In Praise of Incrementalism

Rather than big bang moon shots does the world get better with going one step at a time.

Dubner from the Freakonomics podcast makes a compelling case.

DUBNER: So my argument here is that 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. I like these examples from the arts 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. Brunelleschi first puts together the mathematics of linear perspective, of making two-dimensional spaces seem three-dimensional — Donatello, his friend, puts it in low-relief sculpture. It moves to Masaccio, who finally puts it into a painting in Brancacci Chapel, St. Peter finding 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 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.


DUBNER: So plainly you appreciate incrementalism in your own field, and in other fields. Do you feel that puts you a little bit in the minority? Do you feel that our culture and political and social 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 for 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

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