MM: I often use the iPhone as an example of how governments shape markets, because what makes the iPhone ‘smart’ and not stupid is what you can do with it. And yes, everything you can do with an iPhone was government-funded. From the Internet that allows you to surf the Web, to GPS that lets you use Google Maps, to touchscreen display and even the SIRI voice activated system —all of these things were funded by Uncle Sam through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), NASA, the Navy, and even the CIA…
… LP: So what Steve Jobs and his team did was not central to the greatness of Apple?
MM: It’s not that Steve Jobs was not a genius—of course he was! But the problem is that the narrative we tell around entrepreneurs like him, Bill Gates or Elon Musk is so unbalanced. We pretend that government at best was important for some infrastructure and basic science behind their empires. We see the new Steve Jobs film, which is based on a 600-page book where not one word mentions any of the public funding behind Apple’s empire.
But the real iPhone story — or the story behind biotechnology — reveals a very different narrative in which government-funded research made the most exciting innovations possible. The same could be said of Elon Musk today —Tesla and Space X not only benefit from government-funded basic research through agencies like the DoE and NASA, but they have also, as companies, received high-risk investments by the public sector. Just one example is the $465 million guaranteed loan received by Tesla by the DoE. As recently shown by an LA Times article, the entire Musk empire has received close to $5 billion in direct and indirect support.
Do we hear about that? No. Is that “story” helpful for future innovation? No.