It’s increasingly difficult to distinguish between serious journalism and the Daily Mash. So it is with this piece from the excellent Andrew Hill, who describes how:
executives and entrepreneurs are “microdosing” on illicit substances and submitting to transcranial magnetic stimulation — normally used to treat depression — in search of creative highs.
Such activities seem to me to completely mischaracterise the creative process, especially under capitalism.
For one thing, most new ideas are bad ones: the replication crisis in academia reminds us of this. Creativity doesn’t arise from a high or spark of genius, but from the dedication to keep going through the failures until you find the success. Thomas Edison, one of the most creative capitalists of all, said: “I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.” That was why he claimed that “genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” In the same spirit James Buchanan used to advise graduate researchers: “keep the ass in the chair.”
In this context, it’s apt that Andrew should mention Richard Branson “’birthing’ Virgin Galactic in a Necker Island hot-tub under the stars.” The important fact about Virgin Galactic is that it has so far failed to achieve what the USSR managed in 1961: putting a man in space. Grunt work matters at least as much as “birthing.”
Secondly, creativity is not the road to riches. As William Nordhaus famously pointed out, innovation isn’t often very profitable. And where it is, it is thanks to intellectual property laws and to monopoly power rather than to innovation itself. As Warren Buffett said, profits require economic moats – barriers to entry. The digital age has much in common with the feudal age: in both, wealth comes from the power to exclude others. Where this power is lacking, even the greatest creative talents find life “monetarily impossible.”
Thirdly, the binding constraint upon creativity is not so much our minds as our institutions. One of these is the intellectual property system. Another is access to finance. Danny Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald have shown that it is this (pdf), rather than character traits, that makes an entrepreneur – thus vindicating Kalecki’s claim that “the most important prerequisite for becoming an entrepreneur is the ownership of capital.”
And of course yet other constraints come from managerialist capitalism. One of these is that, having learned that innovation doesn’t pay, firms have learned to do less of it. Another is that the pursuit of efficiency means people have less downtime to innovate. Yet another is that creativity comes from making connections but the silo mentality fostered by hierarchical management prevents these being made. Yet another is that some innovations such as new financial assets require that a collective action problem be overcome, which individual capitalists cannot do.
In my tiny trivial way, I exemplify these points. The best financial advice is well-established, and embellishments to it might well be worse than useless. And even if I were to have the most brilliant idea for a book, I’d not be able to find the time to write it or a publisher. So there’s not much point my being creative.
What’s true of me is even more true for most people. Andrew discusses “flow” – complete absorption in an activity. Most of us, though, find this outside work: in sport, music, gardening or crafts (I’m amazed how many of my friends here in Rutland have craft rooms). Perhaps the principal way in which capitalism fosters well-being is by permitting a shortening of the working week. As for how far such shortenings are due to geniuses having creative highs, I leave that verdict to Clay Davis.