The Innovation Killer: “I’ve got mine!”

These are certainly uncertain times…economically, politically, and for many very personally. The economic crisis that hit some three years ago (and was of course far longer in the making) is still very much with us. The deliberations of the U.S. Congress have taken on the tone of a bitter divorce—with about the same level of altruism. Europeans are rioting and looting. Global stock markets are in broad retreat. If there was ever a time when we need dramatic innovation, this is surely such a time. And yet, there may be no better example of how not to innovate than the current state of American politics.

I’m not talking about iPads or new drug therapies or clean energy. That kind of innovation could help, but what we need to innovate most urgently is the way we address our problems and make the tough choices we face. So far, I’d score us quite low on that measure of innovation and one reason is that so many of us—and especially our leaders—seem to be focused on what we’re not willing to do, instead of what we are.

The unspoken assertion that screams from the headlines is one of the most universal obstacles to innovation: I’ve got mine.

For some, it’s the public payments received for welfare or retirement or healthcare. For others, it’s historically high incomes on which they’re unwilling to pay so much as another nickel in taxes. Or, it’s subsidized air travel to small communities, or generous pubic pensions,  or lifelong health care for veterans, or…or…or… It’s a long list, and I’m not commenting on the merits of any of it, only noting how jealously every item on it is being protected by someone. Like a couple feuding over family finances, we argue about whether the problem is too much spending or too little income. While any dispassionate observer can see that it’s both.

An 8-year-old without a calculator can figure out that the numbers don’t add up, that something—or actually many things—have to change. And the size of the bite anyone must accept of course gets smaller the more that everyone is willing to make some concessions. But that sense of having a collective stake in a better future is lost in a fevered rush to protect what we insist on keeping.

And let’s not let the private sector off the hook. Even as corporate profits have risen dramatically and created bulging balance sheets, relatively few jobs are being created, while tax subsidies are fiercely defended. Clearly, keeping what’s “mine” is a higher priority among what we’re told are the “job creators” than encouraging broader prosperity.

Innovation comes at a price that apparently many have been unwilling to pay. (Although, polls show that much of the public is more willing to negotiate concessions than some of their leaders are.) There’s always a risk, when floating any innovative idea, that it will crash against the rocky shores of personal fiefdoms, entrenched power bases and cronyism, both public and private. The often intense resistance to anything that might require real change often comes down to the same silent refrain: I’ve got mine. Don’t mess with it. It’s a stance that can stop innovation dead in its tracks.

Innovation inevitably creates losses as well as gains. It frequently involves giving something up in order to create something better. It takes courage and sacrifice and lately both seem to be in short supply. Where’s the big picture, the sense of the common good, the willingness to sacrifice for a better future, the vision of what we can accomplish together, the sense of a shared destiny? Drowned out, it appears, by the same persistent cry: I’ve got mine.

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