How can Obama & Congress foster innovation in 2015?

Each week I take the top voted question from readers and answer it (submit one here). I jumped this one, submitted by Mike Nelson, it to the front on the line since it’s timely in nature.

What us the most important, single thing that Obama and Congress could do in 2015 to foster innovation in the US?

You’d have to start by defining the word innovation. As you might be sick of hearing, I often complain the word has been abused into meaninglessness. In this case I take it to mean significant positive change, as that’s the best definition of the word I know.

  1. Caveat: Democracy is not centered on change. The political system that allows change to happen fastest is a dictatorship. A dictator does not need to convince anyone, not even the citizens of his nation, and has the power to fire or kill anyone he likes (or, more precisely, doesn’t like). People forget a central motivation for modern democracies and republics is stability. Change is meant to be slow and require consensus, patience and cooperation (which was hard to come by even in 1783 when the U.S. Constitution defining the U.S. government was written). We like to pretend the U.S. President is a dictator and can do anything, but their power is kept tightly in check by design, unless there is truly enough of a problem to earn a consensus and a mandate, which is uncommon.
  2. Push towards meritocracy in education.  Germany recently made state university education free, while in America 2/3rds of graduates leave college in debt (totaling $1.2 trillion, more than our national credit card debt). Which nation is raising a new generation of ambitious creative risk takers? That’s not a fair question of course because culture isn’t defined by education alone, but you see my point. One country is investing as best it can in its next generation and the other is… I’m not even sure. I don’t believe making things free magically solves problems, but I do believe in meritocracy and the more expensive a good education is, the more wealth, and not merit, determines who gets it. Anyone who believes in meritocracy has to believe in quality public education available to as many citizens as possible, especially young ones.
  3. Push towards meritocracy in immigration.  I’ve never understood why we’d want to prevent the world’s brightest young talents from moving to the United States. The history of our growth hinges on the new ideas, hungry attitudes and different perspectives of immigrants. They take nothing of our wonderful country for granted, unlike many of our own offspring. Many of the most important innovations in U.S. History were made by people who were relatively new here. Right now it is very hard to get an H1-B visa, the primary work visitation visa used by technology companies, despite the talent shortages these companies have. If we believe in meritocracy we should have no fear of foreigners who enter the country based on merit as they will push us to be better in everything we do.
  4. Reduce the reach of copyrights and patents. If you read the history of these laws it’s clear their utility has been stretched to protect the most powerful companies, as these are the companies with the most resources to invest in lawyers and legal services. It used to be that great ideas would pass into the public domain after 28 years, but we’ve recently extended the exclusive protections of copyright several times and now that protection is twice as much or longer. This protects the makers of the past, not the makers of the future.
  5. Reform how campaign finance works. The episode of This American Life titled Take the Money and Run for Office documents how 60/70% of a senator’s time in office is spent fundraising for the next election. It’s shocking and it should be required listening for all Americans. It’s disturbing as it reveals how the modern system encourages the mortgaging of the present for the future by the very people we elect to invest in our future as a nation. Our Congress, as described in #1, is central to change in government. But the more focused Congress is on getting reelected, the more they must cater to the short term interests of corporations and wealthy people who are most interested in protecting their status quo, not the future of our nation. Any reduction in time Congressmen spend campaigning and raising funds is a win for the future of America.

What would be on your list? Leave a comment.

5 Responses to “How can Obama & Congress foster innovation in 2015?”

  1. Sean Crawford

    Hi Scott,
    As for Germans now getting free education, it occurs to me that a compensating factor is that at least US citizens will now be better able to innovate in their lives by changing jobs or creatively starting their own companies, thanks to no longer living in fear of sickness, or of losing health insurance, thanks to Obama care.

    Speaking of education, and the resulting scientific mindset, during the Obama care discussions on the Internet I was struck by how few posters were willing to investigate by waltzing over to the local community college or, in the snowbird areas, simply striking up a conversation with a tourist from Germany or Canada and getting an outside opinion.

    1. Scott

      Your comment makes me think about curiosity – or more precisely, makes me curious about why some people are more curious than others. We really have no way to measure curiosity – there is no curiosity index or curiosity test (I did find this one from Ok Cupid but it’s obvious what answers to give to get a higher score).

      Most of my experience with education only had a moderate relationship to developing my curiosity. Education for most people is experienced as trying to find the right answer so that you get better grades. How do you teach people to be curious? Or more accurately how to reduce how much curiosity we drive out of young people?

      Thanks for the comment – you’ve reignited my curiosity about curiosity!

  2. Sean Crawford

    You’re welcome; what a nice reply.

    When my niece went to university she was struck by how many fellow students were just “sticks in the mud.” Without using the term “curiosity” my advice was the “live wires” were in the clubs, and especially, I guessed, the student newspaper. Looking back, those long conversations, including student “meaning of life” ones, in the news office, were because my peers there were curious beings.

    I remember late one night saying, “I keep meaning to go home, but the conversations are so interesting.” And a photographer replied, “Yes, back in the residence they are still talking about dinning hall food.”

    Dig into curiosity for the rest of us, Scott. I think it correlates with gratitude, being an observant Boy Scout, and yes, innovation. How in the world do so many people go through life wearing horse blinders?

    Somehow, I am reminded of a true story of an executive who was hiring. Details are hazy, but I think he had a back wall of plate glass with a jungle garden view—or was it a gorgeous panorama of the city?

    If the hopeful candidate did the thing where you show sincerity by sitting on the edge of the seat, leaning forward, and focusing politely on the executive… for the whole time… then he failed. The successful candidate would insist on figuratively taking a “time out” to grasp the view… He wouldn’t wear horse blinders.

    I can really relate to that story.

  3. Rex Williams

    Well, all this talk of curiosity surely piques my curiosity. I’ve been thinking and writing about curiosity for a little while, exploring different aspects of it. I’m sure I’m not the only one, and I’m sure Scott, you could write a good book about it. But wait until I publish mine first :)

    Mostly, I look at how curiosity is a driver for action. And if action is what drives us to accomplish our goals and make things happen, then maybe curiosity could be a driver for getting things done or changing our life.

    It’s just a hypothesis, but I’ve started exploring it on my site: (You have to be curious enough to figure out what to do when you get there :)

    P.S. love your work, Scott. I have 4 of the 6 books listed in you sidebar. YWP was awesome.


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