Does history happen in leaps or incrementally?

tags: Harvard, Ed Glaeser, incrementalism

Ed Glaeser is an economics professor at Harvard. I wanted to ask him about my “incrementalism” idea.

DUBNER: So my argument here is that, um, generally we are encouraged and trained, really, to look for big-bang successes, in all realms — education, health care, politics, you name it — and while I understand the impulse to find these magic bullets — it’s exciting, it’s sexy, it’s all those things — it strikes me that much progress if not most throughout history has really been a series of incremental gains. What’s your take on that?

GLAESER: Oh, I think almost surely that’s true. You know, I like these examples from the arts, you know, you can really see each innovation in each painting and each step along the way. If you think about the glory of the Italian Renaissance, it’s a piecemeal process. When Brunelleschi first puts together the mathematics of linear perspective, of making two-dimensional spaces seem three-dimensional — you know, Donatello, his friend, puts it in low-relief sculpture. It moves to Masaccio, who finally puts it into a painting, in, in in Brancacci Chapel, St. Peter finding the, the coin in the belly of a fish. Fra’ Filippo Lippi takes up the ball. Botticelli takes up the ball, each person incrementally improving on the last person. Each person exploring the implications of this new idea. It’s not that, you know, Da Vinci comes along and then all of a sudden the world is different. It’s that he’s built on a century of incrementalists, some of whom are pretty big incrementalists but incrementalists nonetheless, who are really creating this revolution.

Glaeser is plainly an erudite fellow, especially for an economist. But just so you don’t think he spends all his time thinking about Renaissance art and ignoring his own discipline – well, we talked about that too.

GLAESER: You know, within the field of economics, there are larger or smaller parts of those increments, but we’re a field that builds on itself, and it’s sort of a striking fact that within economics, that the Nobel Prize doesn’t really give awards for single papers, so much as it does for a series of contributions by a particular person. And that’s surely as it should be, because there’s rarely, truly, sort of one paper on itself is so, revolutionary that it changes things. It’s more that people build on things. It often takes dozens of extra ones to figure out what it means, and what it what it implies for the wider world.

DUBNER: So plainly you appreciate incrementalism in your own field, and in other fields. Uh, do you feel that puts you a little bit in the minority? Do you feel that our culture and political and soci al culture is always looking for some version of the moon shot?

GLAESER: I don’t know. I mean, I think this is more a Silicon Valley thing than a Cambridge thing. I think maybe I believe in incrementalism because I’m so painfully aware of the very incremental nature of my own contributions. But it’s certainly true that in the political sphere we are always looking big bang solutions. We’re looking for a leader who will make everything right by coming around the corner, and inevitably we’re incredibly disappointed that somehow or other this new leader didn’t magically change everything. The more that you just think that the right answer is just to elect one person who will magically fix anything, the less that you actually pay attention to what really matters, which is the nit and grit of everyday decision-making, of everyday governance.

DUBNER: So civil-rights reform strikes me as one where, incrementally, there have been massive improvements, and yet it seems as though the appetite for an overnight solution to every civil-rights issue is kind of expected. And when that doesn’t happen, there’s massive hue and cry — even though, overall, the trend has been moving in the right direction. You see that as well, or do you think I’m wrong on that?

GLAESER: No, no I agree totally with that. And it required people who — the NAACP for example, which worked for decades before the Civil Rights Act, right, to move the ball forward. Often in, you know, ways that were important, but seem today quite modest. I mean fighting up to the Supreme Court. Fighting the attempts to zone by race, for example, which it did in the teens. Right? You know, American segregation would’ve been even worse if cities could explicitly zoned by, by race, but they couldn’t. Fighting restrictive covenants as it did in the 40s. Fighting segregation in American schools as it did in the 50s. Decade by decade, increment by increment. And once we start thinking that there’s a silver bullet, we lose that, we lose the fact that we need to be working day by day, over decades, to affect change….

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