There is much talk in Washington now about the need to supercharge innovation to break out of our economic rut, but not much of a sense of exactly what that means. Each party just assumes that its old, tried-and-true policies will help spur innovation — and both are right in part and wrong in part. By looking back at how Americans have managed, time and again, to remake our economy into an engine of innovation and prosperity, we can better understand the nature of the challenge we now face and the kinds of responses most likely to work.
The hunt for policies that might help mitigate economic or social problems often involves finding small, local examples of success and scaling them up. But such efforts at replication have a very poor track record. What succeeds in one place often fails in others, and what works on a small scale often doesn't on a large one. Rather than look for programs to replicate, policymakers should seek to adapt general strategies to particular circumstances through continuous trial-and-error experimentation at the local level.
The federal government provides enormous tax benefits for home ownership, to the tune of more than $175 billion a year, purportedly to encourage people to buy their own homes. Even if it were clear that the advantages of ownership merited such encouragement (and it is not at all clear that they do), these tax benefits are poorly targeted to influence people who are on the fence between owning and renting. The benefits accrue mostly to the wealthy, and drive them to purchase ever-larger homes. There are better ways to encourage ownership, and better ways to shape tax policy.
America has been undergoing profound changes in family composition over the last four decades, as out-of-wedlock births have dramatically increased, carrying with them dire social and economic consequences. It is easy to stand back and say that government can't make families, and it is also surely true. Government efforts to reverse the breakdown of the family have met with very little success, but they may be able to teach us something about the ways in which public policy — working together with the institutions of American civil society — can help create circumstances that better enable families to form.
Student-loan debt has been ballooning in recent years, and misguided federal policy is largely to blame. Any reform proposal, however, will have to take careful account of the strengths and weaknesses of our higher-education system, including the enormous variety of institutions of higher learning. Most important, future policies will need to ensure that students, especially those of modest means, can keep their options open without facing inflated tuition costs and crushing debt.
Recent years have seen both unprecedented leaks of sensitive national-security secrets to the press and unprecedented administration crackdowns on leakers and reporters in response. This has led some in journalism and in politics to call for a reporter shield law, which would prevent journalists from being legally compelled to reveal the identities of their confidential sources. Champions of such a law argue it is essential to protect the freedom of the press and keep our government in check. But the idea is also fraught with profound problems that reporters and their advocates too often ignore.
Over the past four decades, conservatives, libertarians, and even some progressives have developed a variety of "originalist" theories of constitutional interpretation, each resting on different foundations. Libertarians value protection of natural rights. Progressives emphasize responsiveness to the popular will. Conservatives guard the prerogatives of representative institutions that channel the people's consent. The founders themselves, however, defended the legitimacy of the Constitution on grounds that included elements of each of these approaches but transcended all of them. To get to the real meaning of originalism, we could stand to take a lesson from the founders.
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address surely stands with the Apology of Socrates and the Funeral Oration of Pericles among the great speeches offered at crucial civic moments in human history. Yet familiar and justly famous as it is — and indeed maybe precisely because we know it so well — it can be hard to appreciate the scope of its achievement. To truly understand how a statement so brief could run so deep and last so long, we must carefully consider its substance and structure, and its place in Lincoln's thought.