One of the most troubling problems of our time is why intellectual progress is stalling. Governments and corporations throw vast resources at knowledge creation and yet intellectual breakthroughs are getting rarer and innovations punier.
A 2011 study of US data on creativity and originality came to a devastating conclusion: "The results indicate creative thinking is declining over time among Americans of all ages, especially in kindergarten through third grade. The decline is steady and persistent."
Commentators have suggested various explanations for why this is happening, from rising inequality to the sheer accumulation of knowledge. None of them is convincing: The late 19th century combined high degrees of inequality with extraordinary intellectual creativity, while the accumulation of knowledge surely provides ingenious people with more material to play with. Here is a more straightforward explanation: We're not producing enough geniuses.
Geniuses are the driving force of intellectual and cultural progress. They come up with great ideas that improve productivity as well as great cultural creations that make life worth living. Societies that treat geniuses well, such as 15th-century Florence or 18th-century England, forge ahead. Societies that treat them badly, like 18th century Spain or Mao Zedong's China, stagnate.
This is even more true in a knowledge-intensive society that depends on its ability to generate ideas rather than produce things. Yet the modern world is increasingly falling into the latter category.
We like to think that we are better at cultivating and providing for geniuses than previous societies — we have constructed a universal school system to ensure that everybody can acquire the rudiments of education and a mass university system to push back the frontiers of knowledge.
Yet the educational system is doing a bad job of discovering and fostering geniuses. To start with, it misses potential stars from poorer backgrounds — a problem that the economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues at Stanford University have dubbed the "lost Einstein" problem. America's top universities are becoming finishing schools for the rich (modified by affirmative action for favoured minorities) rather than intellectual powerhouses: Harvard is typical of elite universities in that it takes more students from the top 2% of income earners than from the bottom 50%.
The geniuses who decide to make academia their home are then crushed under the weight of academic and administrative tedium, forced to crawl along the frontier of knowledge with a magnifying glass in order to get a PhD and then obliged to publish whatever they can in learned journals if they want to get tenure. (They also have to steer clear of controversial subjects if they don't want their careers to go up in flames.)
If they get tenure, they are obliged to spend their most intellectually fertile years teaching basic courses, marking "quizzes" and dealing with missives from the ever-expanding army of bureaucrats that universities are hiring faster than they are hiring professors. If they fail to get tenure, they are condemned to become academic nomads, hopping from one-short term contract to another. We have inadvertently produced a formula for genius destruction: Ignore the numerous Einsteins from the lower classes and then take the Einsteins that you do discover and turn them into drudges.
Pre-modern societies with rudimentary education systems certainly missed even more hidden Einsteins — or Jude the Obscures — but they may have done a better job of providing the geniuses they discovered with no-strings-attached billets.
Kings and aristocrats furnished favoured intellectuals with comfortable sinecures. Frederick II, king of Denmark and Norway from 1559 to 1588, provided the astronomer Tycho Brahe with a guaranteed income for life, a 2,000-acre island and enough additional money to build a Uraniborg, or heavenly castle, to act as a home and an observatory. New men such as the Medicis established themselves on the social scene by acting as even greater friends to genius than blue blood.
Churches provided favoured intellectuals with perches that combined comfortable living with minimum requirements: Jonathan Swift wrote his masterpieces while he was a dean of St Patrick's Cathedral. From the early 19th century onward, Oxbridge colleges offered prizes or examination fellowships to brilliant young men without even imposing the obligation of residence. This genius-first attitude survived well into the 20th century: Cambridge gave Ludwig Wittgenstein a professorship even though he published little and refused to do any administration or teach anybody but a few chosen pupils. It is impossible to imagine him getting tenure today.
There have been several innovative attempts to deal with the growing genius problem, particularly in the United States. In 1933, Harvard University created a Society of Fellows to provide its most brilliant graduate students with a chance to escape from the PhD grind and give them the freedom to think — " Freedom from Harvard at Harvard " in the words of one of its beneficiaries, Edward Tenner. In 1981, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation introduced "genius awards" which provided 20 to 30 outstanding individuals with no-strings-attached payments (currently $800,000 over five years) so that they can devote themselves to their work. In 2011, Peter Thiel, a tech billionaire, invented "stop out" grants whereby 20 to 25 high-school graduates are paid to delay going to university for a couple of years and instead focus on starting a business, doing independent research or solving a social problem.
These ideas have all had a positive impact. Harvard Fellows include such intellectual luminaries as B. F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky. MacArthur award winners are objects of jealousy and awe across the American elite. The combined market capitalization of firms created by Thiel fellows is already more than $ 45 billion.
Yet they are necessarily confined to a minuscule number of people — in Harvard's case, to the elite within the Harvard elite and in the MacArthur award case to a wider but still narrow credentialed (and usually liberal) elite. They are also vulnerable to the subjective bias of the awardees, whether they are liberal in the MacArthur case or libertarian-conservative in the Thiel one.
It is time to think much bigger: Why not provide a universal basic income for all geniuses so that they have an opportunity to devote their lives to pure thought undisturbed by the humdrum concerns of daily life? This idea was floated in an intriguing sub-stack called "Ideas Sleep Furiously" but could do with a much wider discussion.
UBI for geniuses might work something like this. Schoolchildren would be given a succession of IQ tests during their schoolyears: IQ tests because they are the best method we have of assessing raw intellectual ability rather than school learning. A succession because everybody can have an off day — the physicist Richard Feynman liked telling people that he had only scored 124 in an IQ test. Children who score 145 or above would then be offered a life-long genius award. These awards wouldn't need to be lavish — just enough so that geniuses could afford to live a middle-class lifestyle. They could start at, say $75,000 a year and go up by $25,000 increments every decade. The payments could expire if our geniuses decided to take paid employment but then resume if they decided to "drop out" again.
There are some obvious objections to the idea. One is that not all people with high IQs would turn out to be geniuses because geniuses also need certain personality traits such as grit and focus. This is only half-true: high IQs are a necessary if not a sufficient condition for high levels of cognitive achievement. They are also positively correlated with other desirable cognitive traits such as focus and endurance. Given the relative simplicity of testing for IQ and the clear harm that is imposed in allocating rare talent to humdrum jobs, paying genius awards to a few non-geniuses seems like a reasonable cost.
A second objection is that UBI for geniuses would simply reward people who have already won a winning lottery ticket in life. The compassionate answer to this objection is that many geniuses find it hard to relate to the wider society. They are too preoccupied with intellectual puzzles (Isaac Newton went into such deep trances that he would forget to eat) or too introverted to talk to others (Paul Dirac, one of the pioneers of quantum physics, spoke so little that his colleagues at Cambridge invented a unit called the "Dirac," or one word per hour). "Great wits are sure to madness near allied/And thin partitions do their bounds divide," as John Dryden put it.
UBI will clearly be good for the geniuses themselves (and those who don't need it can renounce it by getting a job) but the same can be said about other troubled groups (San Francisco is introducing UBI for transgender people, for example). The more compelling answer is that UBI for geniuses will massively benefit society as a whole. UBI is good for us as well as them.
The German psychologist Heiner Rindermann and his collaborators have taken three widely used international test scores, PISA, TIMMS and PIRLS, and converted them into a single "cognitive ability score" for almost a hundred countries. They demonstrated not only that countries with higher average IQ scores are richer than the rest but that the top 5% have the biggest impact on overall wealth. If you want to improve a lot of the average Joe, then the best way to do it is to treat the brightest well.
UBI for geniuses would promote equality of opportunity in three ways: by introducing universal testing in schools, thereby discovering more hidden high achievers; by giving all students, but particularly the poor, for whom a guaranteed income means more than for the rich, an incentive to do well academically; and by demonstrating that there is a root to success other than sport and pop music.
A 2016 paper by two economists, David Card of the University of California, Berkeley, and Laura Giuliano, now at UC Santa Cruz, demonstrated that the introduction of universal screening in a large Florida school district led to a substantial increase in the fraction of poor and minority children who were put into gifted education programs. (The percentage of non-Hispanic African Americans rose from 12% to 17% and of Hispanics from 16% to 27%, while the White percentage fell from 61% to 43%). UBI for geniuses would do more for America's stalled upward mobility than anything since the GI Bill after the Second World War.
UBI for geniuses might also provide an instrument for levelling up, both between and within countries. In his new book, The Culture Transplant: How Migrants Make the Economies They Move to a Lot Like the Ones They Left, Garett Jones of George Mason University points out that just seven countries out of nearly 200 (the US, China, Japan, South Korea, France, Germany and the United Kingdom) are responsible for the vast majority of the world's patents, research grants, scientific publications patents and Nobel prizes. The others could catch up with these "idea treasuries" by either introducing UBI for their native-born geniuses or, more boldly still, offering no-strings-attached genius grants to high-IQ foreigners who are willing to relocate. Likewise, the lion's share of advanced intellectual work in the US takes place in a handful of knowledge clusters. If the federal government makes the mistake of rejecting the UBI for geniuses' ideas, then ambitious states outside the magic circle could seize on it instead to improve their long-term prospects.
In the wake of Christine McVie's death on 30 November, we have been repeatedly reminded of her 1977 song "Don't Stop (thinking about tomorrow)" with its cheerful assurance that "it'll be here better than before." Bill Clinton made the song the unofficial theme tune of his administration. But since that administration ended, "tomorrow" has lost much of its promise. In the West, large majorities of parents expect their children to be worse off than them. Across the world, people are terrified by the seemingly insoluble problem of global warming. There is no better way to restore our faith in the future than to increase the amount of brainpower available to humankind. And there is no easier way to increase that brainpower than to provide geniuses with the wherewithal to devote their lives to doing what only they can do: thinking thoughts that have never been thought before and solving problems that have hitherto been deemed insoluble.
Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a writer at the Economist. His latest book is "The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World."
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Bloomberg and is published by a special syndication arrangement.