Three lawyers explain innovation (Obama visits Boston)

Barack Obama visited Boston today to appear at a $6000 per person fundraising event for our Democratic governor, fellow law school graduate Deval Patrick. At first I was excited because I though that perhaps the Nobel Peace Prize winner would take his Aunt Zeituni back with him on Air Force One. Obama indeed praised Governor Patrick for having built additional public housing units here in Massachusetts, but he did not mention that we will be needing them if we are to continue to house illegal immigrants like his aunt. The President also praised Patrick for having increased the number of public school employees in Massachusetts. No praise was apparently due to private sector workers of Massachusetts whose taxes paid for the new teachers’ union members and new housing units. No praise was given to Massachusetts taxpayers who have paid for Aunt Zeituni’s housing for the last six years.

It is unclear why Massachusetts voters love a politician who promises to expand federal spending. According to the Tax Foundation, Massachusetts receives only 82 cents in federal spending for every dollar of taxes paid. The bigger the federal government, the poorer we will become. A politician in New Mexico ($2.20 in spending per dollar paid in taxes) or Maine ($1.41) could be expected to vote for additional federal programs, but why would we want to pay taxes to build pork barrel projects on the other side of the continent?

Deval Patrick received $600,000 from donors who wanted to lunch with Obama. Federal taxpayers probably spent at least $2 million on transportation and security for the President. Commoners suffered lost wages and productivity when they found subway stations closed, streets closed, their scheduled airline flight stopped at Logan, etc. Local flight schools alone suffered at least $10,000 in lost revenue. It would be a lot cheaper if we said that every day for the next 8 years the federal government will write a $1 million check to the person of Barack Obama’s choice and in return the President will agree to stay at his desk and work.

After the fundraiser, Obama stopped by MIT with his lawyer friends Deval Patrick and John Kerry. The transcript of the talk reveals that this speech about renewable energy credits two dozen politicians. John Kerry is “an all-star” who is “[working on legislation to] make renewable energy the profitable kind of energy in America” . Abe Lincoln “designated a system of land grant colleges”. FDR “signed the GI Bill”. Senators are praised for working with the all-star Kerry. Representative Ed Markey “deserves a big round of applause” for passing legislation relating to energy.

Was anyone left out of the talk? No scientists or engineers were mentioned, except for a couple of guys who served on Obama’s council of advisors. According to the troika of lawyers on the dais, all scientific and engineering innovation is apparently due to the efforts of politicians like themselves.

Does it make sense to credit technical achievements to lawyer-politicians? Consider that, since the Enlightenment, scientists and engineers have worked successfully in monarchies in England and France, in feudal systems in more fragmented European countries, on expeditions with Napoleon, under Communist rule in Russia and China, for Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, and here in the U.S. under whatever we’re calling our present system of government. Isaac Newton was a member of the Royal Society, but I don’t remember King Charles II taking credit for the Principia.

Who are my heroes of renewable energy? Let’s limit this to starting in the year 1900 so that we don’t have to reflect on our own inadequacies compared to Newton, Maxwell, Gauss, et al.

We’ll consider electricity first. Let’s thank Oleg Vladimirovich Losev, inventor of the LED. To keep some of the Obama spirit in my speech, I’ll also thank Marx and Lenin for creating the Soviet Union that enabled Mr. Losev to do his important work under a political system that inspired our own planned economy today. M. Stanley Whittingham and John B. Goodenough, inventors of the lithium-ion battery; if we had better batteries, all of the rest of our energy problems would be simple to solve. Karl Alexander Muller and Johannes Georg Bednorz for their work on high temperature superconductors that enable low-loss electric power lines. Julius Edgar Lilienfeld, inventor of the transistor, and then all of the silicon nerds who enabled us to run millions of transistors at the cost of just a few watts.

How about power generation? Robert M. Potter, Eugene S. Robinson, and Morton C. Smith, developers of the Hot Dry Rock idea (1974 patent), which may yet save us from barbecuing the planet.

Things with a lot of parts? Kiichiro Toyoda, founder of Toyota Motor Corporation, and his colleagues  for figuring out how to make machines that don’t break; it saves a lot of energy if you can use an automobile for 20 years instead of 7. For more modern heros, Wang Chuan-Fu, the founder of Shezhen-based startup battery company BYD, and Warren Buffett, who recently added $230 million in financing for BYD’s line of electric cars (story).

Can innovation and energy independence be achieved by expanding government, celebrating politicians who spend taxpayer money, and spending $52 billion per year on homeland security (partly by running 4,400 Secret Service agents around the U.S. to partisan fundraisers)? I sure hope so.


  1. mtrven

    October 24, 2009 @ 10:29 pm


    So Obama stops by MIT and says stuff like this:

    … he and President Hockfield just showed me some of the extraordinary energy research being conducted at this institute: windows that generate electricity by directing light to solar cells; light-weight, high-power batteries that aren’t built, but are grown — that was neat stuff; engineering viruses to create — to create batteries; more efficient lighting systems that rely on nanotechnology; innovative engineering that will make it possible for offshore wind power plants to deliver electricity even when the air is still.

    And it’s a reminder that all of you are heirs to a legacy of innovation — not just here but across America — that has improved our health and our wellbeing and helped us achieve unparalleled prosperity…These pioneers are all around us — the entrepreneurs and the inventors, the researchers, the engineers — helping to lead us into the future, just as they have in the past.

    And you are upset that he’s giving too much credit to lawyers? Doesn’t really sound that way. I suppose he could have named the names of the technical people behind all these developments, but are they that needy of attention? Since you are around MIT maybe you could track some down and ask if they feel miffed at not being named, or grateful that Obama is coming by and bringing some attention to their work and, more importantly, working with his lawyer/politician pals to get more funding coming their way.

    I don’t really understand your hostility to Obama. The President and congress are always going to be politicians, not techies, with rare exceptions (like Herbert Hoover). So the choice is between those who are friendly to technological development and those that are hostile. Obama appears to be a vast, vast improvement over what came before.

    You say:

    It is unclear why Massachusetts voters love a politician who promises to expand federal spending.

    The federal spending that comes into Massachusetts funds the innovation that makes the rest of the economy work. This Internet thing you’re using, for instance. I believe that around 60-80% of sponsored research at MIT is federally funded. If Massachusetts seceded next week, and got out of the apparently bad deal it has with the Federal government, do you think MIT research would be better off? Doesn’t seem likely.

  2. philg

    October 24, 2009 @ 11:09 pm


    mtrven: Not every Massachusetts payer of federal taxes works for Harvard or MIT. It may be true that Big Federal Government is good for MIT and Harvard, but on average the Massachusetts economy should shrink as the federal government grows (since we get back only 80 cents of every tax dollar). I wrote that I couldn’t understand why Massachusetts voters were so enthusiastic about Obama and similar politicians, not about voters who work at MIT or Harvard.

    It is true that he hinted at some of the research he saw at MIT, and mentioned a top administrator by name, but he took care to name more than a dozen politicians. I infer that the people named are doing more for renewable energy than anyone not named.

    MIT and Harvard should be among the American institutions least affected by the U.S. economic collapse. Harvard Business School could fill 100 percent of its seats every year with foreigners paying tuition in Euros while paying professors in the new mini-dollars. MIT labs could do research on behalf of China and Brazil. The schools can also do lucrative partnerships with the countries that remain wealthy, e.g., the way that Harvard Medical School operates in Dubai.

  3. Alan Hale

    October 25, 2009 @ 11:37 am


    Actually, the Obama/Patrick fundraising effort was pathetic in ways you haven’t touched on — and I make this observation as a (until very recently) strong Patrick supporter.

    As the Boston Herald covered, the VIP room for $6,000 donors was only 1/2 full (125 donors in all), and the room for $500.00 donors was only 2/3 full (400 donors in all). Link here:

    My main beef concerns the $500 donors, and how the Patrick campaign tried to trick people into paying $500.

    I was a long-time supporter of Patrick until a few days ago, when I volunteered on a phonebank to get people to attend. I dropped out after about an hour because I felt I was being asked to pressure people into attending under false pretenses. Under our “CALL SCRIPT,” we were first to tell people the good news: they’re “invited” to a reception with the President and the Governor!
    Many of the people we were calling had been hefty contributors to Obama and/or Patrick, so to them an “invitation” would likely suggest no upfront monetary commitment (though naturally at the reception they’d expect to be hit up for contributions).

    In other words, we WERE NOT to start the conversation by saying we’re seeking contributions for the Patrick campaign, which is having a fundraising reception hosted by the President. Only AFTER people said “yes” were we to slide in that there are tickets to be purchased. Only after chatting with people a bit more and getting their contact information were we to mention that the ticket cost was $500.

    I guess whoever wrote the script thought that, at that point, people who’d already said “yes” would feel awkward trying to get out of it. Well, the typical reaction I got was anger, and “no thanks.” I couldn’t get anyone to buy a ticket. I think the Patrick campaign would have gotten a better turnout if phonebank callers had been instructed to tell people at the start of the calls that we hope they’ll attend a fundraising reception with Obama to raise contributions for Patrick. I think it would have come across better than a phony, supposedly select, “invitation” to an event which, in truth, was open to anyone with 500 bucks.

    In case you or your readers are interested in the specifics, I uploaded the Word document of the “CALL SCRIPT,” which they had us download from the Patrick website. You can find it here:

  4. Alan Hale

    October 25, 2009 @ 11:53 am


    My link to the “CALL SCRIPT” doesn’t seem to work. Here’s another one:

  5. rglovejoy

    October 25, 2009 @ 5:50 pm


    What I found to be nearly as insulting is that hardly any of the scientists and engineers who were doing the actual work were invited to the speech:

    “The number of MIT attendees will be small. Staff distributing tickets said there were a total of 200 tickets for students, faculty, and staff. Kresge typically holds more than 1,000 people.
    About 100 of the tickets were selected through the deans of MIT’s five schools.

    Marc A. Kastner, Dean of the School of Science, said that he was going to “try to get a diverse group of students, obviously those whose work involves energy.” Kastner, whose school represents 20 percent of MIT’s student population, had only 10 tickets to allocate to students and another 10 to faculty and staff.

    Kastner said he would not take a ticket for himself, but would watch it on TV so someone else could attend. “I think we should all enjoy this event,” he said.

    Most of the deans have solicited recommendations of who to send from their department heads.”

    The rest of the unwashed masses of MIT students and faculty had to watch the speech over closed circuit TV. They might as well have stayed home and watched it on CNN.

  6. mtraven

    October 25, 2009 @ 6:40 pm


    Not every Mass taxpayer works for MIT or Harvard, but a good number of them realize that without research universities to anchor the economy, Mass wouldn’t be any different from Maine or Delaware.

    Your make the inference that because Mass pays out more in taxes than it recieves in revenues, then any increase in government spending would make Mass worse off. There’s at least two holes in that logic: First, the net argument does not apply to the margins. IIf the US spends an extra $10B on energy research, that comes proportionally from all states but the money will flow disproportinatly to places like MA and CA. Second, the amount of money coming in does not measure the total economic utility. Presumably some fraction of that government research money produces downstream economic benefits. How much? Hard to say, but taken to the limit your argument would suggest that MA would be best off if it seceded economically from the US, which is almost certainly wrong.

    As for MIT getting funding from sources other than the USG, that’s fine, go for t. I did my graduate work at the Media Lab where the real innovation was getting funding from non-traditional sources such as the newspaper industry (didn’t seem to help them much). I’m assuming that if China wants to fund long-term research it will do it in its own universities. There are not that many organizations with the ability to fund actual research, which by definition doesn’t have a guaranteed economic return. The choices are governments, industry, or insanely rich individuals like Bill Gates (malaria research) or Paul Allen (AI and other areas). Of these, government is by far the most reliable, although of course not without problems. Crazed billionaires are nice to have but I don’t think there’s enough of them to go around.

    It’s not easy to find information on how much of MIT’s funding comes from the government and how much from other sources. There’s an idea for a class project if you are still teaching web development.

  7. philg

    October 25, 2009 @ 8:51 pm


    mtraven: It is likely true that a $10 billion increase in energy research would benefit Massachusetts more than our share of the $10b. However, King Obama is planning to spend $10 trillion more than he collects in tax revenues during the remainder of his reign. The vast majority of that money will be spent in more or less the same manner that government is currently spending money, which results in a net loss to Massachusetts. Our latest Nobel Peace Laureate has given no indication that he wants to dramatically increase the percentage of government spending devoted to supporting university research. The King of Peace may decide to spend more on renewable energy research, but that may be offset by reductions in military sponsored research (wars have resulted in a lot of research funding at MIT and, now that we have a Nobel Peace Prize winner as President, there surely will not be any more conflict).

  8. mtraven

    October 25, 2009 @ 10:41 pm


    It is generally true that the most economically productive parts of the country are also the most urbanized, hece the most Democratic and most supportive of government spending. You can call this irrational if you like, but I prefer to think of it as a manifestation of the fact that advanced economies are based on dense social networks and the kind of long-term capitalization that in general can only be provided by governments.

    Our latest Nobel Peace Laureate has given no indication that he wants to dramatically increase the percentage of government spending devoted to supporting university research.

    Obama has repeatedly promised to increase the budget for basic research, including doubling support for the NIH and other science agencies. I really can’t see how you could have a president that was more supportive of the university agenda.

    I also have to wonder why you refer to Obama as “King”. Is he more regal, more imperious than his predecessor or any other occupant of the office of president? Did he inherit or seize the office rather than get elected like any other? I would urge you to refrain from this kind of delegitimizing bullshit. Feel free to criticize his policies all you like of course, but maybe you should think twice about kvetching about his travel and other perfectly regular functions of the office. Did you make the same complaints when Bush was in office? If not, why not?

  9. philg

    October 25, 2009 @ 11:29 pm


    mtraven: Had you done a Google search for “greenspun ‘king bush'” you would have found 120+ results. My Weblog archives are replete with criticisms of the King Bush II administration and Congress for (1) spending money on Iraq and Afghanistan, (2) instituting a welfare program for drug companies (Medicare drug scheme), (3) handing out tax dollars to Wall Street, (4) allowing public company managers to loot from their shareholders, and sundry other crimes against the subjects (us).

    The fact that many of the acts of King Bush II and the Congress of 2001-2008 were bad for the average American does not automatically guarantee that their successors will be better.

    This argument about how many times per day we should give thanks to God for sending us our Savior Barack Obama is really off-topic, though. I can’t understand your assertion that Obama’s pledge to increase R&D spending to 3 percent of GDP from its 2004 value of 2.7 percent is going to compensate for $10 trillion in deficit spending. For one thing, as the private economy shrinks and the federal government expands its share of GDP by default, it is quite possible that the 3 percent figure can be achieved without increasing the budget at all. So there might not be even one additional dime flowing into Massachusetts. Yet many dollars will have to flow out of Massachusetts eventually to pay for the $10 trillion in spending.

    You imply that it is rational for an urbanized population to want a high percentage of GDP devoted to government, yet Singapore is 100 percent urban and spends only about 15 percent of GDP on government (compared to our current 45 percent, which will easily grow to more than 50 percent after health care reform). Singapore has an unemployment rate of about 3.3 percent.

    Separately, it is not clear that the returns to government spending on basic research are likely to be high. Private investment of all kinds is falling in the U.S. according to That is the kind of investment that the people writing the checks thought was going to yield them a return. Only a fraction of the dividends of successful U.S. government investment in basic research will accrue to U.S. companies. For example, suppose the U.S. government funds the University of Florida to develop improvements in battery technology. As China and Japan are the world’s largest manufacturers of batteries, we would expect most of the returns on this investment to accrue to the shareholders of Chinese and Japanese battery manufacturers.

  10. Alex Sverdlov

    December 1, 2009 @ 12:16 pm


    Philip, it appears Aunt Zeituni’s fate may be decided in February:

    The description of her plight certainly stirred empathy, while I marveled at her clever alliteration of “calculated conspiratory claim.”

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