“Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” Well, not all the world. Sometimes the people who rule the world nail your door shut.
Color TV is a better mousetrap than black-&-white. Better and when ready for home use, RCA—which in its broadcast guise is NBC—delayed manufacture and kept color TV off the market 20 years to avoid paying royalties to the inventor. Petty, but seems to be business as usual.
Ever see the movie Tucker? In 1948 he invented or pioneered many of the features that are standard today, including safety features—disc brakes, a pop-out windshield in case of collision, and a padded dashboard. Did Tucker make a fortune? No, he barely escaped prison. The Big Three Car Makers are ruthless in stamping out competition and maximizing their profit at all costs.
Airplanes in World War II used fuel injection. Cars didn’t have that feature as standard until a half century later. Planes also had water injection. The resultant steam in cylinders made engines more powerful and fuel efficient. Cars never got that boost. Before then, the Cord steam car was first to go 1,000,000 miles on its drive train. Over a century ago, the electric car was first to break the 100 mph barrier.
Then gasoline-burners caught up and passed electric and steam. Was the intermittent combustion engine superior technically? Or was Detroit superior politically? Car companies and oil corporations are interlocked on the board of directors, intermarriage, old school ties, etc. See Who Rules America.
GM—whose CEO said, “what’s good for GM is good for the country”—had enough clout to escape punishment for destroying the trolley system in US cities, in collusion with oil companies, pavers, and local land speculators. At their trial the presiding judge slapped wrists. Probably General Motors could afford a hundred bucks. Modern media has whitewashed the collusion as a “conspiracy”, a term sure to shut minds.
Detroit also gets heavy tariffs levied on Japanese imports—cars that are more advanced. Imagine if all along, the power plants not connected to Big Oil had received an equal amount of funding for R&D. Would we have lost steam and electric or would they be far advanced today? The Big Three retarded engine development but sped up air pollution.
Consider power sources that compete with oil. At one time, the biggest solar company in the world was ArcoSolar. They guided solar toward centralized power plants, away from decentralized, like a photovoltaic panel on every roof. Decentralized means we’d not have to rely on grids. Transmission lines are what power plants burning oil, gas, and coal need.
Oil companies also own uranium mines. Power plants that use decaying uranium also need the grid. Utilities owning those high-tension wires are interlocked with oil and car companies. Westinghouse, the builder of nuclear power plants, along with big utilities had enough power to make Congress pass the Price-Anderson Act which absolved them of liability in case of meltdown.
Were we using decentralized solar, wind turbines, fuel cells, batteries, etc, we’d no longer need electric utilities. Realizing that, utilities make life difficult for solar, for direct current (vs AC)—DC is the current our e-devices use. Forgoing alternatives while using nukes, utilities raise the level of background radiation and the mutations and cancers that come with it. OTOH, without corporate collusion, how advanced now would be non-polluting alternatives?
The biggest oil baron, John D. Rockefeller, funded the University of Chicago, the major economics grad school in the US. A timber baron was behind Cornell. A railroad—the big bad corporation of the day—founded the economics department of Johns Hopkins, back when economics itself was just aborning. Those rentiers had professors bury land and its rent. Hence economics could not predict and has never become a science.
Those families own the Federal Reserve, the consortium of big banks granted a monopoly on issuing new dollars. In the 1980s when community activists were creating consensual currencies to win monetary independence, none were granted the status of legal tender. Hence they could never grow, compete, and militate against inflation.
Similarly, the richest families and corporations not only contribute to universities but also to the American Medical Association—a lobbying group—especially during its formative years, with lasting impact. Back then, doctors were as arrogant as ever and refused to wash their hands between operations, killing about half their patients. More recently, doctors had the police arrest chiropractors and the AMA lobbied Congress to make vitamins available only by prescription, further enriching doctors. Also, unlike pilots who use a checklist for every flight, doctors refuse to use a checklist for every surgery, and so leave scalpels and sponges inside their patients … but so far no Rolexes.
Doctors, lawyers, insurers, and pill pushers are like an unholy quartet, all together driving up how much they can charge Americans to, hopefully, get well. Doctors hand out Big Pharma’s samples like Halloween candy. The AMA gives its members cheaper insurance. Even cheaper Mercedes-Benzes. Congress subsidizes Big Pharma’s new medicines and the FDA approves the pills, some of which kill patients. The media sometimes cover those deaths but mainly salute vaccination and other interventions that retain power within the establishment.
Not getting attention or funding are advances on the cutting edge of science. News articles gush about iPhones, self-driving cars, 3D printers cranking out houses, but you really have to get off the beaten media path to read about medical breakthroughs. You know about covid and how awful it is every day, every newscast, but nothing about UV lamps, nanobodies, NO treatment. Once again, Big Money distorts progress.
You ever see the movie Lorenzo’s Oil? The parents of a sick child were told his disease was hopelessly fatal. The parents did not accept the doctor’s prognosis. Instead, they discovered a cure.
There must be more examples of big business derailing technological progress. These are just the ones I’ve come across as an adult who was unable to outgrow childish curiosity. What other ones do we need to know about? Is there an article or book that articulates the bigger picture? If you know any, or can add to this list, please notify the rest of us. All the key words I've tried do not provide more info. Can you think of better key words?
What makes business big enough to stymy progress is not earned profit but the amount of income above that—“rent” is the technical term—due to favors from government, mainly permits. Like: resource leases, broadcast licenses, utility franchises, pollution standard waivers, corporate charters, monopoly patents, etc, all granted at way below market value.
Let’s recover and share those “rents”. The power that corporations would lose is power that everyone, including the basement inventors, would gain. Not only would creative minds churn out more creations, we’d also be able to find them in the market, for a change, and enjoy them, better ones every year. Then progress would soundly beat bad business practices.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form
JEFFERY J. SMITH published The Geonomist, which won a California GreenLight Award, has appeared in both the popular press (e.g.,TruthOut) and academic journals (e.g., USC's “Planning and Markets”), been interviewed on radio and TV, lobbied officials, testified before the Russian Duma, conducted research (e.g., for Portland's mass transit agency), and recruited activists and academics to Progress.org. A member of the International Society for Ecological Economics and of Mensa, he lives in Mexico. Jeffery formerly was Chief Editor at Progress.org.