Good-for-Nothings

Call it the Good-for-Nothing Government Caucus. For the past 35 years or so, it’s been a sacred article of the Republican faith that government is not much good at anything.

Government can’t innovate new technology, devout right wingers believe, nor create jobs, nor stimulate economic growth. Only the mighty private sector of free market capitalism can take us to the Promised Land. All the government can do is screw things up with useless regulations and wasteful entitlements to healthcare, Food Stamps, Social Security, Medicare, Fannie Mae, Freddy Mac, and polling places in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Dismantling all those programs (though not so far proposing any real alternatives) pretty much describes the Republican Holy Grail ever since Reagan promised to “get the government off our backs.”

It’s a stunning confession of guilt.

Republicans are roughly half the government they abhor. Since they’ve unanimously pronounced themselves useless, we’ll have to admit that we had noticed.

Democrats understand that government can do essential things well – except when its Incompetent Caucus stamps its feet in unison, holds its breath, and screams “NO!” to every initiative, even their own.

That’s settled, then. Nothing remains except for mass Republican resignations from state and federal office, and the refunding of ill-gotten salaries they collected but haven’t done anything to earn for the past 6 years.

Or not. Actually each time the Good-for-Nothing Government Caucus is again proven wrong, it just gets louder, repeating the same ignorant non-facts that have just been discredited.

A couple of examples.

Paul Krugman writes in Saturday’s Times about the state of Obamacare – not how bad it is, how good it is – how every doomsday/trainwreck prediction from right wingers has come crashing down around their ears.

No, the sign-ups did not fall short of quotas; they far exceeded them. No, the ratio of younger participants did not turn out to be too low. No, the insurance companies did not sharply increase premiums.

But you can still hear the same hollow proclamations of non-facts twelve times a day on Fox News, recited as if from the New Testament. Old dogs turning old tricks –speaking for treats.

Another example – perhaps the richest of all – is the commonly stated assumption that technological innovations never come from government, always arise from entrepreneurism and profit motives in the private sector.

On that subject, Mariana Mazzucato just published The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths (Anthem) – which the New York Review of Books calls “one of the most incisive economics books in years.”

Mazzucato quotes various economists who should have known better – Milton Friedman, Lawrence Summers, Robert Gordon – as, in Gordon’s term, “extremely skeptical of government as a source of innovation.” He thinks real inventions come from entrepreneurs like those in Silicon Valley.

Mazzucato shows how misinformed such typical comments have been. Not only was the Internet itself developed by the Defense Department, it was also U.S. military contracts that gave rise to the flowering of Silicon Valley around Palo Alto.

Though Steve Jobs and others brilliantly designed commercial products, “almost all the scientific research on which the iPod, iPhone, and iPad are based was done by government-backed scientists in Europe and America.”

For example, research that resulted in touchscreen technology arose from government-sponsored science in the 1960s and 1970s.

In the medical sciences, much the same pattern holds true. Between 1993 and 2004, NIH was responsible for 75% of the major scientific breakthroughs – known as “new molecular entities.”

Despite all the credit commonly given to venture capital, the fact is that private firms typically invest only after innovations have come a long way under government’s much more daring basic research and more patient injection of capital.

In reality, less and less basic research is done by companies. Instead, they focus on commercial development of breakthroughs already achieved with the help of public money. Mazzucato cites government initiatives that engendered new technologies in completely new spheres such as information theory, information technology, nuclear energy, biotech, and nanotech.

Not bad for a good-for-nothing government.

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About Al

Editors of The Horse You Rode In On (listed below) hail from Boston, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco. All contributions are signed. When guest contributors are included, their comments will be signed in a manner consistent with their needs for discretion, witness protection, or yearning for personal adulation.