Have we lost the ability to innovate our way out of the problems facing us?
This is on my mind because of reading comments on Facebook. A friend had a bad medical experience: the bill was problematically high even though the insurance in question was supposed to be good. Some people latched on to this as a reason to complain about the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. “If you think things are bad now, wait until there aren’t any more doctors!” was one refrain.
I’ve held for several years that the healthcare debate was ill-served by Republicans abdicating any responsibility in being part of the solution. The ACA is basically Republican’s version of health reform from previous generations. It stands in stark contrast to the left’s Holy Grail: the single payer system, or “Governmentocare” to predict Republican nicknames for the plan. Or you could just call it Medicare since that’s basically what it is.
During the debate leading to the passage of Obamacare, a lot of people pointed out how badly single payer systems were in other countries. It’s arguable that Canada is going through a healthcare crisis when their 75,000+ doctors made an average of $300,000 Canadian last year, but I digress. The thing that struck me then was that no one was standing up saying, “If we put our heads together, we can do better.” You had the president on one side pushing a Republican-devised plan. On the other side, you had Republicans standing with their fingers in their ears shouting, “NO WE CAN’T!”
This same thing has reared its head in regards to the environment. Instead of thinking, “We can come up with a way to use energy that doesn’t kill life on Earth!” you have either the same “NO WE CAN’T” or even worse, “There’s no way we could hurt Earth.”
While I acknowledge the problems with the idea of “American Exceptionalism,” why is it we no longer have the smarts to innovate our way out of problems?
I’ve been thinking about it for about 15 minutes and have a couple of potential answers.
First, we’ve done so much to decrease innovation that the proverbial chicken has come home to roost. Originally patents and copyrights were designed to reward people for creating and innovating, but only so much that they would continue to do so. In other words, you don’t want someone to strangle innovation and produce people like Hugh Grant’s character in About a Boy–a man living his life off royalties derived from a one-hit-wonder Christmas song his dad wrote and recorded. A well-functioning system works more like the pharmaceutical industry: They receive a period of exclusivity for their discovery, but a few years later, the information has to be released into the wild so that “generic” drugs can be produced. It keeps drug companies researching while keeping people (relatively) healthy. With copyrights sitting at nearly 100 years, there’s little reason for people to create or innovate when they can simply live off their one good idea/creation.
Second, we punt. It’s no wonder that with the success of (American) football, play tactics would work their way into our society. For the uninitiated, a punt is what a team does when they’ve used all their chances to progress in their time with the ball. The object is to kick the ball as far away from the other team’s goal as possible thereby increasing the time/effort needed for them to score. Outside the game, this gives us a chance to completely ignore any possible solutions to problems and dump them off on future generations. Sometimes this can work well. Right now, the US economy is shuddering at the thought of hoards of retiring baby boomers. If we punt those costs 30 years into the future, as the population balances out as baby boomers die, all those retirement costs will go back to their earlier levels.
At the same time, punting means that problems that won’t solve themselves will become harder to solve. The idea of global warming started getting traction in the 90s. We ignored it for nearly 20 years. Now the problem is harder to solve because more, worse pollutors have entered the fray *cough*China*cough*. Had we done something 20 years ago, we’d have been ready for Asia’s industrial revolution. As it stands now, you could argue that only Elon Musk is working to address this problem.
Proffering solutions should always be part of an argument. In this spirit, I suggest reducing the duration of protections for innovating in general. That’s simple enough, but it doesn’t really work towards solving our problems. The second step is to prioritize coming up with solutions to our long term problems. For that, I propose creating categories of problems and rewarding workable solutions with longer term patent protections. An extension to exclusivity is the carrot for solving problems.
There are respectable people already working to prime the well of ideas for solving our global energy problems like Dr. Don Flournoy. Dr. Flournoy created and leads the Sunsat Design Competition that pairs scientists with media students. The idea is that they will work together to create visualizations of potential solutions so that laypeople might better understand the concepts discussed. The competition currently has funding to reward in the neighborhood of $30,000 in prizes for good ideas paired with good visualizations.
If you are a scientist or media professional, think about getting involved. If you are simply a citizen of Earth, think for a moment about whether you want to help move towards a solution to today’s problems or whether you’d rather ignore them ostritch-style.