Putting innovation in the foreground

Four loosely related pieces that I’ve read lately:

A great Quartz profile of economist Mariana Mazzucato:

The central premise of Mazzucato’s work is about the role of the state in innovation. She is an ardent believer that governments should do more than play a passive role in fixing market failures, and be allowed to embrace their entrepreneurial spirit to steer the direction of innovation and economic growth.

The Richmond Fed interviews Enrico Moretti:

In the first three decades after World War II, manufacturing was the most important source of high-paying jobs in the United States. Manufacturing was geographically clustered, but the amount of clustering was limited. Over the past 30 years, manufacturing employment has declined, and the innovation sector has become a key source of good jobs. The innovation sector tends to be much more geographically clustered. Thus, in the past, having access to good jobs was not tied to a specific location as much as it is today. I expect the difference in wages, earnings, and household incomes across cities to continue growing at least for the foreseeable future.

In The Atlantic Tyler Cowen and Patrick Collison call for the creation of an interdisciplinary field called “Progress Studies”:

Progress itself is understudied. By “progress,” we mean the combination of economic, technological, scientific, cultural, and organizational advancement that has transformed our lives and raised standards of living over the past couple of centuries. For a number of reasons, there is no broad-based intellectual movement focused on understanding the dynamics of progress, or targeting the deeper goal of speeding it up. We believe that it deserves a dedicated field of study. We suggest inaugurating the discipline of “Progress Studies.”

Before digging into what Progress Studies would entail, it’s worth noting that we still need a lot of progress. We haven’t yet cured all diseases; we don’t yet know how to solve climate change; we’re still a very long way from enabling most of the world’s population to live as comfortably as the wealthiest people do today; we don’t yet understand how best to predict or mitigate all kinds of natural disasters; we aren’t yet able to travel as cheaply and quickly as we’d like; we could be far better than we are at educating young people. The list of opportunities for improvement is still extremely long.

And Nick Bloom, John Van Reenen, and Heidi Williams have an article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives on innovation policy:

Innovation is the only way for the most developed countries to secure sustainable long-run productivity growth. For nations farther from the technological frontier, catch-up growth is a viable option, but this cannot be the case for leading-edge economies such as the United States, Japan, and the nations of Western Europe. For countries such as these, what are the most effective policies for stimulating technological innovation? In this article, we take a practical approach to addressing this question. If a policymaker came to us with a fixed budget of financial and political capital to invest in innovation policy, what would we advise?

What all these pieces share, despite quite different topics and philosophies, is their foregrounding of innovation. This is, in my view, an underrated vector along which to categorize thinkers. We tend to obsess over peoples’ ideological perspectives with respect to markets or business or the size of government but we don’t do the same for innovation. We ought to. One of the most underrated divisions in politics, I’d suggest, is the degree to which people prioritize innovation and technological advancement.

Update: Cowen links to a reading list on technological progress.