This is my response to a post on New Geography to “Take the funding decisions out of the hands of elected officials and policy makers, and place it unfettered in the hands of a blue-ribbon panel of experts from a broad range of disciplines.”

The transcontinental railroad did not come from a presidential vision or from a contest for the best idea to unite the nation. Neither did public high schools, which developed over generations. No-one said “If we send returning veterans to college, it will create the largest middle-class in history.” The interstate highways came from Eisenhower’s vision, true, but it was a vision for better military supply lines, not a vision of California lettuce in New York.  Who knows what Kennedy’s vision really was for the moon program?  It was a response to the imminent Soviet domination of space.  It gave us Tang, but the computer revolution was well under way, fueled by business as well as military needs, long before the space program.

Kennedy is not remembered for envisioning specific innovations – he is remembered for saying “Ask not…”  Even FDR’s New Deal was not a specific vision for the future; the various programs built or repaired infrastructure, physical, regulatory, and social, that eventually enabled individuals and businesses to build and innovate.

The end of the sentence “Take the funding decisions out of the hands of elected officials and policy makers, and place it unfettered in the hands of a blue-ribbon panel of experts from a broad range of disciplines” should instead be “in the hands of the people.”  The current stimulus efforts put funding, for the most part, in the hands of state and local governments, who are responsive to local needs, to a wide variety of  “bureaucrats,” many of whom  are experts, and individuals.  Little by little, and sometimes with blinding speed, individuals will build the future, meeting the needs that they see with innovations.  The Internet was built on an infrastructure funded by the Federal government, for military purposes.  Individuals all over the world took the initiative in a thousand different ways to use the new facility and add value to it, to meet the needs they saw.  No blue-ribbon panel nor president laid out a detailed vision of on-line discussions, electronic commerce and banking, e-books, e-music, e-video.  And no blue-ribbon panel of experts said “If we put cell-phones in the hands of African farmers, they will be able to find out prices in the market.”

Obama’s role, every president’s role, is to remind us of this, encourage us, remove barriers and provide infrastructure.  It is to give us the materials, not the blueprint.

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