Recalling his days as a professor at CalTech, technologist and futurist Carver Mead reports on “confessions” he would attend with his colleagues. They wouldn’t talk about experiments that confirmed what they knew, rather they would confess to failures, or mistakes. It’s the mistakes that produce the information on the way to the production of new knowledge that is undeniably wealth. Think about it.
Oil is arguably as old as the earth is, but humans only began to discover its additive ways to economic progress in the second half of the 19th century. As Mead’s fellow futurist in George Gilder writes in Life After Capitalism, when we pump gas we’re pumping information, knowledge, or call it what you want.
The more we experiment the more we know. And the richer we become.
Think of all this in terms of Aaron Rodgers, the presently sidelined quarterback for the New York Jets. If you’re reading this write-up, you’re aware that Rodgers tore his Achilles tendon just a few plays into his Jets tenure. After the extent of his injury became apparent, there was a collective groan among Jets fans with lots of subsequent commentary about a “cursed organization” and so much else like it.
Not so fast, it seems. Roughly halfway through the NFL season, the Jets are still very much in the playoff picture. Better yet, Rodgers has been rehabbing furiously in hopes of returning by season’s end, and possibly the playoffs. It turns out the science of the Achilles and recovery from injuries to the tendon have markedly improved.
As Andrew Beaton and Louise Radnofsky explained it in the Wall Street Journal, “experts say with advancements in surgery and rehab techniques, athletes can rush back in what have once been considered startlingly short windows.” Stop and think about that. Just as oil has always existed only for trial and error among the intrepid to reveal endless life-enhancing uses for crude, so did the resources necessary to advance the healing of torn Achilles’ always exist. The problem with the past on the matter of tendon was that we didn’t know enough.
Thanks to aggressive trial and error in the understanding of the Achilles tendon, it’s more and more true about injuries that formerly lost seasons and/or careers are reversible in shrinking amounts of time. Knowledge is once again wealth.
All of which speaks to how knowledge is attained. It’s always and everywhere a consequence of copious, and frequently expensive failure. Put another way, it’s a safe bet that doctors and scientists got a lot wrong about the Achilles tendon before they started to get things right.
Please keep this in mind with government spending top of mind. Governments are as a rule “conservative” in how they allocate capital. This isn’t to say they’re ideologically right leaning nor is it to say that they’re parsimonious. They vary on the former, while generally wasteful regardless of ideological lean. At the same time, the waste is directed to the known. That is so because the future is unknowable, plus the political implications of bad investment after bad investment are obviously bad.
Which means that when governments spend, they consume abundant wealth in pursuit of services and goods that are already known. The problem there is that advance comes from investment in new ideas and knowledge representing the unknown. All of this is crucial to think about in trying to divine useful conclusions from Rodgers’s potential comeback. The seen is much faster recovery born of knowledge that formerly didn’t exist, while the unseen concerns all the “confessional,” Carver Mead-style blunders that had to take place before these advances could begin to reveal themselves.
From there, we have to think about the future. While doctors and scientists don’t presently know how to cure a torn Achilles so that the athlete can be back on the field the next day, or in the second half, rest assured that the resources already exist to achieve just that. The only limiting factor is knowledge, and a major barrier to the attainment of that knowledge is the annual consumption by government of trillions of dollars on the known, and at the expense of searching for answers to the unknown.
Hopefully what’s written isn’t seen as too ideological. No doubt there are Jets fans who are Democrat, Republican, socialist, libertarian, and surely other ideologies. At the same time, what Jets fans in general would have given for a quick, 24-hour cure in September. Again, the resources exist for just that. What we lack is knowledge. In which case the goal should be to limit entities out to slow the creation of future knowledge via consumption of the wealth we create in the present.