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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