Inspiring Innovation

My colleague Alex Tabarrok, has a new ebook Launching the Innovation Renaissance. It came out yesterday, and I immediately bought it and read it. Bryan loves it:

It … aims to reverse America’s Slight Stagnation with a handful of big evidence-based reforms. Especially:

1. Drastically narrow patent protection. …
2. Drastically increase (abolish?) high-skilled immigration quotas. …
3. Increase school choice, curtail the power of teachers’ unions, and stop pretending that non-STEM majors produce significant positive externalities.

I agree with most of Alex’s recommendations (which also include more prizes), and I think he focuses on our near-most-important policy question: how to promote long term growth and innovation. Alex is a good writer and knows his subjects well. He avoids academic lingo and his writing is accessible. But, alas, what struck me most reading Alex’s book are the natural limits to the emotional punch he can muster to his cause.

Following good academic norms, Alex mostly avoids blaming specific parties and being needlessly partisan, national, extreme, or overtly emotional. He appeals instead to the reader’s reasonableness and interest in the general good. And I’d like to think I’m the sort of person who is primarily motivated by such things. But if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that approach often falls flat emotionally.

I can feel the emotion more when Alex praises college sci/tech majors (I majored in physics), or favors positions that I’ve previously favored. And I can see the emotional potential if Alex had let himself cheerlead for technology, warn of foreign competition, or bemoan our “malise” or “stagnation.”

Alas, people don’t naturally care much about long term wide-spread growth and innovation. And the US just isn’t scared enough for its future for fear to motivate change. His title suggests he sought to pull on hope’s heartstrings, but Alex doesn’t really do much with that. So, while to his intellectual credit, Alex resists easy emotional appeals, the result is alas a well reasoned case that will probably be mostly ignored.

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  • Ely

    Max Levchin, Peter Thiel, and Garry Kasparov have a book due out later this winter called “The Blueprint: Reviving Innovation, Rediscovering Risk, and Rescuing the Free Market” which seems to seek the same things as the book you reviewed. Perhaps it will have more emotional punch?

  • nazgulnarsil

    It is hard to connect economic growth rates with real emotional meaning. I often paraphrase your post: when trying to communicate this concept to people. Specifically that half a billion people were lifted out of extreme hardship.

    I think we’re all scope insensitive to scope insensitivity itself. That is we do not realize how much of our moral evaluations should be dominated by scoping effects (if we’re using some sort of utilitarian framework).

  • Anonymous

    Then why not do the OBVIOUS THING and create a distorted, highly emotive case with the same subtance to it designed to get the American public (or at least one side of politics) to accept basically the same ideas?

  • Sean the Sorcerer

    Let me tell you all about the real future that is coming: As the mythology of infinite progress unravels, the cosmos recedes forever out of reach and the Singularity is revealed for the religious fantasy that it is, mankind will return to older myths, ways and verities which the intellectual fascists of the so-called “Enlightenment” thought they had buried forever. We have already lived through a singularity, an unprecedented period of hubris, disruption and destruction made possible by the weapons, technologies and capitalism of the West. But all that is winding down, because the West is an exhausted civilization; our ideology is bankrupt, our spirituality wretched, our politics dysfunctional, our empire based on pure power, and now we must reap the whirlwind.

    Perhaps you folks should study a wider range of history, philosophy and spiritual thought if you want to be prepared for what awaits you. STEM majors are little more than slaves of the oligarchy; it is the artists, philosophers, poets and spiritual leaders who always wield real power. As a member of the latter group, I am here to warn you all that a revolution is coming which will burn your “significant positive externalities” to the ground, because a vast and growing number of people see the abyss our civilization is headed for and desperately want to change course.

    Wake up! Techno-fascists like Peter Thiel are sociopathic menaces to humanity, not leaders worthy of respect. Educate yourself in power relations and political agendas and stop being naïve tools of evil men. More importantly, develop some kind of spirituality and see the folly of what you’re doing before the world burns in the holocaust of human obsolescence and genocide that is your “Singularity”.

    • TGGP

      “artists, philosophers, poets and spiritual leaders”
      I can’t argue about leaders, since by definition they have followers. But the former I’d think are the more likely to be unemployed. And what knowledge does “spirituality” give us which is inaccessible to science?

    • Preferred Anonymous

      You could bother not spouting without a real goal. Define “singularity” any which way you want, you know you’re not talking about the same thing, or you’re just plain ignorant.

      As for revolutions; yes, we all aware humanity is utter nuts. You as a proponent of burning down the only thing that could save you (technology, life as we know it is unsustainable without it), are a brilliant illustration of the sort of crud that non-STEM majors can produce (of course assuming you are not a masochist).

      While there may be such a thing as “techno-fascism”, and while there are still certainly political problems (I never said philosophers and poets etc. were useless, though that is essentially the tone of your assertion about STEM majors).

      All I see is someone who is afraid and uninformed. Something your non-STEM education, if it had been done properly and not been polluted and diluted, would have bothered to explore more thoroughly.

      Just because using your own analogies against you is so delicious…what do you think the knights and lords/blacksmiths, etc., of ancient times were? What do you think the STEMs of today are? Yeah. Talk about revisiting our past. Only, if the philosophers and poets can manage to not be luddites, we can learn from our past mistakes and forge a road towards a brilliant future.

    • Jahed

      Wow, this should be immortalized somewhere else on the Internet. Masterful troll job.

      On the other hand, if this was a serious post…

    • Anonymous

      >intellectual fascists
      >so-called “Enlightenment”

      I lol’d.

  • Aron

    Robin’s headspace appears focused on what it takes to win a bestseller beyond an honest interest in the facts. Perhaps he’s preparing to satisfy his will for power via the pedestrian [from Robin’s elevated position] approaches of Tyler and colleagues?

  • Rudd-O

    If using reason and evidence convinced people effectively across the board… We would not have government to begin with.

  • Rudd-O

    Correct me if i am wrong: you foresee a catastrophe will take place, and you prescribe a solution which is more of the same bullshit that was used to cause the previous catastrophes?

    I loled too.

  • Rudd-O

    My last comment was in reply to Sean the Crazy One.

  • daedalus2u

    Actually, Sean does have a point. If you look at who has acquired the most wealth, it is not the smartest STEM people. It is people who have what Steve Jobs had, a good “reality distortion field”.

    Once you have wealth (inherited or otherwise), you can hire people with a good “reality distortion field” to do your bidding, increase your power and become more wealthy.

    That is what is going on now. The wealthy are hiring politicians (where the only skill needed is a “reality distortion field”) to increase their wealth. Not surprisingly the wealthy have focused on the brand of politicians where a good “reality distortion field” is most important, the politicians that deny reality on a regular basis and have the political base that just laps up that distortion.

    When wealth is concentrated in those unable to distinguish reality from non-reality, it can be extremely difficult for a reality-based STEM innovation to be successful.

    Humans don’t laud and follow STEM innovators. Who is arguably the most followed person in the world? How about the guy who heard voices telling him to sacrifice his son, which he was prepared to do and almost did, but was told to stop at the last minute? Later he heard voices telling him to cut his penis, which he did, and who convinced everyone else in his tribe to do the same. About half of all humans follow his example.

    The problem that Sean is trying to articulate but is not doing such a good job at is that innovations that are successful and sustainable in the long term have to be consistent with reality. To be consistent with reality, it has to be consistent with STEM. But short term success doesn’t need to be consistent with reality, all short term success needs is a good “reality distortion field.” Game the market for a few days, and you can make more than a lifetime of hard work. All Bernie Madoff had was a “reality distortion field” and he did pretty well for quite a long time.

    Being “successful” using a good “reality distortion field” will always be easier than being successful by working with and producing something consistent with reality. A good “reality distortion field” will always beat STEM based hard work.

    I don’t know if there is a solution. A faux solution based on a “reality distortion field” can always beat a reality based real solution. Who gets believed? Those who say we have to raise taxes and cut spending both, or those who say we can cut taxes lower than they have been in 60 years and the economy will magically recover to 2.8% unemployment?

  • Nancy Lebovitz

    Getting back a little closer to the topic, I think there are people who hear “let’s open things up for more innovation” as “Great! More people, more capable people, to cooperate with!”, but there are more people who hear it as “More competitors! I might lose status!”.

    There’s also “more cool toys and useful stuff!” vs. “inconvenient things to learn and things that might break!”, but I don’t think it’s as strong a motivation.

    Possibly of interest: Victor Wooten’s The Music Lesson— the New age aspects might be a little extreme, but I think it’s good about the extent to which people in this culture are trained into inefficient learning methods.

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  • Jason

    Throwing this out to people who can think about it more in depth: do non-STEM majors provide a service to the economy as a whole over several generations?

    Many of the artists, architects, English literature majors and so forth I’ve known have come from wealthy families (and tended to pay for their college tuition with cash from those families). Rich people volunteering to destroy their own human capital in order for others to take advantage?

    Things to look for would be a lower intergenerational wealth correlation in countries with more artists and philosophers per capita and lower income inequality.

    • daedalus2u

      The problem is in who defines and what constitutes “service to the economy”. Right now, “service to the economy” is defined as generating profit. Anything that generates profit is a service to the economy, anything that doesn’t generate profit is not. Bernie Madoff was considered an icon for the gigantic profits he was producing, until it was discovered it was a Ponzi scheme.

      But profit isn’t generated in the abstract, and doesn’t accrue to “the economy”, it accrues to individuals. Who gets the profit determines if the profit is a service to the economy or not. That is why tax cuts for the extremely wealthy are defined (by some) as a “service to the economy” because the 0.1% those tax cuts benefit define it to be so. This is why tax cuts on wage earners through reduced FICA payments are not considered a “service to the economy” (by those same individuals) because those benefit the 99.9% and not the 0.1%.

      The reason that STEM graduates don’t matter is because they don’t contribute much “service to the economy” because they don’t generate enough profit for those who do matter. STEM graduates also have a problem in that they are somewhat resistant to the “reality distortion field” that is more important.

      All Bernie Madoff had was a “reality distortion field”. If you have a good one, that is all you need. Of course relying on a “reality distortion field” is like a Ponzi scheme. There isn’t anything real behind it and when it collapses there has been no net benefit. Economic bubbles are like a Ponzi scheme. Maybe they are legal Ponzi schemes without fraudulent intent, but that doesn’t make them productive.

      If you want steady and reliable growth, hire STEM graduates. If you want an economic bubble hire people with a good “reality distortion field”. But there is a limit in how much real productivity in the economy can be siphoned off and destroyed by Ponzi schemes and economic bubbles without destroying the whole economy.

      An economic bubble bursting can be seen as the collapse of the “reality distortion field” that was sustaining it. Reality didn’t change when the economic bubble burst, what changed was the ability of investors to perceive reality.

  • Sean

    Lost in the frankly pathetic STEM-triumphalism of this comment thread is the fact that increasing the number of STEM graduates isn’t as easy as turning up the faucet. How do you do it? The answers I hear (eg in The Great Stagnation) mostly amount to this: make kids smarter and make scientists look cool. This isn’t a plan, it’s a description of what we haven’t got. The only workable plan for increasing the number of STEM grads is to lower the standards of those majors, which isn’t going to unleash any sort of innovation revolution. Based on my experience with many young engineers, and some of the goobers posting on comments on this blog, the standards must have already been dropped. FYI yes, I’m a philosophy grad, and yes, I have a job.

  • DK

    The only workable plan for increasing the number of STEM grads is to lower the standards of those majors, which isn’t going to unleash any sort of innovation revolution.

    Did we have lower standards in Sputnik era? No, we didn’t. It has nothing to do with scientists and engineers looking “cool” and everything to do with these occupations offering secure enough jobs that pay well enough. It used to be that getting a PhD in STEM and getting a job that you are qualified for offered you a reasonably stable career path and a solid middle class/upper middle class status and standard of living. None of it exists nowadays (save for few lucky winners like those who managed an academic tenure) – the wages are shit and job security is worse than that of secretaries and government paper pushers. Naturally, smart kids see it and refuse to get into this trap.

  • Sean

    Did we have lower standards in Sputnik era? No, we didn’t.

    We did not have lower standards. What we did have were lots of smart young people who had the talent and inclination to do good scientific research, but were not going to go to college. Just by getting those kids into college we were able to significantly increase the number of STEM grads. Today almost all smart and motivated kids go to college, and lots of dumb and unmotivated ones beside. There are no untapped caches of intelligent, scientifically-minded kids left in this country. So as I said, educators have tried to make more kids smart enough get STEM degrees, and have tried to make practicing science cool or prestigious so that kids who are smart enough to do the work will study science instead of puppetry or whatever. On both counts, educators have failed.

    At this point, our best bet for increasing the amount of STEM grads the U.S. produces without lower are standard is to continue poaching the brightest minds from around the world. I support this policy, despite being a lot less enthusiastic about the value (for society) of a scientist than most people are.

    As for your other point, about pay, I don’t know what numbers you are using or what your conception of a middle-class life is, but your theory doesn’t square with my experience. I know quite a few engineers and scientists, and though you probably won’t get rich doing these jobs, none of them are on food stamps.

  • ezra abrams

    I don’t know how many non academic organizations you are familiar with, but you will find that most, if not all, require the services of a substantial number of people with zero STEM skills and knowledge
    This isbecause people are human beings first, STEM second
    As to the idea that we should allow unlimited immigration of high skill workers, a, not to be rude, but soon as econ profs start loosing jobs to immigration (as opposed to now, when they get cheap gardeners and resturants) they will discover deep theoretical reasons why free trade is bad, and (b) isn’t that stealing from the peopleof other countries – at a min, shouldn’t we re imburse india or wherever for training costs ?
    Beyond that is the idea that progress is good. outside the narrow area of medicine (anesthetics are a good example) is anyone made happier, or have a better sex life, going from type writers with carbons to an cloud enabled computing ? Is anyone happeir that you can take a jet to tahiti instead of a 6 month sailing vessel ?
    aside from medicine and basic food, progress does little or nothing

    Finally, this whole we are slowing down thing is based on what is, not to be coy, a racial myth: we are smarter or harder working then “the other”
    you could see this explicitly in the 70s, when honda and toyota started trashing detroit: it was common to see in the press the most amazing racist commentary that asians were good drones but not creative.

    Today, the idea that we can out compete asia is just silly; on what planet is the avg american smarter,harder working or given better inputs (education, infrastructure,financial system…)
    ok, maybe our top research universitys (mit yalvard caltech) are tops, but anyone who is paying the slightest attention to STEM from china knows that they are catching up scarily fast.