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Has America lost its ability to dream big?

February 11th, 2014
10:20 AM ET

By Mick Krever, CNN

Peter Thiel has made more than a billion dollars investing in Silicon Valley’s innovations, but now he says American society has become “somehow very hostile to big ideas.”

“If Einstein wrote a letter to the White House, it would get lost in the mail room,” Thiel told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Monday, referring to the letter Einstein wrote to U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the promise and danger of nuclear technology.

“Something like the Manhattan project or the Apollo program are quite unthinkable today,” he said.

Many say that those very big ideas are lacking in the area that may matter most in the coming century – climate change.

England has experienced its wettest January in 250 years, and much of the southern part of that country has been literally underwater, flooded, for weeks.

President Obama's administration, in an effort to act without a difficult Congress, last week announced the creation of so-called "climate hubs" to help farmers adapt to climate change – a humble step.

“The technology story in the last 20 or 30 years has been a story of tremendous innovation in the world of bits, and computers, but much less innovation in the world of atoms and stuff,” Thiel said. “And the energy problem is certainly a problem that’s more a problem involving atoms, and how we build new kinds of power sources.”

Thiel was a co-founder of PayPal and the first outside investor in Facebook.

Silicon Valley has tried to innovate in green technology, he told Amanpour, but of the $50 billion he said had been invested most of it has been lost.

Thiel, a hard-core libertarian and under normal circumstances no fan of government intervention, admitted that energy is a sector that requires some “complex coordination” from regulators.

The problem, he opined, is that a worrying percentage of our political leadership is technology illiterate.

“I looked at the U.S. Senate and House – there are 535 people – by a generous count, 35 of them have degrees in science or engineering. And the rest are basically living in the Middle Ages.”

“They don’t know that solar panels don’t work at night or windmills don’t work when then wind is not blowing, and so there is this incredible disconnect between Silicon Valley and Washington DC in this regard.”

Contemporary politicians, he said, talk in “very abstract terms” – “processes,” “innovation hubs.”

“You have to be very specific to actually try to get things done.”

“Nixon went on TV in 1970 and promised that we would cure cancer in six years. Now, that did not happen, but you could not imagine a major political leader in the U.S. or anywhere in the Western world trying to coordinate against specific innovations.”

Thiel, in an attempt to put his money where his mouth is, started a grant program in 2010, awarding $100,000 to 20 people under age 20 to, controversially, drop out of school and pursue their big ideas.

“Some ideas just can’t wait,” the fellowship’s website boasts.

“The United States has always been the country where people do new things,” Thiel said. “If we no longer are the place where people can do new things, we will have lost very special about this country.”

Filed under:  Christiane Amanpour • Latest Episode • U.S. Politics
soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Fábio Luciano Vieira

    JFK was the last one ! He planned to put the man on the moon, and his idea has come true. unfortunately he did not live to see it fulfilled. They killed the man not the innovative spirit

    February 11, 2014 at 11:35 am | Reply
    • don

      go to the moon again, 🙂 IT is still BIG!!!

      February 11, 2014 at 4:22 pm | Reply
  2. Joe

    It dreams only of war and killings, and of arms sales.

    February 11, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  3. Frank

    Yes..America is too worried about getting offended over every silly thing and profiting off of war. There isn't time to dream of ways to make America a better place.

    February 11, 2014 at 12:58 pm | Reply
  4. Howard Hornfeld

    Why doesn't my comment appear?

    February 11, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Reply
    • jimd

      I see it!

      February 11, 2014 at 6:39 pm | Reply
  5. Henk

    What is it with this endless Amanpour Propaganda? Pretending to offer international news but always only promoting and defending US policies and US interest.

    This can not be called international news by even the worst journalistic standard. Look at how for example Europe has taken the lead against climate change. Having immense solar and wind, bio, hydroelectric energy installations. Having now dozens of large windmill sea parcs while the US does not even have 1. Why only interview the US while the US is not leading. Why the bias promoted as international news. Is this the twilight zone? What utter Propaganda. My god.

    February 11, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Reply
    • Mike in NYC

      You really should check your facts Henk. While the US does not have any off-shore windfarms we DO make up for that by our on-land wind farms. Currently the US has over 45,000 operating utility-scale wind turbines occupied on over 40 wind farms. Of those windfarms ... TEN are counted in the top 15 largest wind farms (as measured by MW production). Solar ... has proved a bust by anyone's measure (even Europeans). Hydroelectric .... there are only SO many places that you can put up a dam – and all of the best spots in the US have them (and have for well over 50 years!).

      So when you feel like ragging on the US – while we certainly can improve our alternative energy sources – we're not exactly doing NOTHING – as you make it sound!

      February 11, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Reply
      • Brad

        Ignore the American hater. Most of them have no clue about what's going on in the U.S.

        February 11, 2014 at 2:07 pm |
      • Henk

        No Mike. I`m not saying the US has nothing. Just that for example Europe has done more on green energies and reducing it`s pollution. Most of Europe heavily recycles. Industries have been adapting to the strictest regulations on earth. Europe has cut it`s green house gas pollution way below 1990 levels. While the US uses only 2010 levels and still does not get it down much but the rules are not anywhere as strict as in Europe. Certainly during the Bush years no attention has been paid to this.

        Europe hast taken a great lead and in the fight against climate change. So here CNN is talking about the fight against climate change. But what happens. CNN is yet again ignoring everything and only paying attention to the US. I think you will agree that can not be called international news by even the worst journalistic standard. It`s very disturbing to see this. Even more biased then CCTV China state operated television.

        February 11, 2014 at 4:13 pm |
  6. Big Thinker

    There is a certain irony in the article starting with Peter Thiel lamenting that America can't think big anymore. it is precisely the venture capital world that has brought about focus on short term financial gain over big ideas. If he is looking to government to take on these projects, he must be forgetting that our government is, save for the printing press, bankrupt. Wall Street and the investment banks have captured the growtn in wealth. So perhaps it is the responsibility of corporate America to follow the lead of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, and take on some of these big ideas, funded by all the tax breaks and loopholes they use to hide profits.

    February 11, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  7. Don Canard

    why are we surprised ? For 30 years we've been told that our first priority should be to pursue individual self-interest, in as unconstrained (unregulated) a manner as possible, and if we all do that, then the best results will pertain for the collective public. That's an unvarnished lie. The best results for the collective public (so, by definition, for the largest number of individuals) when private gain has been subordinated to the interests of the people. We can't think of more than shoveling food into our mouths, and buying more useless junk so we can strike the right upscale pose and allay the fears of our fellow weaklings that we might not be "winners". Instead, we're all losers. The programs cited were from a time when we looked beyond ourselves for our most important goals. We've forgotten how to do that.

    February 11, 2014 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  8. willi

    This was an answer to Putin when America's (flower) ring did not open at Sochi Olympic opening 🙂

    February 11, 2014 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  9. tom

    No wonder...
    A rise in toxic feminism...
    The devaluation of masculinity...
    And America no longer dreams big.

    February 11, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  10. don

    go to the moon again, 🙂 IT is still BIG!!!

    February 11, 2014 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  11. Mike White

    Putting the majority of the western world's population under continuous electronic surveillance should qualify as a very big dream and great achievement.

    Not necessarily a very noble one, but the magnitude of the achievement should not be underestimated. If sustained, it will actually put evolutionary pressure on the human genome, and lead us closer to The Human Hive.

    February 11, 2014 at 4:28 pm | Reply
  12. Johnny

    The last flight of the Space Shuttle clearly marked the END

    February 11, 2014 at 6:18 pm | Reply
  13. Zsolt

    I truly hope so that not only America but all of us stop "dreaming big", at least the way we have been so far.
    Human history , especially the most recent one is based on the notion that humanity stands alone, outside, above the vast natural system we evolved from and still exist within, and that we can do whatever we want, changing this, changing that, innovating, experimenting, exploiting without any limits, irrelevant of the consequences.
    As a result now we are in a global crisis affecting all levels of human activity, in war with our environment, and in general we are in fear of the immediate and long term future.
    From now on we should start using our unique human mind to truly understand the system we exist in, and how we could adapt to it the best way, living as partners with the system, understanding and obeying its laws instead of the present lifestyle based on excessive and artificial demand.

    February 11, 2014 at 7:59 pm | Reply
  14. Hermas

    Ultimate achievement of stone age is "Wisdom of Rolling Stone". Ultimate achievement of Iron Age was "Flying machine for Inter galactic travel". Human achievement to exit earth exposed them to cosmic radiation, which genetically altered them. So they started growing multiple arms and legs. You they are thinking they are aliens, They are looking at earth as a pot of worms struggling to survive.

    You have coat suit, 5 cars, 10 wives and 100 servants. You are a big fat worm. No big difference between a fat and puny worm except for stepping / crushing other worms.

    There is no low class Lion and there is no high class pig. Lion is a high class and pigs are low class only. It is a natural choice. People who are capable of dreaming big, think big keep thinking about higher achievements silently.

    To think big or do great things, you don't need 200 billion $ lab. What you need is right there inside your skull.

    February 12, 2014 at 1:56 am | Reply
  15. mike

    I agree that America has really lost his ability to dream. If the enthusiasm of the 60s and 70s are still there, I'm sure human beings would already be settling on Mars and beyond

    February 12, 2014 at 5:20 am | Reply
  16. Remilek KAWA

    i don't believe that America has lost it potential of growing big every day.i totally disagree

    February 12, 2014 at 10:16 am | Reply
  17. sophio

    Well, we still have big dreams: Amnesty to 11+million illegal immigrants. Tell me this is not big!

    February 12, 2014 at 8:47 pm | Reply
  18. Jaime Jorge Gonzales Murillo

    Dear Mr. Peter Thiel, Give me $5 milion, and I will do more for the planet than the American Government has done in 10 years.

    February 19, 2014 at 7:33 pm | Reply
  19. Jaime Jorge Gonzales Murillo

    Mr. Thiel do not waste time and money going to space or sending people there again, as you discovered, the only beauty to see from out there is our planeth earth, and the feeling was, the anxiety of doing something good for our planet.

    February 19, 2014 at 7:46 pm | Reply
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    March 29, 2014 at 10:20 am | Reply
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