The Other Poverty: The Poverty of Ideas

by Bob Schwartz

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The other poverty is the poverty of ideas.

Let us ask each of our leaders and politicians for just one relatively new and interesting idea to solve a pressing problem. Just one. It doesn’t have to be an idea that has won substantial support or that has achieved broad consensus. In fact it can’t be that. Instead it should be something that is just a little bit out there, the kind that might elicit a “you must be kidding” or “that will never pass” or “that will never work.”

What we mostly have is problem solving that borders on archival monomania, the single idea with ancient lineage that fits a particular purpose or ideology—but has not really demonstrated an ability to solve particular problems.

This morning Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada explained why he is one of the few Republicans supporting an extension of unemployment benefits. In the course of the interview, he said that the biggest problem was jobs. He then ticked off the number one conservative solution—tax reform—but when he got to the second idea, it came out sounding like “something else” without a single detail. That’s because leaders and politicians on both sides of the aisle are stumped, which they admittedly should be by the unique and unprecedented economic moment we are living through.

During the 2012 presidential campaign, Newt Gingrich was roundly derided for his suggestion that we mine the Moon and colonize Mars. There are plenty of reasons that Newt wasn’t and isn’t a good choice for President, but that isn’t one of them. Sure it’s a bit science fictionish, but then so is practically all of the current tech that is one of the only bright spots in the global economy. Can you imagine a U.S. Senator in the 1950s coming to the floor of the Senate brandishing a copy of that weekend’s Sunday funnies, pointing to Dick Tracy and saying “That wrist radio, gentlemen, is where we should be heading.”? China and India are racing to the Moon, and it is not for the view.

Politics and political leadership are inherently conservative, in the sense that maintaining the institution and its support seems to demand modest, slow, incremental change—if any change at all. That’s where party lines and sticking to scripts come from. An intolerance for innovation and fringe philosophy go with that. We shouldn’t be asking parties or politicians to give up core principles and precepts. But if we actually want to solve problems, and not just hear tired old nostrums that won’t do any good, then we have to make a safe place for innovation, one where thinkers who happen to be in office are not committing political suicide by offering something interesting and maybe even eccentric. Because until we ask our politicians to enrich us with new ideas and not empty platitudes and happy talk, more of us will be unhappy with increasingly empty pockets.

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