How the Government Gets it Right (In spite of the Liberals and Conservatives)

All we hear these days is “the government is the problem”. Conservatives and their mouth piece, Fox News, keep up the chant. The conservatives have a basic set of ideas that are repeated infinitely. We are expected to accept the truth of those ideas based on the number of times they are spoken. So, if we believe the conservatives then:
1) Only the free market can generate the innovation and jobs for our future
2) Government is the problem
3) Faceless bureaucrats are the enemy
4) Government must be prevented from developing ‘industrial policy’, supporting one industry over another
5) Government is incapable of doing anything

I don’t have the deep pockets of the conservatives propaganda machine so I will get by with data. There are the facts, they are all easy for you to check, but first a little background:

During and following WWII the government, first the Department of Defence (DoD) and later Department of Energy (DoE) worked to advance Science and Technology (S & T). This was done directly in government laboratories, partnering and funding university labs and through contracting and paid Industrial Research & Development (IR&D) with industry. The funds were from the taxpayers and were contained in the Department of Defence and Department of Energy funding requests. Each year the Congress voted to approve these requests.

The Conservatives, who believed in a ‘bigger is better’ defence budget voted for almost anything requested. The Liberals, trying to avoid the ‘wimp’ label voted in favor also. Ideologically the Conservatives spoke loudly and frequently against ‘industrial planning’ and any other effort that deviated from ‘free market’ ideas. The Liberals spoke loudly against wasting money on defence that could be used for social programs but voted for it anyhow. As a result the military-industrial complex collects billions of taxpayer dollars every year. Today’s defence budget is huge and growing.

Hidden in this Crony Capitalists’ delight are the data that the government is actually the source of our innovation. In the record of the last 60 years is the evidence that our great success in innovation has come from doing exactly the opposite of the conservative policies. A superficial look at the history since WWII proves the government is not inept but the innovation leader.

Reviewing the DoD and DoE innovation by decade:

1940’s Atomic Energy       Department of Defence paid for and led the design of power plants for Navy ships and submarines. Those designs were commercialized to become the nuclear power industry. The industry still resents any design that did not flow out of the government paid development.

Before the first power plant could be built the government had to provide insurance. The free enterprise private sector refused to insure the new industry.

Government/university laboratories developed the understanding of radioactive isotopes that could be used for medical applications. The nuclear medicine industry rests on that work.

1950’s Jet Engines      During WWII the US government paid two companies to become capable of manufacturing jet engines. When the war ended the Department of Defence paid to further develop engines for military aircraft and bought the developed engines. When the industry was well established it took those designs and worked with aircraft manufactures whose government funded work had developed advanced jet aircraft to apply all that government paid R&D to commercial designs. The new generation of aircraft reduced the cost per seat mile enough so that flying could be more than a luxury/business industry. Of course the industry was already dependent on government built airports and the air traffic control system.
(Actually when the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk the second thing they did was go to Washington to look for government help.)

1960’s Space     The government space program provided the technology, facilities and even the actual vehicles (early military rockets were declared obsolete and modified as the first commercial space boosters). We got global TV and communications, weather, oceans and crops surveillance etc. There would be no national real time sports broadcasting without satellite TV.
(Will the NFL please stand up and thank the government for the billions they get for TV rights!)

1970’s Semiconductors & Computers    It is estimated that 50 to 75% of the funding for semiconductors came from Department of Defence. As the first weak transistors became available it was Department of Defence contracts that kept buying to provide the new industry with funding. (Industrial policy if I ever saw it) As the semiconductors became better they were applied to computers. The early mainframes were developed on government funds for military applications like missile warning systems. These early Department of Defence funded designs were commercialized into the Third Generation Mainframes that dominated the period. The IBM 7xxx series from Ballistic Early Warning System and the GE 600 series from military radar systems are two examples. Improvements in semiconductors led to the mini-computer and then the micro-computer that is ubiquitous today. The early software industry was supported by Department of Defence contracts. DoD contracts were the first place the concept of software licensing was used so the government was even a leader in establishing new law.

1980’s The Internet      While the Net did not explode as a commercial entity until the 1990’s the basic work was done in the 1970’s and 1980’s by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The government created the design and implemented it among its sites and cooperating universities. (If you haven’t heard of DARPA it is a small group of ‘faceless bureaucrats’ within the defense department. ‘Grandstanding’ is not allowed by project managers who have no perks, no bonuses, stock options or other extras. In spite of this opposite approach to what conservatives say is required to stimulate innovation DARPA has a track record of amazing innovation that surpasses private companies. That is only what we see since much of their work is classified.)
The World Wide Web came from a government research facility (CERN) in Europe. So the most profound innovation of the 20th Century was pure government innovation given to the free enterprise capitalists.

1990’s GPS & cell phones      GPS was another Defence Advanced Projects Agency project for government use that became so popular that it was opened for commercial use. It is now a multi-billion dollar industry and supports everything from surveying to inter modal freight to identifying were you took your latest photo. In geology, GPS proved the plate tectonic theory.

The needed satellite constellation is totally government supported and the ground receivers that we use are the result of government paid development.

Cell phones depend on the government led R&D for the military communications systems and high frequency semiconductors that were government financed.

2000’s LED Lighting   Department of Defence funded work in high temperature semiconductor materials to support both white light LED’s and very high power high frequency transistors. Fledgling companies like CREE lived on these contracts while improving the materials processes needed. LED lighting is in the early phases of transforming lighting and increasing efficiency by 80+%.

2010’s Fracking      The DoE started work on fraking in the 1970’s and has matured the technology enough so that ‘free enterprise innovators’ can use it. We now expect the US to be energy independent in the decade and shift US coal fired power plants to cleaner natural gas. To net it out, the innovation by the government has significantly reduced the price of gas at the pump for all of us. Cheaper gas from fraking has increased the conversion of power plants to ‘Greener’ natural gas from dirty coal. You might say the conservatives have inadvertently funded a Green Energy initiative!

These are just a few of the high points in the government R&D effort aimed at keeping the United States at the forefront of technology. In achieving that goal the ‘faceless bureaucrats’ of Department of Defence and Department of Energy have picked winners and losers (industrial policy), they have led the way in what technology to pursue and demonstrated a leadership that would make any private company proud. DARPA has spun off monumental products; The Internet and GPS for example, that are global in scope and revolutionary in their impact. We also need to remember that DARPA is really working military projects that can’t be talked about and these techno-blockbusters are mere sidelines for those ‘faceless bureaucrats’ the conservatives sneer at.

Is it bad to spend hundreds of billions on the military when so much is wasted? Yes, but there seems to be no other way to work around the liberal and conservative ideological barriers and get the technology we need to be the global leader. It also warms a cynics heart to see a process where the conservatives, year after year, happily fund a process that is living proof that their ideology is wrong.