Our economy thrives on it. Businesses survive on it. Search firms want it. Everyone has it. And America’s future depends on it. It’s not knowledge or power, energy or automation, capital or cash flow, although all are good guesses and important in their own right. What I’m talking about is far more essential. It’s creativity.

Perhaps you know it by another name. Walt Disney and Albert Einstein, for example, called it imagination. Thomas Edison referred to it as ingenuity. Some folks call it inventiveness. Whatever the term, that magical something-fromnothing activity is the key to the quality and quantity of our life. It’s what put a man on the moon, a PC in the palm of your hand, and the land of opportunity — the United States — on top of the world.

On a scale of one to ten, creativity is an 11. No other resource or measure of human performance comes close. Not oil, not attitude, not anything. Let the oil producers cut us off. They’ll only hasten the development of alternative energy sources, leaving themselves with the unenviable task of figuring out how to export sand. Yes, creativity can make up for a lack of oil, but nothing can make up for a lack of creativity.

It should be clear then that as a nation, and as individuals, we must preserve and cultivate this vital resource. We create, we flourish; and it’s time our political and business leaders recognize this with action. America is indeed creativity central, but we might lose our edge if we don’t make some changes pretty quickly.

For starters, we need to do a better job of attracting bright minds to science, engineering, and manufacturing professions, where creativity (from a global perspective) gives us the most bang for the buck. Follow the money and you’ll see why we now have a problem. Too much of it is flowing into low-creativity, nonproductive areas — into banks, insurance firms, and financial agencies, as well as government itself — where having lunch is considered work and the end product is often nothing but a handshake or a signed contract. Paper pushers and entertainment savants are entitled to make a living, but something’s wrong when even the mediocre ones are taking home more money than topflight technologists and engineers.

What’s wrong is that our so-called free-market system isn’t so free after all. Those with access to the political process — especially legal and financial interests — are tipping the monetary watershed in their favor, in effect, stealing from other areas of the economy, particularly manufacturing. Without intervention, the disparity in pay between “makers” and “takers” will only increase.

As much as it troubles me to say this, I actually believe we need an advocate in government to help keep creativity — the American spirit — alive. Some of the things this person would do:

• Make sure the technologically creative are fairly compensated. • Encourage our schools and corporations to nurture and unleash innovative thinkers. • Stem corporate greed, making it unpalatable for any company to sacrifice the future (especially R&D) to pay for past mistakes. • Raise public awareness and appreciation. Some people need to be reminded that behind every creation there’s a creator.

I do have someone in mind for this position, by the way. She’s the director of technology at one of America’s top laboratories and best-kept secrets, the glass-research lab at Corning Inc. Her name is Lina Echeverria, scientist turned manager with the impossible task of keeping almost 50 high-level researchers focused, creative, and happy.

How’s she doing? Well, over the past four years, her company’s stock rose from $25 a share to over $300 per share. From its humble beginnings as a cookware maker, Corning now owns almost 70% of the world market for high-end LCD glass and is the leading manufacturer of optical fiber, which it invented. In all, the company spends almost $2 million on R&D — a day. Not bad when you consider that most of its products are made from the ingredients found in common sand; one of the resources (like creativity) we’ll never have to import, which hopefully one day we’ll be able to say about oil.