In seeking a single, fundamental explanation for why the Allies won the Second World War, many analysts point to the Manhattan Project — the secret work of a select group of extraordinarily smart physicists that paved the way to the atomic bomb.

Others point to the wizardry of the codebreakers who unlocked the Enigma machine ciphers, which enabled allied intelligence to intercept German communications without detection and thus prepare more effective military strategies. Others of a more practical bent hold out for the more prosaic work of the economist Simon Kuznets and his colleagues, who developed the process of national income accounting that facilitated a war-mobilization effort in a free society that ultimately far surpassed that achieved in the fascist and socialist dictatorships.

A similar debate is now unfolding regarding how to respond to the threats of globalization, terrorism and the competitive world of the 21st century. Education scores in the U.S., we are told, particularly in the critical fields of math and science, are failing to keep pace with those of more rigorously trained Indians, Chinese and Koreans, etc.; we are at risk of becoming a second rate nation; our future in this century will follow the arc of Britain in the last — slow but inevitable decline to the status of a second-rate power.

We must, in this analysis, invest in higher education, become more innovative in all avenues of life. We must build the creative economy. We must somehow have a Manhattan Project for creativity and innovation. We must assemble the best and the brightest to break the code of creativity and innovation.

Only in this century these paragons of productivity won’t be refugee physicists from Princeton or whiz kids from the management-training program at Ford Motor Co., but refugee mathematicians from Eastern Europe and playful experts in “analytics” from the free lunch bars and game rooms at Google.

This emphasis on the rock star status and mysterious skills of the boy billionaires at the top of what has come to be called “the creative economy” is, I think, as natural and as incorrect an explanation of our current economic dilemma as were earlier efforts to “explain” the outcome of the war through the brilliance of a few geniuses who invented a bomb or broke a code.

In reality, I suspect, the course of our economic revival or continued decline will be the result of millions of far more prosaic decisions made by all of us in our daily lives.

The question is, will those decisions be guided by a sensible consideration of facts readily available to anyone who cares to look or by a narcissistic instance that life should remain as we wish it to be.

“Creativity,” said Jonah Lehrer, in a series of articles in the Wall Street Journal, “can seem like magic.”

But, he concludes, it isn’t. It isn’t an inherited trait or an angelic blessing.

It’s a skill that can be developed. It’s the possession and use of various kinds of thinking, imagining, cognition. It is not the exclusive preserve of an elite few but a behavior that can and, if we are truly to transform our economy, must be understood and developed by many.

We all have individual genetic and behavioral predispositions for eating and activity, but no one says that good health is available only to a select few.

We face an epidemic of obesity, not because some people “just don’t get” the mysterious concept of healthy eating, but because many people of all sizes and shapes don’t avail themselves of information that is readily available to them.

Economically, the problem of creativity is closer to the problem of obesity than to the problem of genius.

Rather than wasting time slicing and dicing industries and occupations for the purpose of defining who is creative and who isn’t, we would be far better served understanding the skills involved in being creative and preparing educational processes to develop them in all citizens.

In addressing obesity, I’d rather have a room full of “big losers” than a single musclebound hunk. In winning a war, I’d rather have a factory full of “Rosie the Riveters” than an entitled physics genius.

And in facing the remainder of this century, I’d rather have a state full of people who have retained their kindergarten curiosity than a few IPO-floating creativity gurus.

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm. He can be reached at:

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