So Wednesday evening I’m walking on the treadmill at the healthclub. It’s a mixed experience. I feel better working out but I have to suffer through Fox News on the big TV in front in the treadmills. So I’m watching the Fox News, and predictably, they’re interviewing Republicans and trying to belittle the President’s State of the Union speech. Romney, the purported front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination and supposed private business guru is talking. He’s trying to poo-poo the President’s call for more innovation to help build the economy. Romney makes the statement (this is close if not exact – it was TV and I was walking) to the effect that “I don’t think the Wright Brothers, or Google , or Thomas Edison needed any government support to produce their inventions”. Romney and the host were mocking the idea that somehow government could help foster innovation in the economy.
Well, let’s see here and check the historical record. Both the Wright Brothers and Edison were protected in their businesses by a government-grant of monopoly in the form of patents. Edison, in fact, didn’t invent the electric lightbulb first, but he was able with lawyers to overturn the patent for the guy who did and get the patent himself. The Wright Brothers grew into a large commercial aviation business (along with Douglass and Boeing and the other aircraft companies) due to military investments in World War I. As for commercial aviation, it grew in the 20th century largely thanks to the technologies developed for Air Force planes. Huge numbers of commercial airline pilots were actually trained in how to fly by the Air Force at no cost to the airlines. Commercial aviation got a headstart thanks to the U.S. Post Office’s efforts and contracts to launch air mail. And of course, there wouldn’t be many airports to land at if it weren’t for governments (federal and local) picking up the tab for their construction. Let’s not forget the FAA and air traffic control. That’s government too.
Let’s think about Edison and the great electrification of the country. One light bulb doesn’t create an industry. However, government contracts and grants of exclusive dealing are necessary to build the early generating stations and the networks of wires that make our electric usage possible. We might still be waiting for electricity to reach rural areas and the South if it weren’t for the Tennessee Valley Authority, setup in FDR’s New Deal. Hundreds of cities nationwide had to setup thier own utility companies because the profit-seekers wouldn’t do it in the early parts of the 20th century.
Now let’s think of Google, the poster-child new tech mega-corporation born of private venture capital. Except that with no Internet and no Web, there’s no Google. And where did the Internet come from? Decades of military, government, and non-profit academic research and investment in designing and building the networks and the technology.
It’s a common pattern. Most of the really dramatic innovations do depend on a critical government role at some point in their development. Typically the need is either for fundamental research or to subsidize ongoing developmental research. Private investors simply don’t take those risks. Even though Samuel Morse proved the telegraph worked in a building, no one would invest in building a telegraph until Congress paid to build a demonstration telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore. Once government took the risk and proved it, private investors were willing to step up.
Then there’s infrastructure – virtually always the province of government. From the building of the Erie Canal (New York State government) to railroads (government subsidies and land grants) to aviation (see above) to the Internet, it’s government making it possible. Mr. Romney needs to go back study the real history of the country, not a make-believe history.