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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Don’t Waste Your Talents in Government

If you had to choose between working for Google or the federal government, which would you choose?

Let’s say you are technologically gifted. You are offered the chance to develop those talents at either Google or the federal government. Which would you choose? The answer is so obvious that the question is almost rhetorical.

If you had to choose between working for Google or the federal government, which would you choose?Working at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA, allows the talented to develop ideas with some of the world’s greatest minds in concert with some of the cushiest corporate perks ever conceived. So big is the fight for talent in Silicon Valley that even the area’s chefs are enjoying bidding wars for their services.

Google would be a pretty wondrous place to work, and that’s even ignoring the handsome pay – pay that includes equity in one of the 21st century’s greatest growth stories. There is also the thought of the next job: working at Google earns you an awesome credential for life.

Reason for Sadness?

Talented people logically want to express those talents in the marketplace. The good news is that they’re getting that chance. Thanks to a surge of investor interest in Silicon Valley, companies like Google are, according to Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times, “funding the biggest, most world-changing things. They are spending on ideas that, years from now, we may come to see as having altered life for much of the planet.”

Yet despite this happy development, Manjoo is downcast. His concern, if readers can believe it, is that “the American government’s appetite for funding big things – for scientific research and out-of-this-world technology and infrastructure programs – keeps falling.” Manjoo contends that the latter “sets up a looming complication: Technology giants, not the government, are building the artificially intelligent future.”

Let’s unpack Manjoo’s comments.

For one, individuals who work in government don’t have six fingers on each hand, they don’t have blood types different from us civilians, and their employment by the federal government doesn’t cause angelic qualities to magically enter their bodies. To state a tautology, individuals who work in government used to not work in Why would those drawn to bureaucracy be handed the money of others to pursue “world-changing things”?government. They’re just like us, though some might reasonably point out that they’re less ambitious and less risk-oriented.

More than Manjoo would perhaps like to admit, government work is to some degree an expression of an individual’s personal makeup, including a desire to avoid the risk of job loss that so often defines real-world employment. In short, the big thinkers, innovators, and risk-takers don’t generally migrate to bureaucracy and pay grades. Why, then, would those who do be handed the money of others to pursue “world-changing things”?

Ok, but the frequent reply from those prone to defending government’s role in shaping our technological future is that absent past government investment in research there would be no internet, nor would there be the GPS technology that is increasingly driving and shaping the “gig economy.” Back in 2013, Allan Sloan laughably contended that if not for federal research there’s “No Arpanet, no Internet. No Internet, no Amazon, no $25 billion personal fortune for Jeff Bezos.” No doubt some who should know better believe that if it were not for the Air Force, there would be no GPS technology either.

Making Primitive Things

In reality, the federal government created primitive and unmarketable versions of the internet and GPS. Government didn’t create the internet or GPS as much as they extracted resources from the private sector and led to advances that had no application in the marketplace.

Regarding GPS alone, it took years of private investment for navigational advances to reach the consumer in remotely affordable fashion. And then it was entrepreneurial companies like Apple and Samsung that saw the value of inserting GPS into smartphones, only for other bright minds like Travis Kalanick to see the commercial possibilities of GPS technology on the way to Uber.

After that, for Sloan and others to suggest that we wouldn’t have GPS or the internet sans government experimentation is as silly as the suggestion that without federal infrastructure spending, we would still be traveling by horseback from Los Angeles and San Francisco.

In the real world, lots of failure makes eventual success possible. Government can’t operate this way.Sorry, but the private sector that gifted us with cars and airplanes would surely have divined traffic-free motorways absent government provision of our current travelways – which are regularly choked.

Paraphrasing Sloan, without private sector wealth-creation there are no roads, no exciting technology to speak of, and surely no federal investment in the same. Only in the New York Times’ newsroom do government jobs simply exist, along with the ability of those in federal employ to spend a lot of money allegedly shaping the future. Manjoo missed that taxpayers have historically gone without to varying degrees so that federal workers could “tinker.”

Which brings us to a crucial aspect of technological advance that explains why the federal government’s attempts to shape the future are wholly counterproductive.

In the real world, failure, and lots of it, is what makes eventual success possible. As Pixar founder Ed Catmull noted in his essential 2014 book Creativity, Inc., all movies produced inside the northern California studio “suck” at first.

What’s important is that Pixar employees race to realize their mistakes. They have no choice but to do so in light of the shareholders they must please. Of course it’s this desire to enrich their owners that forces feverish improvement of that which is initially much less than great.

Nothing Is Automatically Awesome

Acknowledged failure has forever defined technological advance in the real world. Thomas Edison felt he’d had a good day if he’d experimented a great deal, only to err each time. The failures provided information crucial to eventual success.

Capitalistic advance is preceded by the failure that rarely informs the oxymoron that is “government investment.”More modernly, Jeff Bezos yearns for blockbuster products like the Echo, since winning products fund lots of experimentation that will surely lead to lots of information-producing losers. Government technologists can’t operate this way given the basic truth that failure doesn’t inform their experimentation. Leaving aside the talent deficits inside government bureaucracies, the bigger problem is that the endless inflow of other people’s money means governmental tinkering takes place minus loss realization – without which there can be no victories.

Somehow all of this is lost on Manjoo. His conclusion is that “we would be wise to chip in – or let them take over the future for themselves.” Translated, Manjoo proposes continued fleecing of non-governmental workers so those employed by Leviathan can experiment more. Oh my, wouldn’t we all like free money to do what we want? (Actually, not really, but that’s another column.)

If Google and other technologists in the private sector are going to build the future as Manjoo contends, wonderful. Seemingly missed by Manjoo in a column full of misses is that all the life-enhancing advances are logically crafted in the private sector. Capitalistic advance is preceded by the failure that rarely informs the oxymoron that is “government investment.”

Manjoo laments that big technology companies are set to author “the biggest, most world-changing things.” What he doesn’t see in his eternal confusion is that this would be true whether the federal government invested hundreds of billions each year in technology, or, even better, nothing at all.

  • John Tamny is Director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks, a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research & Trading, and editor of RealClearMarkets.