The Ingenuity
Gap
Annotated
Reading List

Ingenuity Optimists

I've long been intrigued, annoyed, and -- ultimately -- influenced by the ideas of the late Julian Simon, who taught in the College of Business and Management of the University of Maryland. Simon fancied himself a population economist; he was almost fanatically optimistic in his belief that human beings could deliver copious ingenuity in response to any and all challenges. I once playfully called an early draft paper about the ingenuity gap "the ultimate response," since I saw it as a direct reply to Simon's book The Ultimate Resource. For those unfamiliar with his work, I would therefore strongly recommend The Ultimate Resource II: People, Materials, and Environment. In a similar vein are the ideas and arguments of Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University. I have huge respect for Jesse's work, although we disagree about many things. Three good examples of his thinking are, "Resources and Environment in the 21st Century: Seeing Past the Phantoms," World Energy Council Journal; "The Liberation of the Environment," Daedalus; and "Does Climate Still Matter?" Nature. A fascinating study of the progress of human ingenuity in one particular domain, that of light-producing technology, is William Nordhaus, "Do Real-Output and Real-Wage Measures Capture Reality? The History of Lighting Suggests Not," in The Economics of New Goods.

Complexity and Chaos

Complexity and chaos are extremely difficult ideas, if one wants to understand them properly, but an excellent starting point is the still classic article by James Crutchfield, J. Doyne Farmer, and Norman Packard titled "Chaos" in the December, 1986 issue of Scientific American. The most accessible and thorough treatment of chaos theory I've found is Garnett Williams, Chaos Theory Tamed. If you're looking for a comprehensive technical treatment of complexity theory, I would recommend Yaneer Bar-Yam, Dynamics of Complex Systems. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, and some knowledge of mathematics is helpful, but Bar-Yam is quite daring in his treatment of the social and philosophical implications of complexity at the end of his book. Overall, I found it immensely helpful.

On the sources of complexity in biological, technological, and social systems, I know of no better analysis than W. Brian Arthur's article "On the Evolution of Complexity" in Complexity: Metaphors, Models, and Reality. This is truly a ground-breaking piece that has, Arthur tells me, received remarkably little attention since it was published. My account of his argument in chapter 4 of The Ingenuity Gap cannot possibly do it justice. Highly recommended!

Complex Adaptive Systems

Closely related to the study of complexity is the fascinating new field of complex adaptive systems, which I discuss briefly in chapter 11 of The Ingenuity Gap. Stuart Kauffman provides a good introduction to recent thinking in this area in At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity; he develops a more technical argument about self-organization in biological systems in The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. Much of this work is centered on the concept of a "fitness landscape," an idea first introduced by Sewall Wright in 1932 in an amazingly prescient article titled "The Roles of Mutation, Inbreeding, Crossbreeding and Selection in Evolution," Proceedings of the Sixth Internatihonal Congress on Genetics.

Rising Complexity

Countless writings discuss the technological and social implications of rising complexity in our world, but I found four particularly stimulating. The seminal discussion of the perils of complex technological systems is Charles Perrow's book Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies; it has been recently update and reissued. Gene Rochlin looks at some of the unexpected consequences of the communication and information revolution in Trapped in the Net: The Unanticipated Consequences of Computerization. On the social side, Langdon Winner's wonderful article, "Complexity and the Limits of Human Understanding," is extraordinarily rich with insights on the social and cognitive challenges posed by rising complexity. It can be found in a book that's worth reading in its entirety: Organized Social Complexity: Challenge to Politics and Policy. Finally, for a far more apocalyptic but tremendously provocative study of the risks of increased social complexity, see Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Societies.

Ecological Systems and Environmental Change

Where does one start if one wants to learn about the ecological and environmental changes humankind is producing on Earth? There is a staggering amount of information available, but much of it, unfortunately, is of dubious quality. As a standard reference, one that I use regularly, I recommend the biennial publication World Resources published by the World Resources Institute in Washington, D.C. Every two years, this publication provides an in-depth treatment of selected issues relating to global environmental change, as well as detailed data tables on everything from population growth to deforestation and energy consumption for every country on the planet. It is a high-quality publication that can quickly become indispensable.

An astonishingly thorough and comprehensive study of the effects of human activities on Earth in recent centuries is B. L. Turner II et al. eds., The Earth as Transformed by Human Action. Of course, not only do we need to know something about what we're doing to the planet, we also need to know how these activities affect the complex ecologies around us. Readers of The Ingenuity Gap will remember that I have been particularly influenced by the work of the renowned ecologist C.S. "Buzz" Holling. See especially his article, "New Science and New Investments for a Sustainable Biosphere," chapter 4 in Investing in Natural Capital: The Ecological Economics Approach to Sustainability. Also see C. S. Holling, "An Ecologist View of the Malthusian Conflict," in Population, Economic Development, and the Environment. My first real exposure to the implications of nonlinearities in complex environmental systems came through Wally Broecker's famous 1987 article on ocean current systems: "Unpleasant Surprises in the Greenhouse?" Nature. This article is a blockbuster; it should be required reading for every senior policymaker in the world.

Evolution of the Human Brain

On the evolution of the human brain and our cognitive and creative abilities, I have found the work of both Rick Potts and Steven Mithen to be fascinating and compelling. I've corresponded with them both, and I know they are a bit dubious about the way I integrate their respective ideas. I'll leave it to readers of The Ingenuity Gap to judge whether the integration succeeds. Regardless, I would heartily recommend their books: Rick Potts, Humanity's Descent: The Consequences of Ecological Instability; and Steven Mithen, The Prehistory of the Mind: A Search for the Origins of Art, Religion, and Science.

New Growth (Endogenous Growth) Theory

I began the intellectual quest described in The Ingenuity Gap with an extended visit to the world of New Growth (or Endogenous Growth) theory in economics (as described in chapter 9). The key person here, of course, is Paul Romer. He has written a large number of path-breaking articles, most of which, unfortunately, are difficult going for the non-economist. Those that particularly influenced my thinking are: "Endogenous Technological Change," in the Journal of Political Economy; "Idea Gaps and Object Gaps in Economic Development,"in the Journal of Monetary Economics; and "Two Strategies for Economic Development: Using Ideas and Producing Ideas," in the Proceedings of the World Bank Annual Conference on Development Economics, 1992. If you want an account of the evolution of thinking about endogenous growth see Paul Romer, "The Origins of Endogenous Growth," in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Philippe Aghion and Peter Howitt provide a comprehensive technical treatment of this whole perspective in Endogenous Growth Theory.

New Growth (Endogenous Growth) Theory

I began the intellectual quest described in The Ingenuity Gap with an extended visit to the world of New Growth (or Endogenous Growth) theory in economics (as described in chapter 9). The key person here, of course, is Paul Romer. He has written a large number of path-breaking articles, most of which, unfortunately, are difficult going for the non-economist. Those that particularly influenced my thinking are: "Endogenous Technological Change," in the Journal of Political Economy; "Idea Gaps and Object Gaps in Economic Development,"in the Journal of Monetary Economics; and "Two Strategies for Economic Development: Using Ideas and Producing Ideas," in the Proceedings of the World Bank Annual Conference on Development Economics, 1992. If you want an account of the evolution of thinking about endogenous growth see Paul Romer, "The Origins of Endogenous Growth," in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Philippe Aghion and Peter Howitt provide a comprehensive technical treatment of this whole perspective in Endogenous Growth Theory.

Market-Induced Technological Innovation

My ingenuity argument is, in many ways, a reply to simplistic neo-classical models of market-induced technological innovation. An especially important neoclassical treatise on the sources of innovation is Jacob Schmookler's 1966 book Invention and Economic Growth. Much early neo-classical thinking focused on market responses to natural resource scarcity. The work of the induced-innovation theorists was key, beginning in 1932 with J.R. Hicks, The Theory of Wages and culminating in 1985 in Yujiro Hayami and Vernon Ruttan, Agricultural Development: An International Perspective. While Hayami and Ruttan deal mainly with agricultural systems, a more general neo-classical analysis of scarcity is Harold Barnett and Chandler Morse, Scarcity and Growth: The Economics of Natural Resource Availability, published in 1963. Although dated, the Barnett and Morse book remains important; for a more contemporary treatment, see V. Kerry Smith, ed., Scarcity and Growth Reconsidered.

One of the problems with neoclassical theories of innovation is that they tend to ignore the social, institutional, and political context within which markets operate -- a context that largely determines whether markets work well. Mancur Olson argues decisively that institutions and governance matter in "Big Bills Left on the Sidewalk: Why Some Nations are Rich, and Others Poor," in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Non-economists reading this article might say "so what, we've known that institutions matter all along"; but until recently mainstream economists were surprisingly resistant to this idea. For a fun and down-to-earth account of how technological innovation often works in practice -- an account that is, once again, sensitive to the myriad non-market factors that affect innovation -- see Henry Petroski, Invention by Design: How Engineers Get from Thought to Thing.

Rational-Choice Theory

Economics is the queen of the social sciences. In chapter 11 of The Ingenuity Gap, I discuss some reasons why the social sciences, especially political science, seem so unsuccessful at generating truly useful knowledge. One problem may be the basic metaphor or "model" of human beings that guides social science research. At the core of much contemporary theory in political science and economics is rational-choice theory, a set of axioms and hypotheses about human behavior that presumes we are, essentially, utility-maximizing calculating machines. A powerful recent attack on this theory is Donald Green and Ian Shapiro, Pathologies of Rational Choice Theory: A Critique of Applications in Political Science. As I discuss in the book, the political scientist Elinor Ostrom tries to redeem a version of rational-choice theory in her impressive 1997 Presidential Address to the American Political Science Association titled "A Behavioral Approach to the Rational Choice Theory of Collective Action," published in American Political Science Review.

Constraints on Science

The social sciences may be generally a mess, but we shouldn't assume that the natural sciences like physics, chemistry, and biology are, in contrast, entirely free of constraints that restrict their progress. John Barrow's book, Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits, is a fascinating treatment of factors -- from chaos to intractability -- that can keep science from doing everything that we want it to do. And if you want a startling reminder of how past predictions of scientific and technological progress, even by the foremost experts of the time, can be largely wrong, read the mid-1960s forecasts of Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener in "The Next Thirty-Three Years: A Framework for Speculation," which appears in Daniel Bell and Stephen Graubard, eds., Toward the Year 2000: Work in Progress.

Limits to Social Ingenuity

Finally, ingenuity supply, especially the supply of social ingenuity, is often derailed by powerful elites and subgroups whose interests would be hurt by institutional reform. New communication and information technologies can make these groups more powerful relative to government. Building on the pioneering work of the economist Mancur Olson in his book The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities, Jonathan Rauch and Robert Wright dissect this phenomenon in American society. See Jonathan Rauch, Demosclerosis: The Silent Killer of American Government; and Robert Wright 1995 article, "Hyperdemocracy," in Time. Jessica Tuchman Mathews makes a similar point about societies around the world, and about international society too, in "Power Shift," in the January/February, 1997 issue of Foreign Affairs. The ultimate power shift will occur when subgroups get access to weapons of mass destruction. It seems a far-fetched possibility, until one reads Richard Falkenrath, Robert Newman, and Bradley Thayer, America's Achilles' Heel: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Terrorism and Covert Attack.


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