[e2e] It's all my fault

Noel Chiappa jnc at mercury.lcs.mit.edu
Thu May 17 17:19:11 PDT 2007

    > From: Vadim Antonov <avg at kotovnik.com>

This is getting a bit far afield, and so I apologize in advance to anyone
who's irritated...

    > The fact that government hired a bright person to do some work does not
    > mean that the very same person (or another person just as bright)
    > wouldn't do the same if hired by a private company for the same wage
    > (if govnernment didn't expropriate it earlier).
    > ...
    > If you check the track record of DARPA's performance on other projects
    > you'll see that nearly all of them were total disasters.

There is a favourite saying of mine that goes something like "There are two
kinds of confused people: one says 'This is old, and therefore good', and the
other says 'This is new, and therefore better'." I trust the point is
obvious: it's not the newness or oldness which makes something good, but
simply whether or not the thing is good.

I think there's probably a relative of this saying which says something like
"'This is done by government, and therefore good', and the other says 'This
is done by private industry, and therefore better'".

If you look at history, there are plenty of examples of extremely influential
things which a government did after private industry didn't take up the
challenge, e.g. Harrison's invention of the marine chronometer for finding
latitude, which made seaborne commerce much more viable; that was done in
response to a UK government initiative. There are even examples of things
where private industry tried and failed, and a government project to do it
succeeded: e.g. the Panama Canal.

Of course, there are also plenty of examples where private industry did
something better than the government too: the Wright brothers versus Langley;
the R-100 airship versus the R-101 (a major subject of Nevil Shute's fabulous
autobiography "Slide Rule", in which he rails, mostly correctly, against
government attempts to do things). But as the saying goes, "the plural of
anecdote is not data".

And of course most of the scientific research in most of the world for the
last century has been funded by taxes. Sure, it's laundered through
universities, etc, but it's still tax money being spent. Should we dispense
with all that, too? Pure research pays off big-time in the long run, but most
of it is too long-term, and the eventual results impossible to forsee, for
private industry to get involved. E.g. semi-conductors wouldn't exist without
the physicists (none sponsored by private industry, as far as I can recall)
who developed quantum mechanics in the 20's, decades before.

And if you think private industry will take over if we do, think again. Look
what happened when the US Government cut the funding for the Super-Conducting
Super-Collider; private business sure as heck hasn't taken that baton up.

I think government funding, *intelligently managed*, has a role. Of course,
that's a high qualifier, and a lot of what's spent these days simply doesn't
pass muster.

(Speaking of which, the amount of pork barrel spending on useless earmarked
research in the US is pathetic. I am reminded of that famous acerbic de
Tocqueville observation: "The American republic will endure until the
politicians find they can bribe the people with their own money.")

But to simply dismiss all government projects/research as unworthy is just
not supported by history. I'd rather look at each one and say "was this money
well spent", and treat each case on its own merits.


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