By Graham Peterson
Paul Krugman just destroyed 70 years of research on economic growth accounting and economics of development, 50-60 years of the sociology of science, and 20-30 years of business school research on the importance of recombinant innovation and risk taking for institutions in a 300 word blog post. I wish I were that smart.
Paul quotes a very nice piece from the New Yorker by Jill Lepore where she exposes some of the weaker case studies that launched the ca-raaazay fashion around innovation in business schools. Fair play – the case studies do sound bad. But Paul, without considering that there might be more to the intellectual interest in innovation than a few flimsy case studies, claims that the only reason interest took off is because talking about innovation made rich people feel good about their (otherwise undeserved?) wealth.
These are the kind of arguments that used to get me fired up when I was 22 and high as a kite, buying Adbusters Magazine from Rainbow Book Co-op in Madison, Wisconsin. They’re not very good arguments.
Paul says that Silicon Valley is not happy about Lepore’s piece, and that proves she and he are correct. “Look, this argument we’re making makes X group of people mad! It must be right because they’re just getting defensive!” Conspiracy theorists argue this way: “You see, you’re denying that the government controls your brainwaves because they’re controlling your brainwaves!”
Unfortunately for an otherwise great piece, Lepore makes essentially the same claim more elegantly in the New Yorker piece. She mixes in some critical literary theory and claims that “innovation” only got rhetorically popular in the 1990s for the same reason that political economy did in the 18th and 19th century. Because it helps rich people who benefit from modernity justify modernity. This argument has been wrong since Marx slandered his colleagues for being lap dogs to the rich (I’m not being polemical — Marx was; the name calling and mocking is littered throughout Capital and The German Ideology).
The argument is wrong because the rich have always found ways to justify being rich (usually stupid on their face, like “God said so, so there, now shut up or I’ll kill you”). And there have always been rich people. But classical political economy emerged, and its descendants in modern business schools, in order to explain the puzzle of how all of a sudden people who had not traditionally been rich started becoming fantastically richer than their ancestors.
It’s difficult to imagine how a work-a-day community college instructor in 18th century Scotland, armed with the fees from his rhetoric courses, and the last name of a tradesman, represented the pinnacle of aristocratic self-congratulation. Or how the musings of a merchant and financier, a class of occupation considered more suspicious than prostitution for most of history, did either. But that’s apparently the ethical impetus behind Adam Smith and David Ricardo’s ideas.
And that’s, according to Krugman and Lepore, the only reason someone would believe in a modern idea, innovation, that’s otherwise well supported. Because rich guys only need a few bogus case studies and a management zealot to ease their consciences on the back 9.
There are good reasons to doubt the veracity of most academic research, and the details of the case studies that Lepore mentions are some of them. Taking cheap shots at class interests and making generalizations across professions constituted by thousands of people, and hundreds of years of history, based on a bad dissertation and some inflated management consulting, are not any of them.