As against pivotal moments in the story of human accomplishment, does today’s America, for instance, look more like Britain blooming at the end of the 18th century or like France fading at the end of the 19th century? If the latter, are there idiosyncratic features of the American situation that can override what seem to be longer-run tendencies?
The author of Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, Murray amassed data from virtually all of human history, across cultures and in vast categories of human endeavor. He believes that there are patterns to innovation, creativity and advancement, and that certain cultural standards support and encourage this, while others degrade it. Murray makes the case that America is floundering, if not fading, when it comes to innovation and invention. (more…)
“Most CEOs now spray the word ‘innovation’ as if it were an air freshener,” says Dennis Berman in the Wall Street Journal, “A little spritz can’t hurt.” A prime example, notes Berman, is what Kellogg’s CEO John Bryant described as one of their company’s most important “innovations”: a peanut butter Pop-Tart.
Most of us would probably agree that a new flavor of breakfast pastry isn’t as innovative as, say, the iPhone. But how do we know? What exactly is innovation?
In a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, Emory economics professor Paul H. Rubin makes an interesting argument about the way economists tend to over-elevate and/or misconstrue the role of competition in the flourishing of markets.
“Competition plays a supporting role,” he argues, but “cooperation makes markets thrive”:
The way we use the term competition instead of cooperation fosters anti-market bias. “Competition” carries a negative connotation because it implies winners and losers, and our minds naturally feel sympathy for the losers. But cooperation evokes a positive response: It’s a win-win situation with no losers. And in fact the word competition doesn’t depict market activity as aptly as the word cooperation. The “competitive economy” would be better described as the “cooperative economy.”
Consider the most basic economic unit, the transaction. A transaction is cooperative because both parties gain from a voluntary exchange. There is competition in markets, but it’s actually competition for the right to cooperate. Firms must compete for the privilege of selling to consumers—for the right to cooperate with consumers. Workers compete for the right to cooperate with employers. Competition matters because it ensures that the most efficient players will gain the right to cooperate on the best terms available. But competition plays a supporting role, while cooperation makes markets thrive. (more…)
Twenty years from now, we will see an America where merit and reward are intertwined more than ever before. As I’ve written recently, those who win the future will significantly outpace their peers, leaving the rest to fight over the scraps until organizational innovations and human capital catches up once again.
If true, such a reality must be reckoned with. So what about those left behind? What will their futures look like? With decreases in gainful employment and the increasing disconnect between vocational aspirations and actual occupations, what other risks persist — economic, social, spiritual, and otherwise? Assuming we are not comfortable with such a future, what should we do about it? (more…)
The concept is so important that no student should receive a passing grade in any economics class—whether in high school or college—unless they can explain why economic growth matters (ideally, every educated Christian would be able to do so too since it has theological implications).
Yet, sadly, few Americans recognize its importance despite the fact, as Pethokoukis notes, that in real terms, the average income of Americans over the past two centuries went from $2,000 per person to $50,000. Pethokoukis credits the change to a shift in thinking: Respect and reward innovators and innovation. He includes a great quote by Deirdre McCloskey on how the West became a business-admiring civilization:
In the video below, Ralph Baer, the “father of video games,” explains why he still invents at 90 years old. “What do you expect me to do?” he asks. He likens invention to the work of a painter. Would someone ask why a painter doesn’t retire? It’s what they love to do! Indeed, it is a calling.
Entrepreneurs, as agents of change, encourage the economy to adjust to population increases, resource shifts, and changes in consumer needs and desires. Without entrepreneurs, we would face a static economic world not unlike the stagnant economic swamps that socialism brought about in central Europe.
The same can be said about inventors like Baer as well. Like them or not, video games have been a huge source of wealth creation in our country over the last 40 years. Not only are whole teams of programmers required to create a single game, but modern games even employ actors, composers, writers, artists, and so on. In many ways they are (or at least could be) the culmination of culture up to our present time, and it all started because Baer invented a fun little gadget and managed to market it some 40 years ago.
I remember as a child of the ’80s, we actually had a Magnavox Odyssey 2 growing up. A child today would likely find it bizarre that I could find any enjoyment from such primitive sound, graphics, and interface, but it will always hold a special place in my heart. Yes, looking at it now, I can vividly remember the feel of the controller in my hand, the excitement of a child in wonder at what, at the time, was such amazing technology and a source of fun and competition with my brothers. It may not be impressive to many today, but inventions like this and the people who invent them ought to bring us to awe before the God who created heaven and earth and such fascinating and creative creatures as the human race, capable of wondrous invention after the image of the God who created them so fearfully and wonderfully unique.
Innovation is an ethical matter through and through, says Chris MacDonald, because ethics is fundamentally concerned with anything that can promote or hinder human wellbeing.
Innovation is generally a good thing, ethically, because it is aimed at allowing us to do new and desirable things. Most typically, that gets expressed in the painfully vague ambition to ‘raise productivity.’ Accelerating our rate of innovation is a worthy policy objective because we want to be more productive as a society, to increase our social ‘wealth’ in the broadest sense. The 20th Century has seen a phenomenal burst of innovation and increases in wellbeing, exemplified not least by the fact that life expectancies in North American have risen by more than half over the last hundred years. The extension and enriching of human lives are good goals, which in turn makes innovation generally a good thing.
Indeed, when looked at that way, innovation isn’t just a ‘good,’ but a downright moral obligation. Yes, lives for (most) people in developed countries are pretty good. But many still don’t have happy and fulfilling lives; many children, even here, still go to bed hungry. Boosting productivity through innovation is a key ingredient for making progress in that regard. And if less developed nations are going to be raised up to even a minimally tolerable standard of living, we need innovations that will help them, and we need innovations that will make us wealthy enough that we can afford to be substantially more generous toward them than we currently are.
There’s an old proverb, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
Life is often difficult, full of challenges, trials, and travails. But it is a testament to the human spirit, created in the image of God to mature and develop morally, spiritually, and intellectually, that in the face of such troubles human ingenuity often wins out. Brad Morgan, a dairy farmer turned fertilizer magnate featured in the documentary The Call of the Entrepreneur, put it this way: “You put your butt in the corner, you’ll be surprised what you can achieve.”
I was reminded of this insight in reading a story this week about a local company, National Nail Corp., whose recent experience embodies this reality. As Jim Harger writes, “When the bottom fell out of the home building industry in 2008, the National Nail Corp. was forced to regroup and diversify, says W. Scott Baker, president and CEO of the employee-owned company.”
One of the new products is called Camo, which “created a new way to nail down deck boards without having nails or screw heads poking through the surface to create slivers, pop up or discolor a deck surface.” As Baker puts it, “Camo was birthed when we found ourselves in a place where no one would have willingly gone.”
I’m not very handy, but Camo looks pretty cool to me.
When your butt is in a corner, you’ll be surprised what you can achieve.
This is an important lesson to remember, especially in the midst of economic turmoil and fiscal crisis. Yes, we live in an age of dizzying change, but with these changes also come new opportunities. God has given human beings the august responsibility to be moral agents, to work productively in service of others. Rather than bemoaning our fate when adversity comes, we ought to look forward in hope and creatively exercise those talents God has given us to find innovative new solutions to the myriad challenges facing the world today.
Over a billion people are still using kerosene as a primary fuel source, with over 1.5 million dying annually from issues related to indoor air pollution and kerosene fires. For many in the developing world, solar lamps are a new, inexpensive solution to the problem. A recent piece in The Economist hails solar lamps as the next “mobile phone” for the poor, noting that “its spread is sustainable because it is being driven by market forces, not charity.”
In an article for Christianity Today’s This is Our City project, HOPE International‘s Chris Horst interviews two business leaders from the industry who share how their purpose and direction in providing these products stems from a strong missional orientation toward work and a belief in the power of markets.
For Brian Rants, vice president of marketing for Nokero, a leading solar light company, involvement in the industry came after a fundamental transformation in his thinking:
“I am very surprised to find myself in business,” Rants says. “Business seemed to be a backup plan to being a missionary. Or being a pastor like I thought I would be. It seemed like businesspeople were just ‘extras’ in God’s story, rather than lead or even supporting actors.”
Over the past ten years, Rants worked for a number of nonprofits and churches. After going through graduate school, however, he began to discover the ways enterprise is improving the lives of the poor around the world. Rants excitedly joined Nokero, equipped with a restored vision of vocation. Through leveraging his knack for marketing, Rants fights poverty not just through his volunteerism and philanthropy, but inherently through his work in business. (more…)
Check out this video, which is interesting on a number of levels (HT: James R. Otteson):
Hazony points to some really important ideas in this short video. In many ways the culture war, so to speak, really comes down to a clash of worldviews about what work is and ought to be. For a narrative that sets the problem up the same way, but favors the “Leavers” over the “Takers,” see the work of Daniel Quinn, particularly his novel Ishmael.