A top economist says Americans are not nearly as ambitious or innovative as they think

Today’s biggest successes are not about revolutionizing our everyday world.
Today’s biggest successes are not about revolutionizing our everyday world.
Image: Reuters/Joe Skipper
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Americans often point to our role as the world’s leading innovator. There are plenty of realms in which this is true, whether we look at lists of top universities, most important pharmaceuticals, or leading tech companies. And yet despite this leadership in innovation, if you compare America today to its past, the country seems to have lost its mojo.

The slowdown in progress is perhaps most evident in the area of transportation. The nineteenth century and much of the twentieth century saw travel speeds increase dramatically. Slow boats gave rise to fast clipper ships, and railroad tracks covered more and more of the world while trains became faster and more reliable, moving from steam to coal-fired engines. The trolley and streetcar, the automobile, and the airplane were all new and revolutionary. Starting in the nineteenth century, the humble bicycle, still an underrated technological innovation, boosted travel speeds for hundreds of millions.

But since the 1970s, most travel around the United States has become slower— due to traffic— rather than faster. We’ve stopped increasing travel speeds and even have given up on supersonic jet transport. The Concorde, rather than proving to be the wave of the future, has been retired.

Entrepreneur Elon Musk stands as the most visible and obvious representative of the idea of major progress in the physical world. For all of his admirable confidence and unapologetic ambition, most of his projects have yet to succeed. The hyperloop talk seems like more of a publicity stunt than anything else, as we will not be transporting people by whipping them in capsules through reduced-pressure tubes, not anytime soon at least. We can’t even get a new (slow) train tunnel built under the Hudson River to connect New Jersey and New York.

Musk’s most successful venture so far has been his satellite launches, and there he is basically providing security and a backup system for the previous, highly expensive and not totally reliable government satellite launch system. That’s great, but again we see that the big success comes from the provision of security and reliability and insurance, not from the revolutionizing of our everyday world. Musk’s electric car may yet prove it can make money, but that innovation is more protection against an impending series of problems—carbon pollution and climate change— than a vastly superior automobile experience. In the meantime, there are an increasing number of questions about whether Musk’s ventures are financially sound.

The more general picture on transportation can be described with two words: less and slower. The number of bus routes has decreased, and America has done very little to build up its train network, even when additional or faster train lines would be profitable. Although American cities have growing populations and wealth, they haven’t built many new subway systems in the last thirty-five years, with the exception of the partial system in Los Angeles. The Department of Transportation has written, “All indicators show declines in personal travel for every age group, particularly among young people since the early 2000s. It is too soon to tell whether this decline is temporary or indicative of a long-term trend.”

Of course, these measures don’t entirely reflect negative trends. To the extent that people are commuting less because they’ve moved back into cities, or using the subway less because bike sharing and bike lanes have made that form of travel more efficient and safer, that’s great. And if video chat and Skype have meant that we have to travel less for business meetings, or to keep in touch with family and friends, there’s certainly some good there too. Still, the overall picture on transportation does not suggest a dynamic economy. Slow, inefficient travel has made Americans less likely to travel, with the knock-on effect of removing political pressure to improve transportation systems. If I think of my own life, I’ve simply stopped taking most local car trips between 4 and 7 p.m., mostly because of pressures from traffic. I end up staying at home and clicking on Amazon and waiting for the packages to arrive.

Another way of thinking about progress, sometimes stressed by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel, is to ask whether the era of grand projects is mostly over. In the twentieth century, American grand projects included the Manhattan Project, which was highly successful, and cemented an era of Pax Americana. Two other grand projects were winning World War II and, starting in the 1950s, construction of the interstate highway system, both examples of thinking big and changing the world permanently on a large scale. The Apollo moon program was another grand project, and although its usefulness can be questioned, its mechanical success and above all its speed of execution cannot. At its peak it consumed over 2% of American GDP. “Defeating communism” is perhaps too abstract to qualify as a specific project, but it is another major victory backed by a coordinated effort. Another potential nominee would be “construction of a social welfare state,” although parts of this are politically controversial. In any case, a lot of these grand projects succeeded, often rather spectacularly.

If we look at the last 25 years or so, what do we have to count as grand projects? Some people might cite the environmental movement, but for all of its virtues, we are still living in a world where biodiversity is plummeting, carbon emissions are rising, and the overall human footprint on the environment, including from the United States, is increasing. So this is a possible contender for the future, but no, it hasn’t happened just yet. Reforestation and cleaner air and water are major triumphs, but those happened much earlier in the twentieth century.

The most obvious and most successful grand project today is that virtually every part of the United States is wired to the internet and cell phone system. You can go to almost any inhabited part of the country and immediately access Wikipedia or make a phone call to Africa; sometimes this even works on hiking trails or in other out-of-the-way places, ensuring we are never that far away from communicating with any and all of our friends and relations or maybe business associates. Score one for the contemporary world— though, as I argue in my book, this interconnectivity has come with a price.

The other potential grand project would have to be . . . reconstructing Iraq, making Iraq democratic, and bringing peace to the Middle East. On that project we have seen a miserable failure, and with the rise of ISIL and the collapse of Syria, the situation is becoming much worse yet. So the post-1990 era for the United States is scored at one out of two.

I don’t, by the way, count Obamacare on this list of grand projects. No matter what you think of it as policy, it provided health insurance to about 10 to 15 million of America’s previously uninsured 40 million–plus population, with the exact number for new coverage still evolving. That helps many of those individuals, but it is hardly a game-changer in terms of a broader social trajectory, especially since many of those people already were receiving partial health care coverage and, furthermore, the Obamacare exchanges are experiencing some serious problems. If anything, Obamacare has locked in the basic features of the previous U.S. health care system rather than revolutionizing them.

On the issue of grand projects, it is wrong to think there is nothing to say on behalf of the contemporary world. Still, America seems to be producing major triumphs at a slower pace than before and also to be limiting some of our earlier grand achievements. Americans have shown little interest in pursuing nuclear power, even though it could significantly reduce carbon emissions. Communism is mostly dead, but Russia seems to be exerting nasty control over parts of Eastern Europe again and has invaded parts of Ukraine. We’ve stopped sending people to the moon (or beyond), and NASA is very far from the public eye, unlike in the 1960s. If anything, the agency is struggling to justify its existence to an increasingly skeptical public and to a Congress that is looking to further cut discretionary government spending.

Even if you think that is for the better, it nonetheless represents a fundamental change in perspective. Millennials as a generation just don’t seem that interested in grand projects—unless of course you count wired interconnectivity, at which they excel.