Teeth pretty much gritted, I’m collecting uses of the word “innovation” in discussions of America’s current economic malaise, convinced that the promotion of high-tech invention has become the smiley face of the new millennium: A jolly and superficial exhortation (“If only we innovate, things will be better!”), that has started to function as a reductive and even distracting gesture…the “Just Do It!” of economic analysis.
To see this in action, I’d suggest looking at this recent NPR story by Wendy Kaufman in which an entrepreneur and economist both position high-tech innovation as the answer to national unemployment. We learn that in the clean energy sector, for example, “patent awards, and research and development spending” are growing faster in China than in the US, where a climate of fear currently discourages entrepreneurial risk-taking. The message is that if more Americans were to innovate, jobs would follow: as one of Kaufman’s interviewees says, “It’s something the U.S. has to do to keep the economy growing.” It may be true that without entrepreneurial enthusiasm job creation stalls, but it’s not necessarily true that when capital thrives, so does American labor. (See NPR’s own interview by Guy Raz of a few days earlier, on recent dramatic growth in American CEO salaries…in which NYTimes business editor P.J. Joshi summarizes a recent report that found widespread executive pay raises playing out while ordinary wages stay low and unemployment and layoffs persist.) Like so many others, this invocation of innovation makes knowledge, not policy, the social problem and solution…the call is once again for brain work, not political reform, and innovative federal policies that might incentivize domestic job creation (and grapple with the unidirectional flow of corporate profits upward) go unmentioned.
I know I’ve made this exact point before, but NPR and many other media outlets have talked about innovation in this uncritical way before, too. Kaufman’s piece, here, is strangely brief, almost telegraphic…And the more pervasive, the more routine such instructions to innovate become in American culture and media, the more I want to understand the allure of that project.