This is a post that I promised to write several months ago; I hope that in spite of its tardiness, you will find that it contributes much to the issues of the day.
You may recall that Tyler Cowen included hidden meanings in his short ebook, The Great Stagnation. It turns out that he is not alone. Tyler’s Marginal Revolution co-blogger, Alex Tabarrok, also has an esoteric style. Whereas Cowen points us to the future by looking at the recent past, in Launching the Innovation Renaissance, Tabarrok points us to the more distant past by ostensibly talking about innovation in the future. Underneath all the sensible-sounding evidence-based arguments for reform is a hidden, retrograde manifesto that establishes Alex as one of today’s leading reactionary thinkers.
In case you think I am making this up, let me start by noting that the book literally begins over 700 years ago, in 1296. “From father to son, to son again, the architects, stonemasons and artists of Florence labored with love and devotion to produce the greatest cathedral the world had ever known” (26). Since that time, things have gone mostly downhill, as the institutions that made medieval Florence great have foundered. The questions that Tabarrok wants you to ask yourself are these: “When I go to work, do I labor with love and devotion? Am I producing something of transcendent value, like a cathedral, or am I just doing a mundane job? How can we go back to a simpler time of less turbulent change and greater personal meaning?”
Of course, Tabarrok cannot dwell on the medieval period throughout the book without giving away his occult hypothesis to even his slower readers. Consequently, he discusses several different eras of the past and how they are superior to the present. For instance, lamenting the modern patent system, he writes, “As early as 2,500 years ago the Chinese were breeding new roses, and Confucius tells us that the emperor had hundreds of books about roses and rose breeding in his library. The world did not appear to lack new roses even though, until 1930, no roses were ever patented” (83). This is a telling metaphor. The “old roses,” the old books, the old ways—they are just as good as, if not better than, the new roses.
Not only was the past a simpler and more satisfying time, the excesses of the modern world are deeply disturbing. One can almost feel Tabarrok recoil in horror as he relays the story of the OncoMouse, a genetically engineered monster. To the modern mind, this is a great advance; but a careful reader can discern Tabarrok’s deep reservations about this kind of coarsening of the value of life. He notes that mice “share 95 percent of their genes with humans” (205). It is bad enough that people might conduct experiments on creatures that are 95 percent human; must we also play God with these close cousins of ours by modifying their genes? And must we, of all things, patent them?!
Tabarrok is perhaps at his most persuasive when he points out that the deterioration in American education is caused by ill-advised “advances” in the rights of women:
One of the reasons for the poor performance of U.S. education is that teacher quality has declined significantly over the past four to five decades.
In the 1970s smart women became teachers. In fact, in 1970 about half of all college-educated women were teachers…Many smart women have exited teaching and entered the professions because of declining discrimination in the professions… (454)
It seems obvious—is it even worth pointing out?—that the simplest way to improve teacher quality is to bar women from entering professions like law, medicine, and business. This bit of subtext, needless to say, is completely lost on Alex’s less attentive readers.
Another problem with the modern world, according to the esoteric Tabarrok, is that people no longer have respect for the station in life in which Nature has put them. In a word, people are uppity. This causes countless problems, not least of which is higher education. “College has been oversold, and in the process the amount of education actually going on in college has declined as colleges have dumbed down classes and inflated grades to accommodate students who would be better off in apprentice and on-the-job training programs” (525). If only we could return, says Tabarrok, to a time when people knew their place.
Launching the Innovation Renaissance represents Alex Tabarrok standing athwart history, yelling “Back up 700 years!” You may think that these ideas are unlikely to gain much traction. Nevertheless, I think they have great relevance in today’s political debate. In fact, although Alex has not yet publicly endorsed a presidential candidate, I bet I can predict who he will be supporting.