Those unfamiliar with the reference of this post’s title are asked to visit here and then come on back. Don’t worry, we’ll wait.

There was a fascinating story in the NY Times on Wednesday about a phenomenal scientific breakthrough in DNA and Medicine:

Among the many mysteries of human biology is why complex diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and psychiatric disorders are so difficult to predict and, often, to treat. An equally perplexing puzzle is why one individual gets a disease like cancer or depression, while an identical twin remains perfectly healthy.

Now scientists have discovered a vital clue to unraveling these riddles. The human genome is packed with at least four million gene switches that reside in bits of DNA that once were dismissed as “junk” but that turn out to play critical roles in controlling how cells, organs and other tissues behave. The discovery, considered a major medical and scientific breakthrough, has enormous implications for human health because many complex diseases appear to be caused by tiny changes in hundreds of gene switches. (emphasis mine)

The possibilities that could be unleashed by this discovery are explained in the third paragraph:

The findings . . . will have immediate applications for understanding how alterations in the non-gene parts of DNA contribute to human diseases, which may in turn lead to new drugs. They can also help explain how the environment can affect disease risk. In the case of identical twins, small changes in environmental exposure can slightly alter gene switches, with the result that one twin gets a disease and the other does not. (emphasis mine)

I played a little trick on you above — I excised a few words and replaced with the ellipsis — hiding exactly how this breakthrough came to pass. Here is the missing language:

which are the fruit of an immense federal project involving 440 scientists from 32 laboratories around the world.” (emphasis mine)

More information about the ENCODE project can be found here, at the NIH, a government agency that is the driving force behind it.

It’s common knowledge in some circles that “the government can’t create jobs.” And, even if it could, it shouldn’t. But it’s episodes like this that prove that’s flat-out not the case. And it’s episodes like this that make us, from time to time, the envy of the world.

Before I go any further, let’s digress for just one moment – what’s an Invictus post without a graph? – and look at Government Employees/Population:



The number of government employees per capita is the same now as it was in the mid-1980s, and has clearly tumbled in the “big government” Obama administration.

But back to the bigger point, which is this: There are some things private industry cannot do that only government can do. These are projects that take far too long — decades — to pay off.  They are too time consuming, too labor intensive, too complex and too costly, with insufficient short-term payback to make them worth private industries’ while. No CEO/CFO can hemorrhage cash year after year after year and expect to keep their jobs.

This is not a new phenomena; it goes back to the 1800s and the Federal government’s management of western rivers — something that came about at the request of private enterprise. It was an experience repeated time and again: From the Manhattan project to the interstate highway system to to NASA putting a man on the moon to mapping the Human Genome to the NOAA tracking the data of our entire planet.

Simply stated, some projects are beyond the private sector — they require a strong national government to undertake.

Consider as the most recent and powerful example the Internet. There are countless companies thriving today because of the government’s initial work on something called the ARPANET, a Department of Defense project. Some of those companies include the likes of Amazon, Google, Yahoo, and just about any other company that sustains itself on the internet. Similarly, when companies like Merck, Pfizer, Lilly and others – maybe even some maverick start-ups – build on the work that the government has done here, they will reap tens of billions in profits, create thousands of new jobs in the process and, hopefully, save millions of lives with the new drugs they develop. At some point in the future, when you, a family member or friend are administered a revolutionary life-saving drug by your doctor, remember, he didn’t build that.

So, can the government create jobs? Yes, it can.

It can do so both directly and indirectly. But the overarching point is that developments like this represent the best of who we are – putting a man on the moon, developing the internet (and subsequently having an entire industry grow up around it), doing groundbreaking research that might well pave the way to cures for diseases that have plagued mankind for millennia. And that’s in addition to building infrastructure and performing all the other mundane, routine tasks that government does.

Sadly, Will McAvoy was right. But, like the lady said, we can be.

Category: Really, really bad calls, Science

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

32 Responses to “No, It’s Not. But It Can Be.”

  1. Petey Wheatstraw says:

    I’ll take your observation a bit further, Invictus, and argue that many cases, the government does thing better, faster, and cheaper. Subtract the profit and shareholder benefit and the savings can be substantial.

    I’d like to see evidence that any privatized, formerly governmentally run enterprise has resulted in better outcomes and/or lower cost (I’m not aware of any, but if someone knows of one, it would be enlightening).

  2. MidlifeNocrisis says:

    Nice read. Another point is that the US has it’s own sovereign money supply, so the government can keep creating money to run the organization/entity for as long as it takes to reach it’s goals.

  3. mathman says:

    No, i’m afraid it’s over for everyone over the next generation. No more greatest anything except perhaps “idiots that COULD have gotten it right” but fell to the same old selfish, greedy, ignorant “sins” that have caused each unenlightened human to FAIL through time. There’s way too much working against us all at this point. For example (and just one): please listen to this interview for a taste of just ONE of the problems we’ve sown for our own to deal with.

    Then lets’ all just go back to our little games of “making money” as if that’s going to do anything for us in the coming years. (ie. What are we going to buy when there isn’t any food or water to be had at any price?)

    Sleep well.

  4. PeterR says:

    Sobering . . . .


  5. Greg0658 says:

    I’ll expand some more Petey .. the government has some trucks & equipment* but far short of filling the equipment and especially the raw material needs .. that must be bid out and bought from private enterprise ..

    hense control of that process is what happens at elections .. since there is never enough to go around in this OpSys

    * some – distputable if any ‘thing’ in America is public socialism built
    on the twins and why 1 stays healthy 1 not so .. I’d bet on “intakes” both mind & body .. angels who appear in a life – both spiritual and walking talking soldiers
    missed most of the clip last time – switched it off on a cuss word

  6. Robespierre says:


    “clearly tumbled in the “big government” Obama administration”

    And this is one more nail in the coffin for and administration that won on the premise of “we can” and have consistently acted against every promise it made. Lets summarize:
    1) Kept Guantanamo open
    2) Order executions of US citizens without due process under the fallacy (and cover) of national security
    3) Refuse to prosecute torturers of previous (and his own?) administration
    4) Has deported illegal aliens at a level not seen before
    5) Refuse to investigate and prosecute banking officers
    6) Offered to negotiate SS and Medicare with the republicans to “balance” the budget – First time ever of any president
    7) Prosecuted whistle-blower with sickening gusto to make sure there harsh punishment to those who think government must be transparent and accountable
    8) and last but no least: “clearly tumbled in the “big government” Obama administration”

  7. ilsm says:

    Private industry cannot make good weapons either, even with 50% of US R&D spending. So much for the 65 year old $28,000B experiment in “for profit” arsenals, with no risk and the tax payer on the hook.

  8. dougc says:

    Maybe they watched NOVA (PBS), in 2007 they did a program on why genetical related diseases can result in two different diseases or only one of twins being affected. It is the the epigenome that determines which genes are switched on. They even showed that events, like famine, in one generation can affect individuals in later generations withdiseases like diabetes.

  9. perpetual_neophyte says:

    While I absolutely agree with the broader idea that the government can do some things more successfully than the private sector – and it’s even better when there is a partnership like we’ve seen with NASA recently – I would take some issue with that graph.

    Again, acknowledging that the President could actually have some influence on state and local government budgets, I would still argue that he has the most influence over the Federal level employees and it might be more intellectually honest to clarify if that graph of government employees is Federal or “all.”

  10. DrSandman says:

    Invictus –

    You need to read up on Vannevar Bush’s science policy writings about guiding scientific research during the Manhattan Project and after WWII. He — as most conservatives — advocate funding science research in Pasteur’s Quadrant (i.e., the fusion of science and engineering that may be applicable to current and future problems).

    We have always argued that the funding through the so-called “Valley of Death” needs to be done by strategic federal research. Ever heard of the NSF, NIH, DOE, ONR, EPA, NASA? I have been funded by grants from all these federal agencies at one time or another.

    Very often, these advances come from military research that becomes applicable to everyday life. (the internet, as you point out…, research on brain trauma, computer-aided vision, information fusion, … I could go on, but that is just some of the things that I’ve worked on…)

    It’s nice to see that, after 60 years, you libs are finally coming around to see things our way!

  11. kbwoody says:

    Excellent post with facts and well thought out arguments…Why would you ruin it with a reference to Will McAvoy? I love Jeff Daniels, but that character is every liberal hacks wet dream. Clean your sheets Invictus.

  12. machinehead says:

    Re ‘No it’s Not. But it can be’: There are countless companies thriving today because of the government’s initial work on something called the ARPANET, a Department of Defense project.

    In the early 1980s, France introduced an early in-home interactive system called Minitel. Since it was a closed system, unable to exchange freely with the world outside France, it couldn’t compete with the internet. France finally pulled the plug on Minitel this past summer — in 2012!

    Unfortunately BBC does not tell us how many billions of hapless French taxpayers’ money was flushed down the toilette on this uncompetitive system, about which one commenter said:

    “It was the whole model that was doomed. Basically to set up a service on Minitel, you had to ask permission from France Telecom. You had to go to the old guys who ran the system, and who knew absolutely nothing about innovation.

    “It meant that nothing new could ever happen. Basically, Minitel innovated from 1978 to 1982, and then it stopped,” he says.

    Here in microcosm, Minitel demonstrates a troublesome aspect of government investment: namely, it is rarely timely about admitting defeat.

    And the larger point: cherry picking only successful government projects fails the standard of proof. One has to analyze the return on ALL government investment –otherwise, you got nothin’!

  13. Invictus says:

    “One has to analyze the return on ALL government investment –otherwise, you got nothin’!”

    No. Absolutely not. And to do so is to confuse the role of government with private, for-profit enterprises. Governments are not going to achieve the return on their investment that private companies will. Nor should they. Are you suggesting we “analyze” the governments return on roads, tunnels, bridges, dams, national parks, defense? How about transportation – bus and train service? Garbage collection? How silly. Was there a monetary return for putting a man on the moon? Will there be a monetary return for the government when large pharma builds on this breakthrough and develops a cure for cancer? Last I checked, government is not a for-profit operation. And we need government to do the things that private industry can’t or won’t do, even if the return on those things is zero.

  14. Why is a failure of France in this conversation? I thought we were discussing what the US government can (and has) done.

    Last I checked, the French rolled over for the Nazis, while the US saved the world from them.

    Sorry, machinehead, but your comparison fails.

  15. RW says:

    Exactly so, the ‘big debate’ about “government being the problem rather than the solution” has metastasized into something that is not only profoundly pig-headed but frankly threatening to national prosperity and national security alike.

    Arguing about whether government is too big or too small and then striving to gorge or starve it to match is exactly the wrong framing. A far better framing would be to ask is government “right sized” for the work we wish it to do; if that means bigger in some areas and smaller in others then fine.

    @Robespierre, you call that puny list a summary of an administration that “consistently acted against every promise it made?” Really?

    Try wading trough the nearly 200 Obama promises kept as judged and recorded by PolitiFact vs. approx 80 that Politifact judges broken (see Obamameter).

    Then try Reuters Factbox which has a comparable comparison but lists 162 promises Obama kept and 56 broken. Their list is not exactly aligned with Politifact as you might expect but exploring the differences is an instructive exercise in perception.

    Now, about your summary …

    NB: I’m not a big fan of Politifact or really most political reporting because, although not grossly partisan, they are prone to the widespread disease of equating fairness with appearing ‘balanced’ when the truth is So far in this campaign, you can look fair, or you can be fair, but you can’t be both.

  16. [...] Invictus, “There are some things private industry cannot do that only government can do.”  (Big Picture) [...]

  17. maddog2020 says:

    Although I agree whole-heartedly with the premise of the post, just a minor point – that the large majority of researchers involved in this project are not government employees, per se, but recipients of government grants. So in this case, government to a certain extent created these jobs by providing the funding, but they are not reflected in the employment graph that accompanies this post.

  18. ilsm says:


    The US DoD spends less than 5% of its R&D budget on basic research, ARPANET was an intra-lab system.

    About 90% of DoD R&D goes into trying to make science work in a fictitious solution to fighting WW II again. See GAO reports on Defense Acquisitions: Assessment of Selected Weapons Programs, GAO 12-400SP and annual reports since 1998.

    Often technology needs to “find” missions. That is why the DoD hires science boards, who are not soldiers but are planners who desire a profitable industry whether it does anything right or for a use is secondary.

    John McCain saw it in Dec 2001, but no one cuts the inepts’ profits.

    Overly “aggressive promises for ‘revolutionary’ capability (to performed unproven missions such as counter insurgency or strategic bombing…); poorly understood or fluid (fictitous)
    requirements; (get the welfare check from) unrealistic initial cost estimates; (lying) overly optimistic
    schedules and assumptions; (inept welfare with) unreliable manufacturing and
    integration risk assessments; starting major production with an (untested or failed to get to the tests)
    immature design or unproven critical (wishes the thing might be usable) technologies; and poorly
    performing government and industry teams (that are on welfare lest they be bankrupted for ineptitiude)”.

    That John Mc Cain was not in Tampa.

    Governments claim right to the use of force, measured violence, for defense and conquest.

    However, ancient warring paid itself with plunder, while the weaker built fortresses.

    In 1985 US DoD was 99% of the integrated circuit market, a decade later it was .1%.

    The IC made the internet, just and not an IC that costs $100,000 a piece and can not be integrated into a system.

    The cost in basic research is negligible compared to the waste, the military industry complex seller never has to do it right.

  19. Jojo says:

    @MidlifeNocrisis said “Nice read. Another point is that the US has it’s own sovereign money supply, so the government can keep creating money to run the organization/entity for as long as it takes to reach it’s goals.”
    All we need to do is raise taxes to reasonable levels and there will be plenty of money to work with. Maybe on those who make over $100k?

  20. 4whatitsworth says:

    The number of Government employees is perhaps flat to down however the total compensation per employee has gone way up and according to the CBO in most cases total compensation for government workers is higher than private sector workers. The issue is not head count but labor costs.

  21. orko says:

    “And we need government to do the things that private industry can’t or won’t do, even if the return on those things is zero.”

    Absolutely. As someone in the pharma industry, I’ve seen the government give grants and help push along orphan drugs that while there might not be a large market for, there is a market none the less. The government should have the ability to take risks, or at least enable them, when the private sector otherwise would not due to fear.

    “One has to analyze the return on ALL government investment –otherwise, you got nothin’!”

    So when we talk about the success of the private sector, we must also include all the failures as well? That might take some time…

  22. MidlifeNocrisis says:


    I’m not really sure why you quoted me… and then made your own comment about taxation.

    My post has absolutely nothing to do with taxation. Raise taxes, lower taxes, keep taxes the same. Doesn’t matter. The US government can create (and does create) new money and inject it into circulation regardless of whatever tax levels may be in place at any given time. Period.

  23. RW says:

    @4whatitsworth: Labor cost is no more meaningful than head count unless context is provided; for example, on page 2 of the report you linked to:

    Various characteristics of employees—including their
    occupation, education, and age—are likely to influence
    their compensation, regardless of whether they work for
    the federal government or the private sector. However,
    the federal and private-sector workforces differ in several
    significant ways.
    For example, 33 percent of federal employees work in
    professional occupations, such as the sciences or engineering,
    compared with only 18 percent of private-sector
    employees; in contrast, 26 percent of private-sector
    employees work in occupations such as retail sales, production,
    or construction, compared with only 7 percent
    of federal employees (see Table 1 on page 4). Professional
    occupations generally require more formal training or
    experience than do the occupations more common in the
    private sector. Partly because of that difference, the average
    age of federal employees is four years higher than that
    of private-sector employees (45 versus 41). The greater
    concentration of federal workers in professional occupations
    also means that they are more likely to have a bachelor’s
    degree: 51 percent of the federal workforce has at
    least that much education, compared with 31 percent of
    the private-sector workforce (see Figure 3 on page 5).

  24. machinehead says:

    Eh, touched a nerve there!

    As Nassim Nicholas Taleb would say (and he’s a bit of a Frenchy flaneur, you know, hanging out in literary cafes in the Montparnasse smoking funny-looking cigarettes), ‘One white swan does not prove that the whole flock is white.’

    If the benefit of government programs is unmeasurable and must be accepted on faith, then we are back to 19th century rhetorical economics.

    And I’d rather not go there. Ayez un bon weekend!

  25. Invictus says:

    Machinehead -

    Please quantify or measure, as best you can, the benefit we derive from the government’s investment in, and operation of, Walter Reed Army Hospital.

  26. VennData says:

    All these angry, white, middle-aged businessmen need to ask themselves, who paid the taxes “back in the good old days.”

    Well guys, it was us. Deal with it. Free up the GOP constipation for a fiscal deal and let them raise taxes back to the Clinton rates plus the 3% extra to pay their compatriot’s health care. You won’t go broke.

  27. howardoark says:

    Personally, I’ve worked for federal employees as a contractor so you’ll never be able to convince me that the government does anything efficiently – I do agree that there are things no one else will do (e.g., fund basic cancer research) which are appropriately government obligations.

    But I believe the point of this wrong-headed post was that the United States was once the world’s greatest nation but no longer is. If not the US, then what is the greatest nation on earth, China (I think being a Kleptocracy disqualifies you, but I’m willing to listen to arguments)? Is it Denmark or Norway – nice social safety net, couldn’t even keep northern Europe safe from fascism. Russia’s making a come back and might actually work it’s way up to 2nd rate power with ICBM’s one day. I have a warm spot in my heart for the UK, but once Wales and Scotland get their independence, I don’t think so. Japan, don’t make me laugh. Nothing in Africa or Central or South America or the Middle East that I can think of (Brazil in 30 years maybe). Australia’s nice I hear, but not much of space programs, world-changing industries, or blue water navy and only 318 Nobel prizes behind the US. I’m not counting on France to lead the free world anytime soon and Portugal, Ireland, Italy, and Spain seem to be down for the count. Canada is practically the 51st state. So I guess that leaves Germany. Is Germany really No. 1? They did win the Eurovision song contest in 2010 – here’s a link to the winning song: – it’s catchy, the lyrics are in English.


    BR: Not efficiently — but getting done in a space where private sector cannot or will not

  28. danimal says:

    I find this to be a bit of a straw man argument here. It seems you’re trying to say that gov. investment in some needed things (that I agree with) that do creat jobs proves wrong the people who say the gov. doesn’t create jobs. Sorry, wrong argument. OK, we need 1 mil jobs. How long will it take for long term research to create these? Not soon enough to help our current state much. The “gov doesnt create jobs”argument adresses the notion some people have that the gov will save us from unempoyment and the recession. They are correct in saying that. It’s to fight the mentality we see in Greece now, where interviewees complain gov isn’t creating jobs for them.

    “Are you suggesting we “analyze” the governments return on roads, tunnels, bridges, dams, national parks, defense? How about transportation – bus and train service? Garbage collection? How silly.”

    Why is that silly? Amtrak? We have bridges falling apart due to gov neglect, I haven’t seen any “stimulus” to addres that. I see stimulus money going to pet projects(solar, wind, etc) but not where it’s truly needed, proving the argument gov spends money inefficiently. All my life I’ve had private garbage collection. It has been wonderful. We have been recycling 20 years maybe. Now compare that to NY or chicago. Chicago (gov collection) had a “blue bag” program to recycle since 1995, but for years they just threw it in the trash .
    Chicago Sanitation management has claimed Chicago’s Blue Bag system diverts approximately 25% of its waste to recycling facilities, which was its initial goal. However, most independent studies place the estimates at approximately 9% of the garbage picked up, resulting in continued criticism towards the program.[1]

    On May 2, 2008, the Chicago SunTimes reported that Chicago is giving up on the program. By 2011 there will be a shift to curbside recycling in blue carts.[2]

    Kinda sounds like another example of machineheads argument “Minitel demonstrates a troublesome aspect of government investment: namely, it is rarely timely about admitting defeat”

    Again, I think it’s apples to oranges argument here. Who are you arguing against? Who wants to cancel all R&D?

    Fianlly, please add all contractors paid by the feds to the gov employee graph, then we’ll have real data. If I recall correctly, CLinton started moving to contractors and got that chart to look as it does (i don’t recall why, though I remember reading about it)

  29. Greg0658 says:

    control of the Bid Process is what happens at elections ..
    why we as a country are nearly 50/50 in team allegiance
    who brings home the bacon
    and social issues & likeability are the wedge to nudge the door 1 way or another to control the bid


    howard and the thread .. I know I sound like a broken record on the more music less sports:

    this age of development we have attained would .. if a 17th century man & woman were transported in time to now .. I am sure they would say something like “WOW this is it – utopia – the human condition is perfect” – until they must earn their keep in this place

    this OpSys we must navigate – the point of this post … who is the greatest OpSys?

    point is it shouldn’t be a competition any longer .. except what OpSys do we employ to deter the 7 deadly sins ..
    it AIN’T this 1 – this 1 is going to “OFF” a sizeable portion of the population

    on the thread point of funding desires that are so out of the money that no capitalist would touch – you mean like our mars curiosity


    I’d like to point to:
    “Internetocracy is a new political movement whose mission is to empower each citizen to directly table and decide legislation by enabling them through social networking, personal broadcasting, and other internet technologies.”

    its a half-blind point as – I breezed the book for only a 1/2hour


    I see dan has been busy as well – will submit & catch-up

  30. Greg0658 says:

    we need jobs – to turn over to the kids .. we need old people to retire …
    thing is this OpSys doesn’t let them – ie: over debted under saved .. and/or robbed thru FIRE sector
    .. remiss – love what they do – should do it free then (if they procreated :-)


    our recycling programs are a baby step in the correct direction .. why they fail ?

    because someones ox gets gored – thats how this OpSys works .. take that up a post to countryA countryB attempting to each shield their ox

    why the recycling programs are beginning to win – I’d say scarcity of raw materials, scarcity of holes in the ground, pollution controls on original productions, transfer of production/collection costs to others

  31. kaleberg says:

    Not only can governments create jobs, the government can create private companies. An awful lot of people worship companies as some kind of magical private entity, when they are no more than government chartered collective entities. They aren’t magical. They aren’t natural. They aren’t organic. And, we can do innovation and growth without them just fine. England did the entire Industrial Revolution without them. If it helps, think of corporations as just another government spawned nuisance.

  32. DeDude says:

    “I see stimulus money going to pet projects(solar, wind, etc) but not where it’s truly needed, proving the argument gov spends money inefficiently”

    Although I agree that more stimulus should have been given to road and bridge repair you seem to have missed the whole point of this post. However, solar and wind is today what the highway system was after WWII. We are in a development that require increasingly larger amounts of energy, and energy originates from the sun. Currently we have an outdated system where we harvest this solar energy by letting plants produce organic material, then letting that material incubate deep in earths crust for 100 million years before we suck or scoop the resulting black carbon materials out again and burn them for energy to great detriment for our environment and health. You had to be a moron to come up with that system for useful harvesting of the solar energy, but that’s what free market forces came up with.

    Just like we needed to leave behind disconnected systems of winding country roads and build highways back when cars became more abundant; we now need to leave behind destructive hydrocarbon based energy sources for a less polluting and more effective harvest of energy from the sun. But the short-term profit seeking private sector is not going to make the investments or take the risks (and suffer all the failures on the way to success). They are about quarterly profit goals not about where society should be 3 decades from now. That is why the public sector needs to get into that area with subsidies, research and money losing projects. It is the job of the public sector to take all those risks and suffer all those loses that the private sector will not, because that is how big progress is made.