Episode 42 – Why America is Losing its Creative Edge

In this episode I will discuss why America is losing its innovative advantage.

The renowned historian, Arnold Toynbee, wrote a twelve-volume work entitled, “The Study of History”. In this mammoth opus, he proposed that civilizations go through various phases. These phases are similar to human development. They begin as young, vigorous societies, mature and gyrate through a period of troubles. After this, they enter a period of decline. Once an advanced civilization declines, it never returns to claim its rightful place.

I don’t know whether historians today agree with Toynbee, but it is an interesting concept. Toynbee dealt with civilizations, which encompass large areas of the globe, not just nations. I believe that nations go through similar gyrations. Consider Western Civilization. We started with the rise of the Italian city of Venice and Portugal, two great seafaring powers. Portugal was eclipsed by Spain. Spain lost its power to England. England handed its mantle to the United States. None of these nations ever regained its former glory.

The United States is experiencing a similar gyration. We are attacking the very concepts that made us great in the first place. We are experiencing a decline in our belief in the actions that drove a creative spirit. Those attacks are coming from multiple sources and places.

The most serious attack on creativity is the national obsession with deficits and a neutral budget. Drastic cuts are made to essential government programs, programs that encourage innovation.

The first is an attack on the foundation of our innovative spirit. Our nation is based on a system of the free exchange of ideas. When that is undercut, innovation suffers. Budget cuts hit the arts, the sciences, and a liberal arts education in general. It begins with the attack on education. K-12 education is the solid ground of creativity. Without a basic understanding of our world, of the sciences, literature, history, and art, children have no grasp of fundamental ideas. You need to be shown how the world works before you can advance and use those ideas to imagine a better world.

Due to budget cuts, such essentials as sport and play time have vanished in many schools. Many in government and education appear to believe that this is non-productive time. Nothing could be further from the truth. When children play, they begin to comprehend social interactions and ideas. There is little more educational than listening to children invent a game, whether it is a war game, or skipping rope. The process of inventing rules and variations is profoundly creative. It is also essential to development.

Many people are pushing the idea of voucher schools. These are the antithesis of creative institutions. The entire purpose of voucher schools is to maximize profits. This encourages the use of Internet-based learning and supervisors rather than teachers. It encourages religious-based instruction rather than science and technology based instruction, which is more expensive and requires more education. Students are stuck in booths without any interaction between them. People need to interact in order to create.

Severe cutbacks in budgets lead to classrooms without the necessary equipment to demonstrate essential ideas to students. There is less equipment available for experiment, less wood and metalworking, fewer computers, less scientific instrumentation and chemicals. Students need to try new things based on the knowledge they receive. They need to team up with others to try new things. Without this environment, students will not succeed.

We seem to believe that more testing leads to better students. We don’t need people who can pass tests. That is easy. We need students who can think for themselves and solve real-world problems. We need to provide students with the knowledge and the opportunity to be creative. Test scores may look good, but education based solely on those tests is a weak proxy for the real world. We tie teacher pay to test scores rather than innovation scores. We also tie federal aid to test scores, creating a disincentive for real innovative thinking.

When Chinese educators were told that the U.S. wants more rote learning instead of a less structured curriculum, they laughed. They are moving to a less structured curriculum, which is what drove American innovation. We are driving backwards into the past, a past that failed.

This obsession with budgets similarly undermines America’s ability to innovate as a nation. What many conservatives don’t understand is that today, innovation is expensive. Most innovations no longer come down to someone inventing something in a garage. It takes large amounts of money to finance large numbers of projects that may fail. Most research and development ultimately fails to produce anything of lasting value.

Consider some of America’s greatest achievements. The Internet was not a private project. It was produced by DARPA, a government agency. Government funding of agencies like NASA produced our massive advances in space. Our understanding of climate change was produced by agencies like NOAA. Government started advances in pharmaceuticals and shale gas extraction. Even ubiquitous devices like the iPhone, including touch screens and Siri began as government funded projects. GPS, which has become an indispensable part of our lives started with government research.

Cutting out government funding of research ultimately undermines our ability to compete in the world. China has increased its spending on research and development threefold as a percentage of GDP. Its number of researchers doubled, whereas ours barely budged.

American corporations are spending less on R&D, which is expensive. Being subject to market forces, they have shareholders to answer to. They cannot afford to have research fail, so they would rather not spend the money. This is not true for government, which does not have to compete in the market. Government can afford to fund research that fails, with the idea that the more they fund, the greater the chance of something succeeding. Government is enormously lucrative for investors because it is generous with its research. The U.S. government hands out the results of its research to private investors, who can then become wealthy without having to do that research themselves.

It turns out that entrepreneurs are terrible at innovation. The private sector does far more to retard innovation than to promote it. Private corporations create patents on tiny slithers of the innovative market place and enforce those patents with predatory lawsuits. Companies even exist to buy up patents and make money from enforcing them. This has the effect of stifling innovation. Innovative people build on other ideas in the marketplace of ideas. When those ideas are stifled, even really worthwhile advances can be cut off at their source.

The same thing exists in copyright. Congress keeps extending copyright, preventing people from using old, stale ideas in new ways. Even ideas that really do not belong to corporations, like Winnie the Pooh, which was not created by Disney, has copyright protection. The original author has long since left this world, yet his family gets no benefit. The original idea is long gone, but large corporations exist to stifle any new ideas.

We would not have artists like Shakespeare, or Bob Dylan, if it weren’t for the great ideas that came before. Both artists stole their ideas from others, from existing sources. His peers often accused Shakespeare of plagiarism. Without the wealth of ideas at the time, his works would have vanished into the mists of posterity without a mention.

Our society has become insulated from great ideas by the way it is organized. Research shows that innovation does not happen in a vacuum. When you throw people from dramatically different backgrounds together, it can be a breeding ground for new ideas. This is why cities can be such havens for creativity. People feed off one another and swap ideas with alacrity. Sometimes you have to see what can be done in order to create something new. Sometimes you have to encounter obstacles and see how others overcome them to be creative.

Our cities are often broken by suburbs, which spread people over large areas instead of pushing them together. People become separated from each other and the breeding ground for ideas vanishes. The suburb is destroying innovation. It separates the poor from the wealthy, immigrant from local. It puts people into little boxes that insulate them from others rather than throwing people together. We are segregated in our vehicles rather than thrust together on public transport. There is no longer a meeting of minds.

Which brings me to another driver of innovation. Immigration is one of the greatest engines of innovation. Around 52% of the companies in Silicon Valley were co-founded by immigrants. Immigrants bring with them a wealth of different ideas, differing ways of looking at the world. When these ideas meet, it is like volcanic lava meeting the ocean. There is an explosion of steam and innovation and a synthesis of ideas. When we make it difficult for immigrants to become part of our society, we become frozen with inaction, unable to get passed old, outdated ideas.

One of our Olympic medallists, Chloe Kim, is the daughter of a Korean immigrant. He arrived in America with $300 and a Korean-English dictionary in his pocket and a dream. He graduated with a degree in engineering technology. Yet our current president has a plan that will deny people like him a chance to better himself.

We find this with our military. It has become ossified, fossilized in its obsession with tactics from World War 2. We have not yet realized that military tactics today are vastly different than they were sixty years ago. It is insane to have a fleet of aircraft carriers and the ships that accompany them floating around the world. In a world of drones, a few hundred drones controlled by an enemy would destroy aircraft carriers and their fleet. You can stop a single ship, or perhaps even a dozen, but when you are faced with hundreds of highly mobile sea-borne drones, it only takes a few to get through your defenses to destroy you.

We invaded Iraq and Afghanistan with conventional armies and weapons. And we lost. People may argue that, but it is a fact. The battle for Iraq infested Syria, and it is infecting Turkey, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. It will turn into a wider regional war, which is ominous for world peace and the specter of a new world war. We used traditional tactics instead of innovative approaches. A small, targeted force would have disabled Al Qaeda far more successfully than the disastrous wars we are stuck with. We spend our national wealth when we did not have to. Today’s wars don’t need massive military expenditures; they need concentrated efforts by small forces.

This is how we lose our innovative edge. We believe that the tactics of yesterday still work. We believe that capitalism can solve the innovation deficit. We believe that government can no longer succeed. We face risks like climate change with an old-world mindset that will prove destructive to our nation and possibly western civilization.

There is still time. We can become innovative again. It means letting go of old thinking and creating the conditions for creativity. We need fast food joints to become hives of community rather than empty mausoleums devoid of life. We need teahouses and people stacked on top of one another and schools not dedicated to profit, but to learning and inquiry. We need schools that encourage innovation, not just facts. We need to finance research and development in the same way China does. We need to recognize that government is an important part of this process. We need to get out of cubicles and offices and let accountants mix with engineers and cleaning staff and directors. Only in this way can we reclaim our heritage and become the innovative nation we once were.

I encourage you to continue to enhance your life with the Power of Three and search for the best possible life to live.

Until next time, go well my friends.