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Juvenophilia …

I don’t usually read The Economist, mainly because I once had to go through ten years’ worth in a single sitting and that does funny things to your head. But I pick up a copy if I have a long or dull journey; although their economic analysis is usually at the level of a baby with a hammer discussing how the world is made of nails, the factual information is always on point, and I can always find a use for a new way to sneer at Europeans for living in Europe. So I bought it last week.

Irritatingly, I can’t link to the article because the Economist keeps it on some weird Bizarro network which appears at first glance to be like the Internet, but which isn’t free. But basically, it was about differences between the demographics of the USA and Europe. Now this is a pretty interesting and serious topic, which I will probably write more about in future, but the Economist’s take on it was pretty bizarre. Basically, in their lead editorial, they kept going on about what they seemed to regard as the main problem for Europe; that an “aging population” will leave Europe “short of entrepreneurs”. The idea being that only young people have ideas, and only young people can do anything new.

A quick glance at the NASDAQ might suggest that right now, the world needs more entrepreneurs about as much as Al Gore needs more anthrax. In fact, one could probably make a case that the USA is actively endangered by the toxic levels of entrepreneurial spirit and that it will be all it can do in the 21st century to keep up with the task of clearing up the messes its hyperactive young businessmen create. In other words, it’s true that young people have a lot of ideas, but that’s mainly because young people have a lot of stupid ideas.

Well, that would be an entertaining idea if I could spare the time and bitterness to set it out at length, but what interested me was how completely the Economist seems to have swallowed the idea that technology only progresses by the efforts of individual entrepreneurs. That’s about as far as one can get from the old Schumpeterian theory of innovation. In actual fact, it’s a matter of horses for courses. Some kinds of inventions are best suited to gifted entrepreneurial inventors, and some come about as the result of organised and structured research programs. And there’s no particular way of knowing right now which kind of technical progress will dominate the next fifty years. (If I had to guess, I’d say that most of the smart money is on biotechnology, and biotechnology is the example sine qua non of an industry in which the main method of innovation is exhaustive programmatic search.)

After all, Japan is your classic example of the “aging population”, and it’s pretty hard to make a case that they haven’t made any technological innovations …

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