There seems to be a lot of misconception regarding the role of government spending in spurring innovation. As someone who has spent 15 years in various roles at the Department of Defense; including research intern, military officer, and civil servant, I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly of government spending, and specifically military spending. I will not even touch the asinine argument that government does not create jobs. Aside from directly employing military and civilian personnel, contracts go to paying salaries that otherwise wouldn’t get paid. Why the hell do Congress critters fight so hard for government contracts for their districts if not for the jobs, and thus the votes, they bring? Not convinced, some contractors such as McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing) are still fighting a 1991 decision by then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to kill the Navy A-12 Avenger II program. A program that cost them a lot of money. Money that goes to shareholders, executive bonuses, and the working man’s salary or wage. Here’s a dirty little secret; everyone’s a fiscal liberal. Just depends on the particulars. If the particular spending benefits a politicians personal investments or the investments of constituents; you can bet they’ll find an over the top justification to support it. Same is true for the people who vote for that politician. People vote with their wallets, they vote for the guy that’s going to make it fatter.
Now regardless of your feelings about the morality of military spending, the fact is DoD budget predominately goes to paying for military and civilian personnel and for the acquisition and operations of military hardware. Hardware that has either defensive or offensive capabilities; in other words to protect our people and kill the bad guys. The problem with military technology, starting with the first time man employed a stick as a club, is that even if you’re first at utilizing a new technology, your enemy will look for a way to one up you. It really is a Pandora’s Box. So what to else to do but innovate? Again, morality aside, this is a fact of life. Let me brak topic quickly from innovation and briefly focus on the necessity of military spending specifically. To paraphrase General Douglas MacArther, the soldier above all others prays for peace but also knows that eternal vigilance and preparedness is required maintain the peace. The fact is there are a handful of powerful people and entities that hate what America stands for. And unlike generations past where we could easily hold up a nation-state as the enemy, we recognize the enemy today is smaller but way more agile. We must be prepared to combat the threat proactively, doing everything to be prepared, short of selling out our liberty to gain the security. We cannot 100% guarantee against another attack, but we can sleep soundly knowing we have good people trying their hardest to strike that balance between security and liberty. With that said I do welcome debate on how much we spend on defense and what we specifically spend defense dollars on, but that is a post in and of itself. Now back on topic…
US government spending on military technologies and at other technically focused organizations such as NASA have brought us many new inventions and patents awarded to government research scientists and engineers and their contractor counterparts. But here is the great thing, many inventions that start off with only military or space exploration applications eventually find their way into civilian consumer products. GPS navigation and certain key technologies of the Internet amongst the more notable examples.
And it’s not just limited to the high tech. Our interstate highway system is a modern marvel, and was brought to you by government spending. Spending that got paid out to a great many contractors who made a tidy sum.
So to those who claim that they built there business completely by themselves but have ever driven on a highway or use the Internet; you are deluding yourselves at best. Try to imagine building your own highway network to transport physical goods or inventing a whole new Internet to transport digital data. Unless you literally start from scratch, it’s preposterous to belief that individuals and corporations don’t benefit, directly and/or indirectly from government innovations and investments. Unless of course your business can operate completely inside a black box. But chances are there are aspects of your business model that rely on existing technologies or infrastructure that are funded by or were started with Government spending. Makes you wonder about what new technologies are being baked up at NASA or DARPA right now that will change all our lives in 5, 10, or 20 years. And certainly not all new innovations will be born out of government research hives. Many new technologies and innovations do come from private industry or academia without government assistance, especially true with small businesses and startups. Amazing things happen in those companies that are not bogged down with supporting pre-existing products or business processes.
Bottom line, government researchers, engineers, and scientists innovate every day and many hold patents for their inventions. So do the researchers, engineers, and scientists who work for contractors that receive government contracts. As do the researchers, engineers, and scientists who have never worked on a government contract. But the fact remains that sometimes the government has to front load the cost through contracts and/or subsidies to do the really big things (e.g. landing two men, one from Ohio and the other from New Jersey, on the moon) because the risks are too high for a company to do it alone. And to those who honestly believe a complete hands off approach would work, I would submit the lunacy of the recent Samsung vs. Apple patent “show trial” where we fought over whether or not rounded squares were an innovation worthy of patent or not. That is not exactly the type of “innovation” that is going to get us a human on Mars, mining the asteroid belt, or high performance batteries. Innovative efforts that will, you know, actually move the human race forward.