Richard Florida asks, “How do we move beyond the bailout economy to one that is creative, productive, and prosperous?” Let’s start from the end of my recent post about Keynes, an afterthought at the time:

… my feeling right now is that the best solution would be a kind of “green bubble” that uses government funds to challenge researchers and entrepreneurs, and ultimatly generate new enthusiasm for private investment, rather than just conceiving old-fashioned infrastructure programs in terms of old-economy notions like handing out projects to companies and hiring masses of labourers. I have a feeling this is where Obama is going — he’s pretty well implied as much with his energy-independence moonshot, and his appointment of Steven Chu as energy secretary seems to confirm this direction – and I’ve already quoted GE’s Jeffrey Immelt advocating the same thing:

“I think what would be important for the next president is to let us have the confidence of solving one problem together — and let’s pick energy…”

Now I’m starting to appreciate how such an energy innovation initiative ought to coexist with a complementary health innovation innitiative. It struck me last night when I read these remarks by Obama, via Steve Coll:

The time has come—this year, in this new Administration—to modernize our healthcare system…to finally provide affordable, accessible health care for every American…Some may ask how, at this moment of economic challenge, we can afford to invest in reforming our healthcare system. Well, I ask a different question—I ask how we can afford not to…If we want to overcome our economic challenges, we must also finally address our healthcare challenge.

To which Coll added:

Every President lays markers down, during the transition, about where he intends to spend his mandate. Obviously the economic crisis has already required Obama’s continuous attention—but that was thrust upon him. No President can set foreign policy aside, but in that area his signaling has mainly been that he will manage a smooth wartime transition; there has been little emphasis yet on transformational rhetoric or policies. His discretionary political capital, instead, is now steadily being piled up on two areas of the table—healthcare reform, and energy/clean/green/climate-change policy.

Of course I really don’t know if Obama is thinking exactly along the same lines as I am. I hope he is. I’m a little worried “healthcare reform” will turn out to be a conventional political initiative: lot’s of commissions and such in a drawn-out planning process aimed at producing goddamned documents and reports to present to the press instead of actual results. Often these things turn out to be grand plans, which take years to put together, that are obsolete before they’re ready to be implemented (which in turn takes years, and by the time they’re up and running, the new plans have already started generating the next set of problems). See my discussion about Designers’ Ego and its dangers (which I wrote specifically to help me make this case here).

Despite those worries I am genuinely hopeful, and my optimism more than makes up for my anxiety. I’m beginning to believe the best course of action is to facilitate the emergence of a Silicon Valley-style culture of innovation and development, and I’m getting a sense that Barack Obama believes something like the same thing.

My rough case is this. For the past few years we’ve been passionate about gadgets and fashion: we want toys and a distinctive personal image, and consumers have paid incredible sums of money to create a robust and prolific supply system to meet those demands. Now if some of that passion could be turned to science — energy and healthcare being the most immediate and relevant fields — then more money and human resources will gravitate towards addressing the greater demand for scientific discovery and innovation.

The key is not to expect the demand for science to be the same as consumer demand. Trying to turn energy and healthcare into consumer-driven industries does not seem like a sensible idea. For lack of a better word, what I’m talking about is “intellectual demand.” As far as I know it’s a new concept, so don’t expect to be familiar with it right away. The principle I have in mind is that if we spent as much time wishing, thinking, and talking in public about medical research and green technology as we spend talking about jeans, cars, and iPhone apps, that scientific sentiment would seep into our cultural values and affect people’s beliefs about what jobs are cool and what kind of investments are sexy.

And where will the money come from? Well at this point it’s clear that governments worldwide are looking for where and how to pump huge sums into the economy — that’s enough to kick this thing off at least. What do we do when governments can’t keep spending all that money? The question will be less frightening this way than if the US government gives it all to GM and Citigroup and other organizations on the decline. At least this way we’re being constructive rather than defensive; this way we’d be setting ourselves up for growth and sustainability for the future.

The great thing I’ve seen so far is that even if Obama isn’t thinking exactly on these lines, there are enough people like me who get that impression that he’s indirectly inspiring a creative movement. For example, check out some of the discussions about a federal Chief Technology Officer and arguments for a Chief Innovation Officer (and I know I’ve seen discussion about science policy but I failed to keep track of it; at any rate, here’s the Obama campaign’s science policy outline).

I’m especially encouraged now because I’ve wrestled with the problem of public vs. private healthcare for years but haven’t managed to find any key insights. Now with all the talk of stimulus and transition I’m starting to get some traction.

The insight that occured to me last night — so obvious now — is that when we talk about “health care problems” we’re really talking about high costs. Everything else can be reduced to that core problem. The the best ways to get costs down are innovation, competition, and economies of scale (efficiency goes along with that). Look at what happened to the cost and quality of cell phones, laptops, and flatscreen TVs in the past decade: everybody is exuberant about this stuff so companies can’t make newer and better ones fast enough, and the more people buy, the cheaper they can be made.

I know I’m at risk of sounding like an orthodox Reagonomist — not the most popular position these days — but I think the subtle differences here are very important… Unfortunately I don’t know exactly what those differences are. Bear with me.

I’m pretty sure the policies I favour don’t derive from typical right wing ideas because my formative influences in these matter were William James and John Dewey — notably progressive, liberal thinkers. They were eminent (indeed founding) pragmatists who believed in social justice but also understood that getting things right is hard, hard, endless work, for which there are no easy answers, no absolutes, and little room for heavy-handed plans and designs. 

And hey, what a coincidence that today I found this article in The Nation on Obama The Pragmatist (via Crooked Timber):

Dewey developed the work of earlier pragmatists in a particularly fruitful and apposite manner. For him, the crux of pragmatism, and indeed democracy, was a rejection of the knowability of foreordained truths in favor of “variability, initiative, innovation, departure from routine, experimentation.”

Dewey’s pragmatism was reformist, not radical. He sought to ameliorate the excesses of early industrial capitalism, not to topple it. Nonetheless, pragmatism requires an openness to the possibility of radical solutions. It demands a skepticism not just toward the certainties of ideologues and dogmatism but also of elite consensus and the status quo. This is a definition of pragmatism that is in almost every way the opposite of its invocation among those in the establishment. For them, pragmatism means accepting the institutional forces that severely limit innovation and boldness; it means listening to the counsel of the Wise Men; it means not rocking the boat.

But Dewey understood that progress demands that the boat be rocked. And his contemporary Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood it as well. “The country needs,” Roosevelt said in May 1932, “and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands, bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach.”

That is pragmatism we can believe in. Our times demand no less.

The key to pragmatism is that it is about the process – the experience of creativity and discovery, rather than merely what has been made and discovered. While it’s immensely encouraing to have leaders who understand this, what I’m really hoping is a trickle-down effect, whereby millions of people are inspired to follow that example to learn to love the process of creativity and discovery.

Now for the science boom. Let’s get excited about science. Let’s see serious research covered by every major newspaper in North America — every day. Let’s hear people in coffee shops and bars talking about the latest papers they contributed to or read. Let’s hear the most ambitious students talk about trying to land coveted jobs at top research firms — rather than business consulting and investment banking.

It’ll take years to make this happen, but it takes years to start construction on a new highway too. It’ll take me a few more days to pull this line of thought together, but we can afford that too. Let’s go slow enough to really think and talk the stimulus through — what better way to start learning to love learning. “Solutions” can wait because once the mainstream becomes exuberant about science, better solutions will naturally emerge.