Where New Ideas Are Born

“The old is dying and the new cannot be born: in the interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms will appear,” wrote the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. “Morbid symptoms” is an apt description of the state of politics and public philosophy, at this crisis in American and world history.

On the right, we find the convulsive death spasm of a failed and discredited libertarianism, in the form of Tea Party frenzy and the cult of Ayn Rand and the “Austrian” economists, European immigrant intellectuals with a paradoxical appeal to a nativist, anti-intellectual right. On the left, the moralistic environmentalism of Al Gore and company is collapsing under the combined weight of public rejection and the technology-driven bonanza in shale gas and other energy sources that were thought to be running out. The dead center is occupied by neoliberalism, a kind of diluted conservatism adopted by a generation of timid Democrats in the U.S. who were traumatized by the victories of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich a generation ago. As the British Foreign Office wit observed on learning of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, “All of the isms are wasms.”

If the new cannot yet be born in politics, its older siblings, new ideas, are already squalling in their cribs in, among other locations, the maternity ward provided by the Breakthrough Institute. Michael Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus and their colleagues at Breakthrough have done more in a decade to revolutionize public debate than most do in long careers, on issues from effective ways of dealing with climate change to the role of government in fostering innovation. It gives me great pride to be affiliated with such a cutting-edge institution through this blog.

In the weeks and months ahead I look forward to using this space, along with other outlets, to take part in the debates that really matter about technology, the economy, and the fate of the American experiment. Having spent my career in the zone between the academy and the public square, as an author, journalist and think tank officer, I will continue to look for guidance from David Hume, in “Of Essay Writing”: “In this View, I cannot but consider myself as a Kind of Resident or Ambassador from the Dominions of Learning to those of Conversation; and shall think it my constant Duty to promote a good Correspondence betwixt those two States, which have so great a Dependence on each other.”