How cities can cultivate genius

I just got the new Wired magazine in the mail (March 2012), and it has an interesting article called “Cultivating Genius” by Jonah Lehrer. (Sorry, no online link yet.) The article starts by essentially making the same point that Edward Glaeser makes in Triumph of the City about how innovators and creators tend to congregate, especially in cities, which allow for the quick spread of ideas.

But not all places attract and cultivate geniuses. Lehrer points to three “meta-ideas” places adopt that seem to encourage genius:

  1. Human mixing, i.e., diversity. I see three areas where this point is important. First, the debate about immigration, because, as Lehrer points out, “in the overall population, a 1 percent increase in the number of immigrants with college degrees leads to a 9 to 18 percent rise in patent production.” Second, to me, it is also important to affirmative-action policies, which the Supreme Court recently agreed to revisit, because colleges and universities are where many of our new ideas are generated. Third, it may have implications for general diversity in the US. For more on that, see this 2000 diversity-index map from the Census Bureau (the trends haven’t shifted too much in the past decade, according to this USAToday map):diversity in the US
  2. Education. Lehrer believes that effectively educating the lower and middle class will waste less genius. I agree. For an interesting visual on education in the US, see this graphic from Good Magazine comparing education levels to salary:
  3. Risk taking. Lehrer suggests that we do a better job developing institutions that encourage risk taking. He makes the point that we develop great athletes because we have institutions that take risks to develop them, with the result that even small towns often produce at least one or two great athletes once in awhile. We should do the same with other types of genius, he says.

It is this third point that I think deserves the most attention from cities. As I’ve previously said, cities may be the best place for government innovation and risk-taking, for four reasons:

  1. Cities tend to be more pragmatic and less ideological than other levels of government.
  2. Density of human potential that hastens the spread of ideas.
  3. Less bureaucracy (smaller government) lets cities respond more quickly.
  4. There is less aftermath if a new innovation fails in one city than in a whole state or country.

Lehrer’s article is thought provoking (and short), so I encourage you to check it out (I’d add a link when it’s up).

US interstates as a subway map


A visit to Flint: signs of recovery

The Whiting

Whiting Auditorium at Flint’s Cultural Center

This past weekend, I visited my hometown of Flint, Michigan, which has notoriously faced tough times in the past few years. I was surprised at how hopeful the mood is there. Continue reading

Is this the answer to modernizing Illinois’s power grid?

Should Congress authorize incentive auction for underused spectrum?

I have previously written about my support for Congress authorizing the FCC to hold incentive auctions for underused spectrum and giving the FCC broad discretion in doing so.

Today, the New York Times reports that a bill to authorize the auction may be approved this weekend. The Obama administration has said that the auctions could raise $25 million that would go toward wireless infrastructure spending.

I have two concerns.

First, under the current bill, only $7 million is going toward infrastructure spending, compared to $15 million toward extending the payroll tax holiday and jobless benefits. As the title of the NYT article suggests, this now-bipartisan effort to authorize auctions comes about really as an effort to provide these latter benefits. I’m all for extending the benefits, but it’s a bummer that a different revenue source couldn’t be tapped for that purpose, with all of the incentive auction proceeds going toward related spending.

Second, though I haven’t read the bill, it looks like it deprives the FCC of the discretion it needs to run successful auctions. As I wrote before, we don’t want too many rules placed on FCC discretion, or else incentive auctions might, like No Child Left Behind, become a maze of ossified, unworkable regulations. Rather, the FCC needs the flexibility to respond to market concerns and changes in technology, and to use recovered spectrum in a way that serves the public interest. As the article reports, FCC Chairman, Julius Genachowski, though pleased that Congress may authorize auctions, is concerned that some of the bill’s language “could limit the F.C.C.’s ability to maximize the amount and benefits of recovered spectrum.” He is speaking of a provision that prohibits the FCC from barring large spectrum-holding companies, such as AT&T and Verizon, from particular auctions, though the FCC can put limits on how much total spectrum a company has. Many lawmakers don’t trust the FCC with the power to exclude these companies, but I think that distrust is overblown and stands in the way of the FCC being able to serve the American people. Why tie the FCC’s hands? Do we think they are that much more beholden to lobbyists than Congress? It seems AT&T has done a good job of getting the language it wants into the bill. I think the FCC is the better government entity to handle decisions about who gets excluded.

What’s your opinion?