The most transformative technology of our era started out as a government project and was supported mostly by government funds until it was discovered by businesses in the 1990s. Here’s how the internet became the preferred way of connecting computers and creating an online world, why this government creation beat out private competitors, and what it tells us about the role governments play in economic development.
In the 20th century a remarkable partnership between the federal government and the states and localities transformed American farming by teaching farmers about new crops, methods, and technologies. Imagine what something like cooperative extension could do in the 21st century for people living in cities and suburbs. Here’s why this government program worked so well in the past, and why it might be a model for our times.
The National Weather Service has created a huge infrastructure of radar, satellites, ocean buoys, aircraft sensors, hurricane-hunting airplanes, and volunteer storm spotters to keep us aware of changing weather conditions and warn us of approaching storms. These forecasts and warnings are growing more accurate by the day. So what does the government charge for this life-and-death service? Nothing. Public safety is one reason we have governments.
Every 10 years, the Census offers a finely detailed portrait of America. Using its data, planners and scholars can see where we’ve been and where we’re headed. But others, including investors and business executives, have come to depend on this “gold standard” of demographic research. Here is the story of the Census, and why only government could produce something of this scale and quality.
In the 1970s the federal government began testing appliances for energy consumption and requiring that the results be posted on dishwashers, laundry equipment, heating and air conditioning equipment, and the like. In the 50 years since, this testing and regulation system has saved consumers hundreds of billions of dollars and reduced energy use dramatically. It’s another way government quietly works to make your life better.