You might’ve seen this meme floating about the Internet:
Based on its focus on innovation in the IT sector, its snark about the rise of the surveillance state, and its poor editing, we can safely assume this meme was produced by some Silicon Valley libertarian computer programmer with hipster glasses. But just because you’re a libertarian hipster doesn’t mean you don’t have a point, and this guy is dead accurate.
It’s true that NASA hasn’t accomplished anything since 1985 besides the cancellation of the Space Shuttle, which was the greatest project in the history of the agency (check here for more info on why nothing will ever be better than the Shuttle.) It certainly hasn’t put a telescope into space, whose observations have transformed our understanding of the origins of the universe, with another one on the way. It definitely hasn’t put a spacecraft into orbit around Mercury for the first time ever. And it certainly hasn’t sent a robot to Mars with a jetpack and a laser less than a year ago.
It’s true that public school teachers continue to use blackboards with chalk to do all their instruction, having missed out on whiteboards, interactive boards, and the use of computers, laptops, and iPads in the classroom. They must have been too busy taking three-month vacations and organizing for the NEA.
Mr. Libertarian Hipster missed out on the largest agency of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense. That’s odd, because the lack of innovation in the U.S. military since 1983 would really strengthen his argument. Look at the equipment this American soldier was carrying into battle during the invasion of Grenada. Compare it to his 2014 counterpart in Afghanistan.
Nor have the vehicles changed much: this 1983 HMMWV is a dead ringer for its modern equivalent, the MRAP.
All right, I think we’ve had enough. Snark aside, this meme is accurate: it’s totally true that the government has not done as much as the private sector in terms of innovating new consumer products. But that’s because creating consumer technology is not what government does. It’s like saying Alexander Ovechkin is a terrible athlete because he never makes three-pointers and hasn’t driven a single RBI all season. Nobody doubts that the private sector drives consumer innovation, and in a free-market society, that’s the way it should be.
What government actually does is make, enforce, and adjudicate laws; and when those laws work to make our country and the world a better place, government is innovating successfully. The McKinley-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 1986 provided resources and services to homeless Americans. The Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1988 helped bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa. The Americans with Disabilities Act extended to disabled Americans the same civil rights and opportunities as their fellow-citizens.
The North American Free Trade Agreement greatly expanded trade, commerce, and economic opportunity across our continent; the Violence Against Women Act brought resources to the struggle against domestic violence and abuse. George W. Bush preserved for all time the waters and lands of Northwestern Hawaii by creating the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument; Barack Obama gave consumers the chance to fight back against unscrupulous banking practices by creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Lawrence v. Texas gave gay Americans the right to be with the people they loved, and last week’s United States v. Windsor went a long way towards giving them to right to marry the people they loved.
Thirty years of government innovation? I’ll take it.
If you see a meme that doesn’t sit right with you, send it to info (at) alaskacommons (dot) com