Capitalism a leech on publicly funded research

23 Aug

Prevailing neo-liberal dogma holds that private capital is responsible for most economic innovation and that governments stand in the way. In The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs, Private Sector Myths, Mariana Mazzucato points out that most research is funded by governments and that current anti-government policies not only widen disparities but threaten future innovation, especially the mobilization of resources necessary to rapidly shift away from dependence on carbon-spewing fossil fuels.   

Mazzucato—professor of The Economics of Innovation at Sussex University in the UK—argues that capitalists are not the visionary risk-takers that free-market economists, the corporate media and politicians would have us believe.  Their focus on maximizing profits actually makes capitalists risk-averse.

Governments fund and organize research and development precisely because they do not have to answer to shareholders. They can have broader goals—future well being, new employment, reduced disparities, or environmental integrity.  And in fact, even in the U.S. the federal government funds two-thirds of the country’s research and development: private business funds less than twenty percent.

Neo-liberal ideology aside, capital has long depended on governments to fund research. In earlier times, governments funded research on canon fire and ocean shipping. They funded construction of railways, telegraph then telephone lines, and funded research on aerodynamics and jet engines. After government funding has made production profitable private business takes charge.

Today, military-industrial corporations continue to rely on publicly funded research to develop weapons and equipment. They then sell the results to governments at cost plus inflated profits. Pharmaceutical corporations do the same. Most new drugs are developed in publicly funded labs.  These are then modified slightly, patented and sold to government-funded health care systems at hundreds of times the production cost.

Contrary to public opinion, neither Steve Jobs nor Apple had a critical role in the development of the Internet  or iPhones.  Hard disk drives were developed by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The Internet was constructed by U.S. federal agencies working with publicly funded universities. The Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and the World Wide Web were conceived by U.K. government-funded scientists.

Touch screen technology was developed in government labs in the U.S. and U.K.  GPS was developed by the U.S. military and continues to be funded by the U.S. Air Force. Lithium Ion batteries were developed by U.S. Department of Energy scientists. Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) and Thin Film Transistors (TFT) were developed in government-funded labs. So were SIRI, an artificial intelligence program, and the critical Web Search algorithm.

Steve Jobs and Apple can be credited with stylishly rounded edges on computers and iPhones. Eye-catching design and effective marketing allowed their shareholders to make billions from the socialization of research and the privatization of profits.

Future innovation in the U.S., U.K. and Canada, Mazzucato argues, is threatened by current anti-government policies. A few—wealthy capitalists—have unquestionably benefited from neo-liberal policies. Corporations have been freed to move technical and professional employment as well as jobs in manufacturing and services to places where wages are lower, where enforcement of labor and environmental regulations is lax. Meanwhile, cuts to taxes and government spending have widened disparities, aggravated market stagnation, and by reducing funds available for research are prolonging dependence on fossil fuels.

If carbon-induced global warming is to be reversed, massive sums will have to be invested. Widely coordinated action will be required to rapidly replace dependence on fossil fuels with solar, wind, tidal, wave, and geothermal power. Existing capital is locked into profits from fossil fuels; private capital cannot be expected to take the lead. Only the public can mobilize the resources required.

Where measures have been taken, public authorities have taken the initiatives. Denmark is a leader in the technology of wind power.  China has massively increased its production of wind and solar power.  Germany has installed solar panels that can produce as much electricity as 24 nuclear power plants. Wider action is blocked by corporate lobbying anti-government ideology. Denying carbon-fueled climate change is no longer credible; still so long as governments are denied the means to act, corporations and their shareholders can continue to make massive profits from fossil fuels.

Concerted public action is urgently required to develop low-cost electricity storage, to construct the smart grids and digitized energy distribution systems needed to “optimize the flexibility, performance, and efficiency” of wind and solar power.  Concerted public action is also required to rapidly reduce consumer waste and industrial and agricultural pollution.  National, regional and local governments could gain the resources needed if taxes were raised on corporations and top incomes as well as on financial transactions, wealth, and inheritance. Increasing taxes on capital would socialize some profits. Most of the costs of innovation have already been socialized.

Al Engler


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