The EDA Center | at the University of Minnesota  
Commentaries on Greater Minnesota

Periodically we will present commentaries on topics of interest to community and economic developers across rural Minnesota. Below is a list of all commentaries with the most recent listed first.


The Problem with Universalism
September 2009
Jack M. Geller, Ph.D.
Download PDF

The Minnesota Hi-Speed Broadband Task Force has now spent the past few months listening to a variety of public officials and others who have provided comment and testimony regarding broadband deployment throughout the state. And through this process it's become clear that for a growing number of Minnesotans, ubiquitous access and universal adoption of broadband is a significant goal. But when you really think about it, this notion of universalism increasingly permeates much of our public policy today. Within the current public debate about health care reform, universal coverage is a goal that both Democrats and Republicans publicly seem to embrace; and in our national discussion about public education we want to ensure that absolutely no child is left behind.

It's interesting that in a capitalist culture that focuses on competition, product differentiation and market share that we seem to be romancing the values of universalism. For example, for many years economists defined the term "full employment" to actually mean an unemployment rate of 5 percent or less. I simply don't ever recall back in the 1990s seeing public officials at the state or federal level wringing their hands over the 3-5 percent of the work force that were jobless. And public schools with a 90 percent graduation rate used to be a source of pride and held up nationally as an example of what is right with our public school system. Sure, we aspire to100 percent graduation rates, but there just seemed to be an understanding that while no one wants to leave a child behind, that reality often trumps aspiration.

Returning universal adoption, I am reminded that virtually all former innovative technologies still have yet to reach the goal of universal adoption. This is true for even some of our most mundane technologies. For example, we have yet to achieve universal adoption of a telephone in every home, a microwave in every kitchen, or a car in every garage. For the simple reality is that there are a variety of factor that help explain why people choose to adopt some technologies and take a pass on others. Age, income, culture, tradition, religion, education and awareness all come into play.

The late Everett Rogers wrote the seminal book on the adoption and diffusion of innovative technologies. Rogers was an Iowa farm boy who earned his doctorate in the 1950's trying to understand why some farmers adopted some obviously beneficial technologies while others did not. A decade earlier when agriculture was transitioning from planting varietal seed corn to hybrid seed corn researchers understood that both the yield and the drought-resistant characteristics of the hybrid seed made it far superior. Yet it took many years for farmers to adopt this new technology. From these and other studies, Rogers argued that the adoption of any new technology actually occurs in a series of predictable stages which culminates in an "S-shaped" curve, where the adoption of a new innovation starts out very slowly until it reaches a critical mass; at which point the adoption rate soars, only to tail off and stabilize. Most importantly however, was that Rogers never suggested that any technology will achieve a 100 percent adoption rate. In other words, regardless of the benefits of the innovation there will always be some non-adopters. A good example is the recognition that even today; some parents choose not to immunize their children against a variety of serious and contagious diseases.

So how do we rationally address this increasing attention to universalism in policy when all the evidence suggests that such universalism is unreasonable and unattainable? Well, first we need to recognize that defining anything less than 100 percent as failure makes a fine aspirational goal, but it makes poor public policy. Whether defined as a zero-tolerance drug policy, universal adoption, or no child left behind; policy is always best implemented when it is guided by rational discretion over aspirational ideology.

Geller is professor & head of the Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota, Crookston. He also serves as the director of the federally-funded EDA Center at UMC. He can be reached at

This document was prepared by the University of Minnesota, Crookston under award number 06-66-05709 from the Economic Development Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce. The statements, findings, conclusions, and recommendations are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Economic Development Administration or the U.S. Department of Commerce.

The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.