The Power of Government Purchasing

By Ralph Nader

In America, the term “innovation” is often exclusively attributed to the profitable successes of private businesses — specifically big corporations like Apple, Google and Microsoft — which are considered by many to be the purveyors of all technological advancement. Recall Mitt Romney repeatedly shouting “government doesn’t create jobs” during a presidential debate last fall — his point being that only the unconstrained success of private business can lead to new jobs, significant advancements and a stronger economy. In that limited worldview, a government’s role is to quietly step aside for the corporatists.

But history has shown quite the opposite to be true. Since World War II, the U.S. government has financed at least half of the nation’s Research and Development budget. This has lead to significant advances in fields such as aviation, pharmaceuticals, electronics, medical devices, containerization, and of course, the very computers and internet you are using to read this. In addition, in 2010, the government spent about $528 billion on goods and services — everything from office equipment to food and drugs to building materials — making up over 3.5 percent of the GDP.

In fact, government R&D and government procurement have created a boatload of jobs and products. Many are aware that the Internet, as we know it, was largely financed and developed as a Department of Defense project — one of the best examples of the long-term success of government investment. But did you know of other, simpler, but revolutionary technological advances that were also the result of government purchasing?

Take standardized clothing sizes — they were first broadly developed during the Civil War when the Union needed large numbers of uniforms for its troops. Since it was far too costly and time-consuming to develop tailor-made uniforms for hundreds of thousands of soldiers, the most common measurements were averaged and standardized sizes were created. This, of course, would lead to the national clothing market and, ultimately, the little tag with an S, M or L on the back of the shirt that you are now wearing.

The U.S. Army was also responsible for the first widespread use of generic prescription drugs — once deemed “low quality” and “less effective” by pharmaceutical companies making big profits from high priced, brand-name drug sales. When the Army started buying generic drugs many years ago, it helped to create the civilian market availability for these less expensive, identical generic alternatives. The broad availability of low cost generic drugs has saved the lives of millions of people.

And then there’s the airbag. Patents for airbag technology were first issued as early as the 1950s, but airbags didn’t become widely available in vehicles until the 1980s. The reason for this was that the auto companies did not see the profit in advancing such safety technology. It wasn’t until the General Services Administration (GSA) was persuaded to issue a federal procurement for automobiles with driver-side airbags for government employees that the car companies saw the benefit — and the potential profit — in safety features.

While government procurement is being used today to spur innovation in areas such as clean energy, fuel efficient cars and sustainability, much more can and should be done.

The government should invest in more hybrid and fuel efficient cars, safer cleaning fluids and pesticides and more programs like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s “Green the Capitol” initiative in 2007, which decreased the energy use in House Office Buildings and the Capitol complex in Washington D.C. Such a program should be expanded to all federally owned and leased office buildings, which would result not only in huge savings to taxpayers but a healthier environment. Solar energy is another neglected area, not yet receiving the necessary investment despite matured technology and proven cost-effectiveness when evaluated in a life-cycle cost framework versus traditional energy sources. The recycled paper industry is another in need of a boost from government purchasing. The recycling industry has been shown to create far more jobs than landfilling and incineration.

Putting the taxpayers’ purchasing power together with the achievement of innovative developments and improvements has encouraged industries to be safer and more efficient, with higher quality goods, leading to more competitive markets and reducing costs to everyone. Republicans often grumble about tax rates and how tax dollars are being spent, but they rarely consider how tax dollars can help stimulate innovation, safety, health, and efficiency in the products the government buys.