execute a level of technology-based planning that far surpassed that which was executed by China, India and others.

To determine how to leap-frog the tech-based planning of all countries worldwide, the Socrates team mapped out the evolution of tech-based planning, and two things became obvious: first that tech-based planning makes an evolutionary leap forward every few hundred years — the scientific revolution, the automated industrial revolution, and so forth; and second that mankind was poised to make the next big evolutionary leap forward in tech-based planning — the automated innovation revolution.

With automated innovation, acquiring and utilizing technology — research and development, technology alliances, etc. — is standardized and automated. The result is that the acquisition and utilization of technology can be executed with previously unimaginable speed, efficiency and agility — a rapid stream of previously unimagined products and services based upon technology breakthroughs being generated and utilized at an astronomically fast rate.

President Reagan saw that if the US could generate and lead the automated innovation revolution, America’s competitiveness and economic health for many generations would be ensured. The Socrates team did design, build and demonstrate a proof-of-principle version of the automated innovation system.

The Socrates automated innovation system was also designed to generate one other major benefit for the US. It would enable the public and private organizations throughout the US to work together in a self-determined, highly symbiotic fashion. As a result, technology and the full range of other resources throughout the US would be utilized in a highly coherent but flexible and independent fashion, further increasing the competitive advantage of the US and all its private and public organizations — all fully compatible with America’s democratic principles and belief in free markets.

President Reagan saw that the Socrates automated innovation system needed to be built, so he created a new government agency that would support all US industry and the government agencies. But before the executive order could be signed, President Reagan’s term came to an end, and he left it to the incoming President Bush to continue the mission. When Bush came into office he abolished the Socrates Project.

With the US now losing industry after industry and Americans’ standard of living on a rapid decline, now is the time to complete the task that President Reagan saw as the key to America’s future. We need to generate and lead the automated innovation revolution, and we need to do it before it is too late

Michael Sekora is the former director of the US government’s Socrates Project.