Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Stuff We Know How To Do But Won't

I’m more worried—or interested, or intrigued, I suppose—about the things we know how to do better but don’t than the things we’ve yet to know how to do. Whenever an economic optimist makes the case for economic optimism, we’re often treated to wondrous sermons about the latter: who knows what kind of cool inventions or innovations are just around the corner? We could finally be traveling around in jetpacks next year for all we know.

And obviously that’s all well and true. There’s a lot of stuff we don’t know how to do, but think is possible, that would be pretty excellent for everybody concerned if we were to actually figure out how to do it. Curing cancer, or inventing a cost-competitive green fuel…etc. etc.

But there’s so much stuff that people know perfectly well how to do better but for whatever reason don’t do. I was thinking about a couple of the articles I posted earlier on this very subject: namely, the cheap tractor coming to India, and Chuck Grassley sending that letter to the artificial joints maker about their faulty joints (with the accompanying point that we need to track joint replacements in order to determine the longevity and effectiveness of various brands of artificial joints.)

Neither of these things represents an unimaginable increase in the skills and potential of human beings. The tractor, after all, is a pretty familiar implement for people; introducing it to India, however, promises an increase in agricultural productivity for a country that has often had problems feeding all of its people. With artificial joints—again, it’s not as if the idea of tracking the effectiveness and longevity of various types of artificial joints is either out of left field or even undone. The Europeans do it as do the Australians. It’s just that we don’t do it, at a cost of human welfare and unnecessary dollars spent.

And there are tons of other examples of this, and it just reinforces the idea that part of our problem isn’t the stuff we don’t know how to do, but the stuff we do know how to do.

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