During the State of the Union speech, President Obama mentioned, somewhat in passing, that many technologies that spurred American economic growth were the result of military spending. His point - some government spending can be a great catalyst for the private sector and economic growth.
President Obama made an error of scale - he underplayed the point by a few orders of magnitude. As an electrical engineer, let me scale up his argument to realistic proportions - American government spending, combined with profits from AT&Ts monopoly of the US phone system, basically CREATED the electronics industry! Without the US Government and AT&T (not the one that bears its name today but the old Ma Bell), we'd still be back in the 1950s.
US Government spending, both direct military and military-motivated research, subsidized the engineering laboratories at MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Berkeley, and dozens of other universities in this country. Call it the Cold War Dividend, although it started during World War II or earlier. AT&T Bell Laboratories did so much for electrical engineering and communications that most of the methods found in textbooks today are named after Bell Labs researchers - Nyquist, Shannon, Bode, et al. NASA then spurred the private sector with contracts that advanced materials science and created more technologies.
The Internet was a military research project. Fiber optics was largely developed by Bell Labs. Semiconductors were invented at AT&T. Military spending created the need for communications techniques that make cell phones possible and GPS was created for military purposes.
Yes, the entrepreneurship of American inventors has been an engine of great progress and the private sector has done wonders to create new products. But the technological foundation was paid for by American taxpayers. Let's not forget that as we sing the praises of the free market as an engine of growth.
Apropos of the above, I'd like to see a 10-second message displayed on every computer screen in the world, as the computer is rebooted or the browser is launched. The message would show the Stars and Stripes, with the following message:
"The technology you are about to use has been developed and given to the people of the world as a gift from the People of the United States."