Reaching for the pie instead of the sky…

Once upon a time, in a place called America, there was a thing called the American Dream.  A person growing up in that America knew that if they dared to dream and worked hard, their dream would become reality.  Secure in the knowledge that inspiration, hard work, tenacity and careful planning would lead to success, young Americans reached for the sky and even to the stars (remember Neil Armstrong).

Now doubtless, not all of these dreams came true.  But America also had a safety net…a floor if you will, that prevented people from falling into a vortex when they took a risk that didn’t pan out.  The result of the security, the dream, and the safety net  formed the foundation of American exceptionalism.  It was a  system that encouraged risk takers by not leaving them to crash and burn if they failed.  It  resulted in an unprecedented flood of  discovery, innovation and tangible products. That investment transformed all our lives and perpetuated a virtuous cycle where each generation of discovery fueled the next.

Major discoveries, such as things like rockets that can send astronauts into space, the world wide web, new biologicals for cancer treatment, organ transplants and the like require a degree of public funding as well as a strong and sturdy safety net because of the risks involved.  You see,  truly innovative ideas can and do fail!  In fact they fail more than they succeed.  Which is why Wall Street isn’t interested in breaking new ground in research.  Breaking new ground is inherently high risk because there are more unknowns hidden in the black box that the researchers are trying to smash.

Today that  virtuous cycle has been turned on its head becoming a vicious circle.  If we had the American Dream in the previous cycle, what we are witnessing now is the American Nightmare.

This downturn has hit the science and engineering fields particularly hard.  Budget cutbacks from the sequester are threatening a generation of scientists in some fields.  The private sector is flooded with academics whose grants were terminated. Combine that with an unworkable, out-of-control guest worker system and you have the perfect storm of wage destruction and high unemployment.  Some scientists are actually flipping burgers and serving lattes at minimum wage because that’s the only employment  out there for them.  Apart from being a colossal waste of talent and education, lives are being ruined by this new brand of cut throat capitalism.

Is cut throat capitalism really productive?

There are some including Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson    (the authors of Why Nations Fail ) who feel that some of this strife is healthy and that “cuddly capitalism” results in less risk taking because job creators, inventors and innovators are a bit too comfortable.  With the specter of grim poverty erased, these innovators might get lazy knowing that they will never slip below certain marginal levels of poverty.  They also feel the enticement of riches beyond the dreams of averice will act like the carrot in front of the donkey pushing the innovator ever onward.

The Evidence Suggests Otherwise:

  • Look at the scientific strides that were made in the 50s through the 70s.  We put a man on the moon, mainframe computers came into being,  satellites transformed communications, organ transplants saved and prolonged lives.  Yet capitalism was quite cuddly back in those days.  Rewards had their limits due to higher income taxes on the wealthy, but the floor was also raised during those times.   R&D in both academia and the private sector flourished. 
  • There has been a sharp rise in peer reviewed journal retractions  which points to a troubling trend.  Publish or perish has become an even bigger imperative as institutions close down labs and slash budgets.  The temptation to …perhaps cheat….or to perhaps “stretch” findings becomes more compelling.  If your lab is about to be closed and 25 years of hard work is at stake as well as the livelihoods of your staff stretching findings to get the paper out there is difficult to resist. Survival is trumping discovery.
  • Something that I have noticed in my own former field – scientists are NOT taking risks.  They are going after the security of something that is easily publishable.  The difficulty is, that new ground is never broken by playing it safe.  New break throughs come from high-risk / high reward studies – which may or may NOT result in a publishable paper.
Are cut-throat societies ever truly innovative?

Probably not. Take a look at feudal Europe. It doesn’t get more cut-throat or unequal than that.   How were the middle ages for innovation and R&D?  It was about 800 years of stagnation – not very promising.

A cut-throat society is seldom bold.  It does not tend to venture into the great unknown. In situations like this people are in survival mode searching for shelter from the financial storms that surround them.  The search for security becomes  job-one.  As one college professor put  it an excellent blog that everyone should read (Too Tired to Hustle)   “My students don’t want to be Astronauts. They want to be, sort of, Postal Office Clerks – with a 9-5 and a pension plan.”

In a cut-throat world, no one reaches for the sky, most are simply searching  for a small slice of of an ever shrinking  pie.

© RGHicks – – All rights reserved.

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