The Creativity Conceit

America will always be number one, won’t it?


| July-August 2008


This article is part of a package on creativity. For more, read " The Future of Creativity ," " Why Essays Are So Damn Boring ," " Bright Ideas from Baltimore’s Citizens ," " Art + Science= Inspiration ," and " Putting the Arts Back into the Arts ."

Almost everything the Apple computer company sells these days comes with the following statement of origin: “Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China.”

The implication is obvious: A few brilliant, creative Americans did the real work, while low-skilled Chinese assembly workers, laboring in serflike conditions, did the rest. Citing Apple’s iPod at a Virginia trade conference last year, former U.S. Treasury secretary John Snow commented, “China gets to do what they do well: low-value manufacturing. America gets to do what we do well: return on intellectual capital. It’s good for both of us, but I would rather be on our end of that.”

Such talk panders to one of the most consequential illusions of contemporary American economic thought: that by dint of its unique creativity alone, the United States can count on remaining the world economy’s top dog. This assumption, shared by intellectuals on both sides of the U.S. political divide, goes a long way toward explaining the electorate’s relative apathy about the collapse of America’s manufacturing sector. As the Harvard-educated Japan historian Ivan P. Hall points out, it is just “smug ethnocentric American complacency—little more than whistling in the dark.”

Let’s first dispose of the misconception that America’s “culture of freedom” is a crucial advantage in innovation. Of course, absent a basic level of freedom, creativity does not flourish. But the bar is set quite low. None of the most inventive cultures of antiquity—China, Mesopotamia, or Egypt—counted as a civil liberties utopia. Nearer our own time, Nazi Germany, fascist-era Japan, and the old Soviet Union all displayed considerable inventiveness.

The lesson of history is that if America’s maximalist concept of individual freedom is a factor at all, it is hardly decisive. All the evidence shows that something else is much more important: money.