Bill James, the pioneer of sabermetrics—the statistical analysis of baseball—points out that modern America is prodigiously good at producing sports stars. As a result, a city like Wichita, Kansas — roughly the same size of Elizabethan London — can produce a professional athlete every few years. Think about impressive that is: the high schools of Wichita are able to regularly churn out talented individuals like Barry Sanders and Gayle Sayers, capable of competing at the highest levels in the world. Their physical genius—which is often quite creative—is worth millions of dollars.
And yet the same excess does not apply to other kinds of talent. Wichita has not produced a surplus of gifted writers, painters, jazz musicians, or inventors. As James notes, this is largely because our culture treats athletes differently. The first thing we do is encourage them when they're young, driving the kids to baseball practice and Pop Warner tournaments. This doesn't just allow children to develop their talent—it also lets coaches identify those with the most natural ability. Second, we constantly celebrate athletic success. Winning teams get trophies and parades, coverage in the local newspaper, and the congratulations of the community. Finally, we have mechanisms for cultivating those with athletic potential at every step of the process, from the Little League to the NCAA to the major leagues. They are showered with attention and rewarded with huge contracts.
So it's possible to create more geniuses—we've already done it. The question now is whether our society can produce creative talent with the same efficiency that it has produced athletic talent. Our future depends upon it.
"The fundamental premise of the theory is that there's a big difference between objects and ideas," Romer says. "When we share objects, we make them less valuable. You don't pay as much for a used car because it's already been used. But ideas don't work like that. We can share ideas without devaluing them. There is no inherent scarcity."
"The thing about ideas is that they naturally inspire new ones," Romer says. "This is why places that facilitate idea sharing" —think of, for instance, Silicon Valley or Elizabethan England—"tend to become more productive and innovative than those that don't. Because when ideas are shared, the possibilities do not add up. They multiply."