02 September 2009

Incentives, economy, and science

During an interview on the radio show This Week In Science, astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson said something to the effect of:

Before it’s anything else, America is a capitalist country.

His point was that American interest in science, science education, and so on, would be driven by its effect on people’s wallets. But it got me thinking about Dan Pink’s recent TED talk on how financial incentives work only for a very limited set of tasks: very rote, defined, mechanical tasks. And I thought, “Is it any accident that this most capitalist of countries did so well throughout the first half of the 20th century, when so much of the economy was based on rote, defined, mechanical tasks, like manufacturing?”

This is turn got me thinking about Richard Florida’s arguments that the “creative class” is becoming the significant driver of the economy. This fits with Pink’s thesis that we are increasingly being asked to solve “candle problems” in work. And science is about those hard, not easily defined, creative problems most of the time.

If you put those three things together, that America is the pre-eminent capitalist society of the world could, paradoxically, hurt its ability to retain its economic competitiveness.

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