Last week I used the iPod as an example of how innovation creates jobs, some of them offshore, but many of them--especially those that pay well--here in the United States. Steve Jobs, who died last week, was one of America’s greatest innovators, and we may well wonder where the next innovator of his caliber will come from. But another question is how and where that person’s skills for innovation will be refined and implemented.
We hear a lot of talk these days that the key to job creation is getting out of the way of the private sector. Tax it less, regulate it less, and it will nourish innovation and create the jobs that our economy so desperately needs right now. Let the marketplace discover and reward breakthrough technologies.
But there’s also a case to be made for the role of the public sector, especially at a time when the private sector is unwilling to invest in jobs and in basic research. I was impressed by the video of Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren that recently went viral, in which she says, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there? Good for you, but I want to be clear: You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.” It’s useful to remember that Steve Jobs was the product of a public school education.
Political demonstrators who invoke an earlier era by wearing three-cornered hats seem to forget that this country has a long legacy of innovation that was fostered by the public sector. Samuel Morse developed the electric telegraph in response to a prize that Congress offered for a better form of long-distance communication than the semaphore signals that were in use at that time. His first demonstration of long-distance telegraph transmission, from Baltimore to Washington, was financed by a federal grant.
At last night’s Republican debate, one of the questioners asked, “From the Erie Canal to the Internet, . . . innovation is what’s always fueled economic recovery. So shouldn’t the focus now be on trying to create the innovative jobs of tomorrow?” None of the candidates present commented that the Erie Canal, which transformed New York City into the paramount port on the East Coast, was financed entirely by the public sector. So was the development of the Internet, by what’s now the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The integrated circuit, which made all of Steve Jobs’s products possible, was invented by Jack Kilby, also the product of a public school education. He was working at Texas Instruments, a private-sector company, but TI morphed from a company that served the oil industry to an electronics powerhouse because of contracts from the Signal Corps and the Navy. Development of the computer chip got a massive boost from the space program.
In fact, the Cold War and the space race that grew out of it were responsible for a wide range of innovations that continue to shape our economy. This push also resulted in federally funded improvements to the infrastructure, notably the interstate highway system (which is officially called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways), along which Steve Jobs’s products were shipped to your door. This effort also expanded federal funding of education through the National Defense Education Act. The accelerated academic program that I was enrolled in while in (public) junior high school was initiated in direct response to Sputnik. And the fathers of many of my classmates had gone to college on the GI Bill and were working at a federally funded New Jersey laboratory that supported the work of the Signal Corps.
The recent collapse of the Solyndra company, recipient of a half-billion-dollar federal loan guarantee, has been used by some as evidence that government support of innovation is misguided at best and corrupt at worst. But when private-sector investment is focused on complex derivatives and arbitrage rather than on basic research and infrastructure, the government becomes the innovation investor of last resort. The money that the treasury lost on Solyndra is miniscule compared to the funds that the private sector lost investing in subprime mortgages.
It will never be cheaper to borrow money than now. We can find workers more easily and hire them for less money than in normal times. What are we waiting for?