America is running out of ideas

In science and technology: “Everywhere we look we find that ideas are getting harder to find,” a group of researchers from Stanford University and MIT concluded in a 2020 paper. Specifically, they concluded that research productivity has declined sharply in a number of industries, including software, agriculture, and medicine. That conclusion is widely shared. “Scientific knowledge has been in clear secular decline since the early 1970s,” one pair of Swiss researchers put it. The University of Chicago scholar James Evans has found that as the number of scientific researchers has grown, progress has slowed down in many fields, perhaps because scientists are so overwhelmed by the glut of information in their domain that they’re clustering around the same safe subjects and citing the same few papers.

In entrepreneurship: Setting aside a spike during the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. business formation has been declining since the 1970s. One of America’s most important sources of entrepreneurship is immigration—because immigrants are far more likely than native-born Americans to start billion-dollar companies—but the U.S. is in a deep immigration depression at the moment.

In institutions: Until about a century ago, the U.S. was building top-flight colleges and universities at a dazzling clip. But the U.S. hasn’t built a new elite university in many decades. The federal government used to build new agencies to deal with novel problems, like the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after World War II, or the Advanced Research Project Agency (later known as DARPA) after Sputnik. Although the pandemic embarrassed the CDC, no major conversations are under way about creating new institutions to deal with the problem of 21st-century epidemics.