Nathan Sass

US Innovation is not Mythical

In Economics, Health Care Reform, Politics, Tax Policy on January 27, 2011 at 11:07 AM

In a post in Foreign Policy magazine reacting to the State of the Union Address, David Rothkopf makes the argument that the US is not particularly special or unique.  His contention is that the innovations with origins in the US were not what they appeared and those in the US merely imitated the works of others, mostly Europeans.

Poppycock.  For a guy, who I am sure thinks he is always the smartest guy in whatever room he inhabits, he sure is seems to be, shall we say, dull.

First, his “authoritative” list of innovations comes from the robust and scholarly source About.com.  Yup.  He didn’t even check into Wikipedia.  Way to do some research, Mr. Rothkopf.  I hope that you do a bit better diligence in your role on the advisory board for the Center for Global Development.

Allow me to refute Mr. Rothkopf’s well researched and thorough analysis. (sarcasm intended)

Yes, the television was not invented, per se, in the US.  There were many people who made individual contriubutions to the development of the technology, which is not unique.  Most technological development is advanced by multiple people building on the work of others.

What did the US contribute to the development of television?  Well, only the first viable and operational commercial and private television station (WRGB in Schenectady, NY).  It was in the US, free to innovate and take risk, where someone took a largely academic and theoretical technology and made it a commercially practical and marketable product.  Without TV stations no one needs a TV do they?

As Mr. Rothkopf rightly contends, the car was not a US invention.  There were motorized vehicles of all different types for years before Henry Ford got involved.  Most were the toys of the wealthy elite and had little real useful value.  The cars were all hand made to order, making them expensive to purchase and maintain.

Enter Henry Ford and the culture of the US.  Mr. Ford had the vision to see that the car was not just a novelty item for the Princes of Europe, but a tool for any man.  Mr. Ford, after multiple failures, finally perfected the concept of an assembly line.

This innovation allowed Mr. Ford to hire and employ somewhat less skilled workers instead of craftsman, building thousands of identical cars day after day that were available at a price the general public could afford to buy and maintain.  Ford created an entire industry, and enhanced most every other one.  His invention was a direct result of a desire to gain wealth, not just some egg headed academic pursuit to impress the boys at the club.

Apple did not invent the MP3 player, they perfected the lawful delivery music in the electronic age.  They did it to make money, not to distribute “art”.

Microsoft did not invent the computer operating system, they perfected the method for making it user friendly, powerful and yet affordable enough for home or office use.  They did it to make money, not to save the planet.

Wal-Mart did not invent the chain retailer, they perfected the concept and improved every aspect of it to reduce costs and prices and increase profits.  They did it to make money, not help the poor get more stuff.

Ford, Edison, Gates, Jobs and the rest may not have been the inventors of the items that they are now so closely associated with, but that isn’t the point.  They created, actually invented, entire markets and economies as a result of a pursuit of personal gain.

What has always made the US special, as much as the thought must make Mr. Rothkopf  want to vomit, is the belief that the pursuit of personal gain and wealth was not only accepted, but encouraged.  In contrast, Europe has always been a collection of cast societies where those born to high station are thought to be superior and those of lower classes are thought to be of lesser substance and potential.  Those of lower station who dare attempt to gain wealth are not exactly encouraged, and there is always tension between upper and lower class as a result.

Rothkopf states the US has no “special gene” that guarantees world leadership, and I agree.  It is not genetic, it is (or perhaps was) systemic and cultural.  We are now rapidly evolving into another Europe and our culture is adopting an attitude of “betters” and “lessers”.

Mr. Rothkopf is in the “betters” class, and I suppose I would be in the “lessers” class.  A fact that I am sure Mr. Rothkopf would readily point out in an attempt to defend his position, should he read this (which he would not lower himself to do in any case).  I’m sure he would immediately point out how important he is, the title he holds, the fancy schools he attended, and all that makes his opinion the obviously superior one.  Who would ever consider the thoughts of a guy who went to a state university (with a hyphen in the name, no less) and is not related to or friends with someone important?

Our politicians behave the same way.  Solutions must come from them because they are smarter and better than the voters who elect them.  Ideas that do not originate in the minds of the “better class” are not given much, if any, consideration.  Profit is not encouraged, and is confiscated by the smart people to dole out to the idiots in the lower classes who are too dumb to do it on their own.

This is why health care reform looks like a European solution reliant on confiscation of profits, and is not a unique American innovation that creates an entire new paradigm, market and economy.

When we as a culture stop believing that elected politicians are smarter than us and realize they generally do not know what they are doing, we will begin to see the old US dominance return.  That will be the sign that the US will return to the role of world leader in innovation because merit will be all that matters, not who your dad was, what school you attended or which big shot you happen to pal around with.

When we as a culture return to the principles of merit, workers will strive to excel, companies will look to innovate to dominate the market, and the people of the world will once again look to the US to lead the way.

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