President Obama says the magic words: government creating a platform

It's really nice to see President Obama using the metaphor of government as a platform. Here's the money quote in the Rolling Stone interview:

"The free market is the greatest generator of wealth in history. I'm a firm believer in the free market, and the capacity of Americans to start a business, pursue their dreams and strike it rich. But when you look at the history of how we became an economic superpower, that rugged individualism and private-sector dynamism was always coupled with government creating a platform so that everybody could succeed..."

Thinking of government as platform rather than an end-to-end solution provider is a way to resolve the conflict between left and right in politics. It's clear that government is too big, and yet the problems that we need to solve collectively are still bigger. The notion of government as a platform focuses government on doing the things that only government can do, building key infrastructure that will catalyze the private sector.

We saw this platform dynamic with smartphones. Before the iPhone, smart phones worked a lot like government procurement. The manufacturers and the carriers got together in a back room and figured out what they thought people needed. Phones came with 20 or 30 apps. But when Apple figured out how to turn the phone into a platform, there were hundreds of thousands of apps delivering ideas that no one at Apple had imagined.

Examples of government as a platform include the Interstate Highway System, GPS, and open data. (For example, at the local level, governments opening up transit data feeds enables transit data in google maps or 3rd party smartphone apps far more effectively than if governments tried to build all these apps themselves.)

But I think President Obama is right when he also points to social safety nets as part of government acting as a platform. Continuing the quotation above, he says:

"But when you look at the history of how we became an economic superpower, that rugged individualism and private-sector dynamism was always coupled with government creating a platform so that everybody could succeed so that consumers weren't taken advantage of, so that the byproducts of capitalism, like pollution or worker injuries, were regulated. Creating that social safety net has not made us weaker – it's made us stronger. It liberated people to say, "I can move to another state, but if I don't find a job right away, my kids aren't going to go hungry. I can start a business, but if it doesn't work out, I'm going to be able to land on my feet." Making those kinds of commitments to each other – to create safety nets, to invest in infrastructure and schools and basic research – is just like our collective investment in national security or fire departments or police. It has facilitated the kind of risk-taking that has made our economy so dynamic. This is what it means for us to live in a thriving, modern democracy."

I think that's right. But it's important to design these safety nets so that they are enablers rather than replacements for private sector activity. Designing effective platforms is hard, and there's a history all through the computer industry of platform providers choking off innovation on the platform by doing too much.

What Lao Tzu said about government 2500 years ago still stands:

"When the best leader leads, the people say 'We did it ourselves.'"
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