Steve Jobs built the iPhone on the backs of taxpayers

Kara Swisher's provocative interview with the "world's scariest economist" got me wondering what Mariana Mazzucato had written about Apple.

From Mazzucato‘s 2013 book The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths::

Apple is far from the ‘market’ example it is often used to depict. It is a company that not only received early state finance from the government, but also ‘ingeniously’ made use of publicly funded technology to create ‘smart’ products. In fact, there is not a single key technology behind the iPhone that has not been State-funded. Besides the communication technologies, the iPhone is smart because of features such as the Internet, GPS, a touch-screen display, and the latest new voice activated personal assistant (SIRI). While Steve Jobs was no doubt an inspiring genius worthy of praise, the fact that the iPhone/iPad empire was built on these State-funded technologies provides a far more accurate tale of technological and economic change than what is offered by mainstream discussions...

Individual genius, attention to design, a love for play, and foolishness were no doubt important characteristics. But without the massive amount of public investment behind the computer and Internet revolutions, such attributes might have led only to the invention of a new toy – not to cutting-edge revolutionary products like the iPad and iPhone which have changed the way that people work and communicate...

Apple’s capabilities are mainly related to their ability to (a) recognize emerging technologies with great potential, (b) apply complex engineering skills that successfully integrate recognized emerging technologies, and (c) maintain a clear corporate vision prioritizing design-oriented product development for ultimate user satisfaction.

My take: I can say with some authority that it's harder to get stories about government research agencies into newspapers and magazines than it is stories about genius entrepreneurs and their newest gizmos.

The Swisher interview is highly recommended. The designation "world's scariest economist," it turns out, comes from a headline that a male editor slapped on top of a sympathetic profile of Mazzucato that was written by a woman.


  1. David Emery said:
    I haven’t read the interview, but the summary is bovine effluent. Xerox PARC and Bell Labs might well have gotten government funding for some projects, but that doesn’t mean their technologies depended on them. -A LOT- of computing draws from the MIT (government funded) MULTICS work, but I think it’s a huge stretch to claim that means anything from that is “from the government.”

    That’s not to say that government funding hasn’t been an important contributor to US technical competitiveness. But that’s A Good Thing, public/private partnerships in R&D have served everyone well.

    March 17, 2021
    • Steven Noyes said:
      “ bovine effluent” 😉

      I find many of Kara Swisher’s articles that way.

      “ Individual genius, attention to design, a love for play, and foolishness were no doubt important characteristics. But without the massive amount of public investment behind the computer and Internet revolutions, such attributes might have led only to the invention of a new toy”

      Mazzucato offers this statement up to truly dismiss Apple’s engineers and designers. It does a back hand compliment then immediately puts the true cause of success on mindless government officials with amazing foresight to lay the ground works for all technology. She reads like she is full of contempt.

      March 17, 2021
  2. Romeo A Esparrago Jr said:
    I expect a % of all MY tax dollars I’ve paid to the U.S. (Fed, State when I lived in Colorado & Cali, sales, property taxes in FL, HI, TX, CA, et al) in MY lifetime to date have in some form or manner BETTER HAVE benefited American companies, not just Apple, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, GM, Ford, etc. Countries have to do whatever it takes to keep them the most innovative , advanced country as a competitive weapon.

    March 17, 2021
  3. Fred Stein said:
    And the ‘big four’ built the transcontinental railroad with government help, Ditto the interstate highway system. Most of us got our most valuable asset, eduction, with government help.

    Let’s celebrate the genius of our system for priming the pump in countless ways; And celebrate the genii who take it further and further.

    Mazzucato has a point. Does she also count the number jobs created? the total tax dollars paid at every level?

    March 17, 2021
  4. Romeo A Esparrago Jr said:
    Exactly, Mr. Fred. Jobs.
    I prefer our govt funding thinktanks & R&D to PROACTIVELY advance us AND create jobs versus bailing out companies to save jobs (which i agree can be necessary to save companies impacted by such things as pandemics).

    March 17, 2021
  5. Jerry Doyle said:
    I found nothing new in this podcast by Ms. Marianna Mazzucato. Government’s objective is to establish the orchestra, and then find the conductor like Steve Jobs to use the orchestra to create beautiful music. Steve has alluded to this fact himself. Governments often have something of which they know not what to use or what with to do. It takes a Steve Jobs in the private sector to show government.

    The government awarded Elon Musk 5B to facilitate & to expedite conversion of ICE over to EVs. This discretionary grant award was in the interest of society and of mankind, little different than student grants given to the poor, disadvantaged, minorities & peoples with disabilities who otherwise would lack the resources to compete on a level playing field.

    What Ms. Mazzucato fails to clarify in her conviction that government should behave as Venture Capitalists is that venture capitalists are seeking a “profitable” outcome and that governments are “not” seeking a profitable outcome. It is for this latter difference that we often see so much government waste in the public sector vs. the private sector. Governments can operate at a loss. The private sector won’t last long operating at a loss.


    March 17, 2021
  6. Jerry Doyle said:

    Even in the vein of your organizational work force the private sector seeks, retains & holds the “best & brightest” while the government settles for the least due to worker “behavioral conformity” with government bureaucracy more than with pushing the envelope.

    Government’s role is to lead the charge then step aside and facilitate the private sector to do what it is best at doing. We saw this recently with the development of Covid-19 vaccines developed in “historical record speed” by the private sector with the public sector leading the charge and circumventing the many government regulatory & bureaucratic morass that normally slows & impedes quick development progress.

    Ms. Mazzucato is under the erroneous belief that the “people” run the government. No, it is the “rich & powerful” who have the disproportionate influence on American politics. Even in the most socially advanced nations such as Scandinavia as an example, money makes some peoples as George Orwell put it, “more equal than others.” By & large, the majority of those who are less equal accept some corruption of the democratic idea of “one person, one vote” as inevitable in this less-than-perfect world.

    March 17, 2021
    • Robert Stack said:
      @Jerry: “Even in the vein of your organizational work force the private sector seeks, retains & holds the “best & brightest” while the government settles for the least due to worker “behavioral conformity…”
      Sorry Jerry, but I have to disagree with this generalization. I’ve worked in many different high level scientific jobs, including startups in Silicon Valley as well as the federal govt, and there are good and bad employees in both the private and public sectors.

      March 18, 2021
  7. Ken Cheng said:
    It would be harder to find any modern technology that isn’t built on top of some research that wasn’t government funded.

    The story is backwards. It should be about the “fruit”fulness of government research that led to so much useful technology that wasn’t envisioned when the research began, rather than a takedown of visionaries like Jobs or companies like Apple. Given the same basic ingredients we got Gates giving us Spot watches, Windows Phone and whatever it was called before that, Zune, and numerous other successes.

    Just because the gov’t funded research ingredients were there, doesn’t mean it will all magically coalesce into something brilliant all by itself. It still needs that elusive bit of magic that turns a Xerox PARC demo into a product for the masses.

    March 17, 2021
    • David Emery said:
      Is the implication “Government should be getting some of Apple’s money?” Is this about trying to recoup the government investment?

      The one area that I do believe government funding -should influence- is publication. If Uncle Sam paid for the research, then it should be freely available, rather than behind academic publisher paywalls.

      March 17, 2021
  8. Timothy Smith said:
    Isn’t China killing us because of their government funding of technology?

    March 17, 2021
    • David Emery said:
      That’s an interesting topic, actually. (1) China is funding lots of research, both fundamental and applied. That’s OK. (2) China is also stealing and giving away R&D from outside the country, through both cyber espionage and through mandatory or “highly encouraged” technology sharing agreements to enter the China markets. That’s not OK. (3) And then China is placing restrictions on its technology, such as “You have to support requests from the Chinese Government.” That’s at best questionable, and generally Not OK when those requests support other bad activities.

      As is so often true about dealings with China, “It’s Complicated.”

      March 17, 2021
  9. William Baggs said:
    Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose which she heads is a publicly funded institute so she is merely serving her master with her position.

    March 18, 2021
  10. David Brashear said:
    Mazzucato’s statement is absurd. What makes it so outlandish is that she suggests that Apple, and perhaps other American tech companies, are the only ones that have benefitted from technology developments funded by the U.S. government. How about any company anywhere in the world that depends on the internet for any part of their business – i.e. Samsung, Alibaba, Nokia, Sony, Xiaomi, Nintendo, TikTok……?

    March 19, 2021

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