2012-11-02

What Is The Next Phase?

Today's blog post is inspired by some recent internet finds.

The first was an article in the MIT Technology Review, entitled "Why We Can't Solve Big Problems." (The hat tip goes to Tyler Cowen.) In the article, author Jason Pontin begins by describing the unimaginable possibilities that seemed to be on the horizon back in the 1960s and 1970s, when the US government was flying people to the moon. After describing this wishful thinking, Pontin switches gears, and asks, "what happened?" Pontin suggests that "we" have not accomplished what "we" thought "we" would. We don't have flying cars and we haven't cured cancer. We haven't discovered clean energy. Instead, argues Pontin, we are "distracted" by mere trinkets, such as iPhones and Facebook. We have technologies whose primary purpose appears to be entertainment. The thrust of Pontin's article seems to be that, for most of us, we have become so focused on casual, day-to-day entertainment, that few of us undertake to solve the so-called "Big Problems" anymore. Readily available entertainment has served to provide us with a disincentive to innovate, since innovation is a lot of hard work.

In a significantly different vein is the second inspiration for today's post is yesterday evening's "Debate With Goolsbee," written by John H. Cochrane and posted on his blog. (No hat tip here - I'm a regular reader of that blog, and you should be, too.) There, Cochrane is once again riffing on the issue of the US economy's stunted growth rate, and what might be required to restore it. After some discussion of the growth rate facts, Cochrane tells us the following (note that when Cochrane says "productivity" up above, he's taking some liberties with the actual economic definition of the term):
Growth, growth, growth. It’s not a secret. Growth ultimately comes from productivity. New ideas, products, technologies, businesses, and processes. The dismal 1970s coincided with a sharp productivity decline. Following the Reagan recovery, perhaps sparked by deregulation and tax reform, economic growth, trended up for two decades, which, as you see in the previous graph, is what paid off the Reagan deficits.
There it is again, a reference to the winding-down of things in the 1970s, and a "sharp productivity decline." Cochrane feels that in order for the US economy to grow, we need "new ideas, products, technologies, businesses, and processes." In short, Cochrane is looking for innovation, and finding it nowhere. Of course, if Cochrane added a narrative about how the United States has historically enjoyed many great built-in advantages, he would basically be summarizing the contents of Tyler Cowen's now-famous essay, The Great Stagnation.

Finally, there is an interesting Frank Zappa video I came across on YouTube, in which he discusses the lack of ambition in the "Acid Generation."
Again, the third verse is the same as the first and second verses: The 1970s marked an end to ambition and innovation in America. We somehow evolved from being a nation of ambitious, entrepreneurial innovators to being a pop-culture obsessed, drug addled, group of slackers.

This is the concept to which I often refer as Whore Culture.

Progress Is Necessary
As I see it, the problems described above are a serious problem for human society. Students of world history will note that the trajectory of human progress has been interrupted before (the Dark Ages), and it can be interrupted again.

Since the days of Thomas Malthus, economists have understood that new innovations are the device by which human beings can enjoy a general increase of wealth. Forget what you've read about "stimulus" or "commerce" or "aggregate demand." Each of those might be important to the short-run health of an economy, or they might not. But in the long run, the only way for society to enjoy expanding wealth and a successive increase in the standard of living, successful new ideas and new technologies must be developed and implemented.

At issue is this: The economy alone won't do the job of making us and our posterity better off. For that, we need progress, i.e. innovation. We need to solve new scientific problems, we need to cure disease, we need to create new artistic movements. Society cannot merely rest on its laurels for an extended period of time. Without innovation, the stagnation we experience wears on and on; it feels like regression, even when it isn't.

Humans need progress in order to feel as though they are gaining. This is as true for money issues as it is for any other source of happiness. We've all experienced this in our own lives. When you're stuck in one place, one job, one set of circumstances, it starts to wear you down. Unless you make some sort of headway in terms of increasing wages, or improving fitness, or meeting new friends, or finding the love of your life, or starting a family, you will start to feel as though you're not getting anywhere. You will start to feel in some sense impoverished. The desire to improve our conditions is part of what makes us human in the first place.

This Is A Social - Or Cultural - Issue
Pontin's article indicates that we as a society won't be able to solve "big problems" until we have the right "institutions" in place, supporting those who undertake to solve them. Cochrane's article indicates that the US has no hope of returning to the "correct" growth trajectory until it (really, its citizens) start innovating again. Cowen's essay makes a claim similar to Cochrane's. Frank Zappa was of the opinion that popular culture, the media, the government, and drugs were all creating a perfect storm that was destroying America's ambition and making us all in some sense "brain dead."

Even if you don't buy any of the arguments they make, it is probably undeniable that healthy human progress rests on the shoulders of people who choose to do more than just work hard. It rests on people who choose to solve previously unsolved problems, on people who choose to create new things and concepts that previously did not exist, on people who find ways of using existing things in entirely new ways.

In some respects, it is almost random when an exceptional person - an innovative person - is born and takes it upon themselves to contribute something new to society. But I doubt that even the staunchest advocate of genetic determinism would suggest that parenting and social environments play no role in the values that ultimately take root in a person's psyche.

What I'm getting at is, we all have a responsibility for providing social rewards for people who go against the grain, who do new things, who attempt to create things that are genuinely new. While not every new thing qualifies as an innovation, we are not always aware of what is truly innovative until years or decades later.

All of us, as individuals, bear some responsibility for creating new things so that human progress can take place. So when you're at work, try to make things better. When you're with your kids, try to help them dare to be different. When you're learning something new, push the boundaries of what you're being told; ask the kind of questions that have answers, but whose answers may be difficult to answer.

As a culture, we are responsible for human progress. We need to make progress a value, a virtue. Without it, it's the Dark Ages all over again.