Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On Innovation and Capitalism

So in theory the profit motive drives innovation. Too many taxes, it is said, diminishes innovation. (Never mind that entrepreneurship - particularly among women - benefits from a strong safety net.) The government is supposedly inefficient and, having no incentive, incapable of innovation; this is a common justification for the drive to privatization.

Because of private enterprise and the profit motive, society benefits from such innovations as deep-fried cola and the donut burger. And 20 bazillion varieties of toothpaste. Such innovation brings us choice, more of which is always good, right? Right?

Never mind that it might be causing decision fatigue:
No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move — like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime. So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.
The ability to make meaningful choices, to exercise agency and control over one's work and life, does correlate with an increase in wellbeing. As do civil liberties and the ability to participate in the political process. Of course, if we are all too exhausted from deciding which of 100 television channels to watch, perhaps we are not able to be fully engaged with personal and civic choices.

Some of the best innovations have come from motives other than profit -- those inventions with necessity as their mother. Education, the arts, social innovation, nonprofits, open source are incredible producers of innovation (what if trendsetters went on strike?). Social innovation has given us libraries, microcredit, socialized health care, new ways of managing archival information. The profit motive gives us deep-fried butter-on-a-stick.