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Robert Jensen
NationofChange / Op-Ed
Published: Tuesday 24 January 2012
“It’s true that individuals and businesses often used those innovations to create products and services for the market, but without the foundational research funded by government, none of those products and services could exist.”

The Plow and the iPhone: Conservative Fantasies About the Miracles of the Market

A central doctrine of evangelicals for the “free market” is its capacity for innovation: New ideas, new technologies, new gadgets -- all flow not from governments but from individuals and businesses allowed to flourish in the market, we are told.

That’s the claim made in a recent op/ed in our local paper by policy analyst Josiah Neeley of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think-tank in Austin. His conclusion: “Throughout history, technological advances have been driven by private investment, not by government fiat. There is no reason to expect that to change anytime soon.”

As is often the case in faith-based systems, reconciling doctrine to the facts of history can be tricky. When I read Neeley’s piece, I immediately thought of the long list of modern technological innovations that came directly from government-directed and -financed projects, most notably containerization, satellites, computers, and the Internet. The initial research-and-development for all these projects so central to the modern economy came from the government, often through the military, long before they were commercially viable. It’s true that individuals and businesses often used those innovations to create products and services for the market, but without the foundational research funded by government, none of those products and services could exist.

So I called Neeley and asked what innovations he had in mind when he wrote his piece. In an email response he cited Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers. Fair enough -- they were independent entrepreneurs, working in the late 19th and early 20th century. But their work came decades after the U.S. Army had provided the primary funding to make interchangeable parts possible, a transformative moment in the history of industrialization. In the “good old days,” government also got involved.

As Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway explain in their book Merchants of Doubt, the U.S. Army’s Ordinance Department wanted interchangeable parts to make guns that could be repaired easily on or near battlefields, which required machine-tooled parts. That research took nearly 50 years, much longer than any individual or corporation would support. The authors make the important point clearly: “Markets spread the technology of machine tools throughout the world, but markets did not create it. Centralized government, in the form of the U.S. Army, was the inventor of the modern machine age.”

That strikes me as an important part of the story of the era of Edison and the Wrights, but one conveniently ignored by free-marketeers.

Even more curious in Neeley’s response were the two specific products he mentioned in his email: “The plow wasn’t created by government fiat, and neither was the iPhone.”

The plow and the iPhone are the best examples of innovations in the private sphere? The plow was invented thousands of years ago, in a world in which governments and economic systems were organized in just slightly different ways, making it an odd example for this discussion of modern capitalism and the nation-state. And the iPhone wouldn’t exist without all that government R&D that created computers and the Internet. 

Neeley didn’t try to deny the undeniable role of government and military funding; for example, he mentioned the Saturn V rocket (a case made even more interesting, of course, because Nazi scientists were brought into the United States after World War II to work on the project). “But the driver of these advances’ adoption and relevance outside the realm of government fiat has always been the private sphere,” he wrote in his response.

Neeley is playing a painfully transparent game here. He acknowledges that many basic technological advances are driven by government fiat in the basic R&D phase, but somehow that phase doesn’t matter. What matters is the “adoption and relevance” phase. It’s apparently not relevant that without the basic R&D in these cases there would have been nothing to adopt and make relevant for the market.

We’re in real Wizard of Oz territory here -- pay no attention to the scientists working behind the curtain, who are being paid with your tax dollars. Just step up to the counter and pay the corporate wizards for their products and services, without asking about the tax-funded research on which they rely.

There are serious questions to be debated about how public money should be spent on which kinds of R&D, especially when so much of that money comes through the U.S. military, whose budget many of us think is bloated. More transparency is needed in that process.

But anyone who cares about honest argumentation should be offended on principled grounds by Neeley’s sleight of hand. His distortion of history is especially egregious given the context of his op/ed, which argues against public support for solar energy in favor of the expansion of oil and gas drilling. Neeley focuses on the failure of Solyndra -- the solar panel manufacturer that filed for bankruptcy after getting a $535 million federal loan guarantee -- in trying to make a case against government support for alternative energy development. When public subsidies fail, there should be a vigorous investigation. But the failure of one company, hitched to a highly distorted story about the history of technological innovation, doesn’t make for a strong argument against any public support for solutions to the energy crisis, nor does it cover up the fact that the increasing use of fossil fuels accelerates climate change/disruption.

The larger context for this assertion of market fundamentalism is the ongoing political project to de-legitimize any collective action by ordinary people through government. Given the degree to which corporations and the wealthy dominate contemporary government, from the local to the national level, it’s not clear why elites are so flustered; they are the ones who benefit most from government spending. But politicians and pundits who serve those elites keep hammering away on a simple theme -- business good, government bad -- hoping to make sure that the formal mechanisms of democracy won’t be used to question the concentration of wealth and power.

Throughout history, the political projects of the wealthy have been driven by propaganda. There is no reason to expect that to change anytime soon, which means popular movements for economic justice and ecological sustainability not only have to struggle to change the future but also to tell the truth about the past.



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ABOUT Robert Jensen

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest books are Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue, and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out, in print and on Kindle.

Jensen is also the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing” (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist.  An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online.

Jensen can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu and his articles can be found online. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go here. Twitter: @jensenrobertw.

To promote the idea that

To promote the idea that Government should keep out of R

Neely's thinking is truly

Neely's thinking is truly faith based and even delusional. It's incredibly easy to destroy his argument because the facts are all over the place. Let's start with drugs and real cures, not symptomatic bandages, such as vaccines and penicillin. Private enterprise has not invented ONE of those types of drugs.

Yes, let's get government out of our lives, and see how fast we fall into third world status. That's what good government prevents. However, "government" isn't for and by the people any longer. It's a whore of lazy corporate welfare queens who make bad decisions, and then blame and rape us of our tax dollars while paying none themselves. I say let's go full out.

I'd also like to point out that Nazi Germany wasn't free market and their technology was far more advanced than any other country, including the USA and Britain, and add to that the USSR was the first country in space.

Let the messianic capitalists pay for their own infrastructure, police force, military, and court system, and educational system. I'm tired of their whining. Why can't they pay for their own needs like we have to?

Hear hear! I agree totally.

Hear hear! I agree totally.

Actually they had the plow or

Actually they had the plow or plough back in the Roman Empire. I don't remember ever learning or reading in history of a Corporate Rome! In fact the simplest of plows go back to ancient Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley 5,000 - 6,000 B.C. I'm pretty sure that back then their governments (Kings, et. al.) were running the show, not a private individual or company. Talk about governmental control. No such thing as individualism in those days! Just to add for those who don't know this, the word government comes from two words: Govern = to control and Mente = mind. So, government means to control the mind. Food for thought.

Clinton signed GATT after

Clinton signed GATT after only just coming into office. The Uruguay Rounds of GATT, which created the WTO started in 1986 (Reagan) and continued until 1993 when Clinton signed it. Even though they call it GATT 1994. The same with NAFTA. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_Free_Trade_Agreement
Even though both were signed by a just entering office Clinton, both of these sets of legislation were the creation of the Republicans. Had George H.W. Bush won the election he would have signed them as well. Clinton is a Bilderberger so why expect any less of him than any conservative, pro-business, republican, even though he ran under the guise of a Democrat? There are only two parties to choose from by the way. The only difference is that the Bilderbergers are for the most part foreigners. Our current president is a Bilderberger and so are his whole entire cabinet. So basically none of our presidents or other elected officials, regardless of party, give a crap about the average American! If people keep finger pointing based on party we will never get our country back on track. The politicians are all corrupt and for sale to the highest bidder no matter political philosophy. Everything that comes out of their mouths is lies and deceit geared to getting themselves more personal wealth and perpetually reelected. The age of the "public servant" is dead! Also one of the first steps towards a downward spiral in America came with the Tax Reform Act of 1986 coupled with the Kemp-Roth Tax Cuts of 1981. http://www.enotes.com/tax-reform-act-1986-101461-reference/tax-reform-ac...
The problem with these two pieces of legislation were that they were sold to us as tax cuts because of the changes in tax rates, what they didn't tell you was that the changes in deductions and who could take them completely offset the reduction in the actual rate and effectively placed more of a tax burden on the working and middle class. One of the reasons that we really have no more middle class. One last thing I would like to say is that those of us from the Northern United States know that Southern Democrats are really Republicans in disguise!

Clinton signed GATT after

Clinton signed GATT after only just coming into office. The Uruguay Rounds of GATT, which created the WTO started in 1986 (Reagan) and continued until 1993 when Clinton signed it. Even though they call it GATT 1994. The same with NAFTA. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_Free_Trade_Agreement
Even though both were signed by a just entering office Clinton, both of these sets of legislation were the creation of the Republicans. Had George H.W. Bush won the election he would have signed them as well. Clinton is a Bilderberger so why expect any less of him than any conservative, pro-business, republican, even though he ran under the guise of a Democrat? There are only two parties to choose from by the way. The only difference is that the Bilderbergers are for the most part foreigners. Our current president is a Bilderberger and so are his whole entire cabinet. So basically none of our presidents or other elected officials, regardless of party, give a crap about the average American! If people keep finger pointing based on party we will never get our country back on track. The politicians are all corrupt and for sale to the highest bidder no matter political philosophy. Everything that comes out of their mouths is lies and deceit geared to getting themselves more personal wealth and perpetually reelected. The age of the "public servant" is dead! Also one of the first steps towards a downward spiral in America came with the Tax Reform Act of 1986 coupled with the Kemp-Roth Tax Cuts of 1981. http://www.enotes.com/tax-reform-act-1986-101461-reference/tax-reform-ac...
The problem with these two pieces of legislation were that they were sold to us as tax cuts because of the changes in tax rates, what they didn't tell you was that the changes in deductions and who could take them completely offset the reduction in the actual rate and effectively placed more of a tax burden on the working and middle class. One of the reasons that we really have no more middle class. One last thing I would like to say is that those of us from the Northern United States know that Southern Democrats are really Republicans in disguise!

Free Enterprise works well in

Free Enterprise works well in established market free of foreign subsidies and without huge risks. America lost its edge when Clinton Signed NAFTA, GATT and established the World Trade Organization; policies that Newt helped push through Congress. People need to understand that American just cannot compete with China for Manufactured Products because there is too much labor differential for an American Company to survive -which is why we cannot produce Solar Cells here; and any fool except the government knows that.

Pushing production technology that is not ready is a total waste of taxpayer money; what should be done is to reduce energy cost while doing research and development to provide alternatives. What we should not do is increase energy cost to make us less competitive. Prototypes and concept plants and vehicles are good but (most) windmills and Chevy Volts are a waste of money, borrowed money from future generations.

The only way our economy can recover is to limit foreign imports to balance the foreign trade deficit which will bring industry and jobs back; something neither party seems willing to do.

Clinton signed GATT after

Clinton signed GATT after only just coming into office. The Uruguay Rounds of GATT, which created the WTO started in 1986 (Reagan) and continued until 1993 when Clinton signed it. Even though they call it GATT 1994. The same with NAFTA. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_Free_Trade_Agreement
Even though both were signed by a just entering office Clinton, both of these sets of legislation were the creation of the Republicans. Had George H.W. Bush won the election he would have signed them as well. Clinton is a Bilderberger so why expect any less of him than any conservative, pro-business, republican, even though he ran under the guise of a Democrat? There are only two parties to choose from by the way. The only difference is that the Bilderbergers are for the most part foreigners. Our current president is a Bilderberger and so are his whole entire cabinet. So basically none of our presidents or other elected officials, regardless of party, give a crap about the average American! If people keep finger pointing based on party we will never get our country back on track. The politicians are all corrupt and for sale to the highest bidder no matter political philosophy. Everything that comes out of their mouths is lies and deceit geared to getting themselves more personal wealth and perpetually reelected. The age of the "public servant" is dead! Also one of the first steps towards a downward spiral in America came with the Tax Reform Act of 1986 coupled with the Kemp-Roth Tax Cuts of 1981. The problem with these two pieces of legislation were that they were sold to us as tax cuts because of the changes in tax rates, what they didn't tell you was that the changes in deductions and who could take them completely offset the reduction in the actual rate and effectively placed more of a tax burden on the working and middle class. One of the reasons that we really have no more middle class. One last thing I would like to say is that those of us from the Northern United States know that Southern Democrats are really Republicans in disguise!

Neeley needs to go study the

Neeley needs to go study the reasons for the Atomic, Hydrogen, and Nuclear bombs when talking about private sector involvement and governmental reasons for the production of technologies, including the Saturn V and other space related fields. Military necessity was the main driving force! There was no private sector need to miniaturize and thus create polymers and semi-conductors. Today's cell phone is yesterdays Star Trek Communicator. Beam me up Scotty there is no intelligent life down here!

#1 in my lifetime is the

#1 in my lifetime is the Space Program. So many technologies that we take for granted today came from the Space Race back in the 50-60s. This was a total government controlled and funded program. As the government has privatized its programs the Distribution of Wealth in America has become less equal and there has been less innovation and more recycling of older technology in order to maximize the product life cycle and profits along with it!

Neely's article follows the

Neely's article follows the formula laid down by American conservatives long ago; When the facts don't support you favored argument, lie. Its clearly a higher necessity in conservative thought that the reader, or congregant or seminar participant be on board with the arc of the philosophy than be worried about the particulars. Lies work every bit as well as truth when the object is persuasion. I would be in agreement with people like Neely if he harbored equal enmity for capital that he has for government. If we are going to be stuck with one, we are going to require the other; yin and yang.

What Neely doesn't care to acknowledge is that business is one of the most inherently conservative organizations (or as mittens likes to think about them.... people), man has ever created. Big innovations and world shaking ideas are by and large not welcome. Invariably, the guy who ends up at the top, making decisions about what gets made, does not get there by being iconoclastic and innovative. Quite the opposite. The guy with the clever new idea is someone prone to taking contrary positions, thinking out of the box and being everything that Mr. Manager-type is not. If it were any other way, why would we be today witnessing large Wall St. firms sitting on literally trillions of dollars, buying there own stock and looking for bigger rooms to store the loot. Where are the grand innovative designs? Where are the next earth shattering idea or device? That does not exactly represent innovative thinking or risk taking.

The debate is about the role government has to play in the lives of the people. (and by "people" I most certainly DO NOT include corporations). The history of this nation makes clear that there is a valuable and necessary role to play. The history of the conduct of business in this nation makes emphatically clear that we need a government to check the excesses of capital and to provide the incentives and research that business would never dream about assuming. There is no reason to believe that capital would be willing or able to build an interstate highway system, a space program, nation-wide public education. Nor is there any reason for them to feed the poor or provide health care to the elderly. There are many aspects of life that cannot be made better by resorting to a profit motive.

Authors like Neely can spread their gospel as far and wide as they wish, but it will not make for brand new truth arising from a bed of cultivated lies.

Neeley needs to go study the

Neeley needs to go study the reasons for the Atomic, Hydrogen, and Nuclear bombs when talking about private sector involvement and governmental reasons for the production of technologies, including the Saturn V and other space related fields. Military necessity was the main driving force! There was no private sector need to miniaturize and thus create polymers and semi-conductors. Today's cell phone is yesterdays Star Trek Communicator. Beam me up Scotty there is no intelligent life down here!

In other words people need to

In other words people need to learn something my father taught me when I was growing up and that is: "What's good for business is good for business, and almost always not good for me!"

This is great insight into

This is great insight into the historic fundamental roll of government funded research in the development of modern industrial society.

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