Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Ideas and Innovation

A recent documentary I saw about the life of Charles Lindbergh revealed that his transatlantic flight to Paris was the result of a reward offered by a private financier. The stunning trip was not the result of a government-sponsored contest, or the command of a governmental institution that mandated someone cross the Atlantic Ocean regardless of cost. Rather, with the conditions right -a reward, fame, and setting a record- Lindbergh took on the task by utilizing both his skill as a pilot and carefully managing the weight load of the "Spirit of St. Louis", his rugged personal aircraft.

Lindbergh was not the first pilot to attempt the dangerous crossing. Others had attempted and failed -sometimes at the expense of their lives. Yet, the conditions that made men try their souls to cross the Atlantic were adequate commensurate to the risk.

Today in the United States, critics contend that there is no more innovation, and that there are no more success stories to be written -except unless coerced. This occurs, especially, in the area of alternative and green energy.

The argument goes something like this: The United States is at least ten years behind in the green movement because it has failed to invent, innovate, and embrace anything green. Because of this, the United States is seen as backwards, antiquated, and wasteful. Critics point to the United States government as the culprit for failing to push the people in the right direction, that of green sustainability. If only, they lament, the U.S. government would pass legislation restricting the use of traditional and fossil energy, and thereby force companies to innovate, invent, and embrace, then the United States would surely be the spearhead of a green energy revolution, c.f., "necessity is the mother of all invention".

Where, one wonders, were the laws that forced Lindbergh over the Atlantic? Where, one wonders, were the laws that forced Thomas Edison to develop his incandescent light bulb? Where, one wonders, were the laws that compelled Studebaker to catch up with Ford's automobiles? Where, one wonders, were the laws that compelled the creation of the vacuum, the jet plane, the internal combustion engine, the computer, the refrigerator, the smart phone?

It isn't that the United States opposes green and alternative energy. It's that the United States is intelligent about it: what use is a car to most Americans that runs on battery for twenty-something miles on average? How can the average American citizen truly tap into wind power when a billionaire cannot even successfully invest in a windmill farm? How can Americans rely on ethanol-diluted gasoline when such gasoline is more inefficient and a greater pollutant than its purer former composition? Such green technology and alternative energy is, simply put, not cost-effective. And sometimes, it simply comes down to the fact that something costs too much money to be feasible at all.

Yet, when products of any variety demonstrate themselves to be not just efficient and cost-effective, but more efficient, versatile, and cheap, Americans rally to their use. Gasoline, rather than coal-powered cars, rule the day. Provide Americans with a cheaper, more reliable, cleaner-burning, more cost-effective alternative to gasoline, and Americans will jump to it. Americans have always prided themselves on being on the cutting-edge, in terms of both innovation and consumption.

Yet this innovation and consumption are by no means the product of government regulation, intervention, or mandate. America has, technologically, medically, scientifically, and culturally, always been at the fore of invention. Americans lead, and do not follow. Across this country are financiers, businessmen, inventors, innovators, cultural aesthetes, scientists, and garage and basement-based creators with the ideas and resources to shape tomorrow. All they are awaiting are the freedom and opportunity to move forward. Yet, to do that, they must take those steps on their own, and not because the government said so.

Lindbergh risked his life in pursuit of a dream, a record, and a reward. Americans today risk much less -provided they are willing to take a risk at all. Perhaps that risk can be taken for a reward, be it notoriety or monetary. Or perhaps Americans will take those risks simply for the sake of pursuing dreams. And America is not yet finished dreaming.