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The Idea Biz

Today’s New York Times op-ed page carries two separate citations from last week’s Aspen Ideas Festival, which probably means the thing has already paid for itself. The ideas cited are good ones, but the increasing dominance of corporate-sponsored idea-disseminators like the Aspen festival and the TED conferences (gently lampooned by my friend Nathan Heller in a recent New Yorker takeout) makes me wonder whether ideas upsetting to the moneyed classes will become harder to shoehorn into the national conversation. "Your blood will run in the streets" is not, I would guess, an idea that is welcome at such conclaves, even when meant metaphorically. I note with selfish interest that income inequality, a topic that has generated considerable interest of late, was not on the menu at Aspen, just as it wasn’t on the menu at the latest World Economic Forum. 

Another problem with these increasingly popular elite gatherings is that they fetishize ideas as good things in themselves. That is often not the case. Microfinance is an idea, but so was the Holocaust. Somehow the imprimatur of Aspen or Davos or TED has come to confer prestige on any given idea, even though any idea-generating enterprise, no matter how well-run, is bound to include ideas that are bad, and possibly evil.

Indeed, you could argue that no conversation can generate a truly good idea without first entertaining quite a lot of really ghastly ones. Creativity seldom thrives in an atmosphere of great discipline or scrutiny. That’s one reason we tend not to want our leaders to get too creative. It’s also why the marquee names that dominate these conferences are just about the last people you should expect to generate big ideas that really matter. Really good ideas are much likelier to come from weirdos with bad table manners who couldn’t get an Aspen invitation to save their life. Oftentimes these people have other, not-good ideas, and great care must be taken to separate the wheat from the chaff. Deciding which ideas to save and which ideas to discard is one of society's most important tasks. Lets not entrust it to IBM.