Government–Not Business–Has Been the Source of Breakthrough Innovation

The New York Times obituary for Douglas C. Englebart, identified as the “Computer Visionary Who Invented the Mouse,” is fascinating reading, in part because Englebart, an Oregon farm boy, was in many ways the father of modern networked computing. Beginning in the early 1960s, he put together a team of engineers and computer scientists, funded by the federal government, that developed a prototype for most of the computer tools we all take for granted today. He unveiled them at a conference in San Francisco in December 1968, which “set the computing world on fire.” In the words of the Times obituary:

“Dr. Engelbart was developing a raft of revolutionary interactive computer technologies and chose the conference as the proper moment to unveil them.

For the event, he sat on stage in front of a mouse, a keyboard and other controls and projected the computer display onto a 22-foot-high video screen behind him. In little more than an hour, he showed how a networked, interactive computing system would allow information to be shared rapidly among collaborating scientists. He demonstrated how a mouse, which he invented just four years earlier, could be used to control a computer. He demonstrated text editing, video conferencing, hypertext and windowing.”

Englebart was a visionary, but his ground-breaking work was not supported by venture capital and his innovations were not the result of the private market or corporate enterprise. His innovations were not spurred by the prospects of incredible income and wealth, all lightly taxed. Rather, the work was funded and organized by a visionary bureaucracy in the U.S. government. As the Times describes it, “during the Vietnam War, he established an experimental research group at Stanford Research Institute (later renamed SRI and then SRI International). The unit, the Augmentation Research Center, known as ARC, had the financial backing of the Air Force, NASA and the Advanced Research Projects Agency, an arm of the Defense Department.”

Mariana Mazzucato, a professor of economics at the University of Sussex, has been making the point very effectively in lectures and a new book, The Entrepreneurial State, that the real innovation engine in the global economy is not business, nor the market, but the government. A recent story about Mazzucato in Forbes cites her view that long-term, patient capital–provided by government–is the absolute prerequisite for breakthrough innovation.

“Her case study for myth-debunking is the iPhone, that icon of American corporate innovation. Each of its core technologies–capacitive sensors, solid-state memory, the click wheel, GPS, internet, cellular communications, Siri, microchips, touchscreen—came from research efforts and funding support of the U.S. government and military.”

Mazzucato suggests that, given the extent to which tech companies like Apple and Intel owe their great good fortune to the federal government’s investment in R&D, they should share more of their profits with the taxpayers. Instead, of course, Apple has been offshoring profits to avoid taxation and most of the tech industry is contributing to the efforts of the U.S Chamber of Commerce and the rest of the organized business lobby to cut corporate taxes and shrink the government. As Mazzucato makes clear, cutting taxes and the government is no recipe for an innovative, competitive future—just the opposite.