Political leaders have tries to replicate the high-tech magic of Silicon Valley since the invention of the microchip. Tech curious Charles de Gaulle, then President of France, visited Palo Alto in his convertible limousine in 1960. President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev dressed casually to meet and tweet with media moguls social of the Valley in 2010. Hundreds of enthusiastic delegations, foreign and domestic, visited between the two. “Silicon Valley,” inventor and entrepreneur Robert Metcalfe once noted, “is the only place on earth that doesn’t try to figure out how to become Silicon Valley.”

In the United States, too, leaders have long been trying to create another Silicon Valley. Yet billions of dollars in tax breaks and ‘Silicon Something’ marketing campaigns later, no place has matched the original’s track record of starting a business and investing in venture capital – and these efforts have often benefited multinationals far more than the regions themselves. Wisconsin pledged more than $ 4 billion in tax breaks and subsidies to Taiwanese electronics maker Foxconn in 2017, only to see plans for a $ 10 billion factory and 13,000 jobs evaporate after Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have already been spent preparing for Foxconn’s arrival. Amazon’s 2017 search for a second headquarters knocked 238 US cities on top of each other to woo one of the world’s richest corporations with tax and subsidy packages, only to see HQ2 go. in two places that Amazon probably would have chosen anyway due to their pre-existing technology. Talent. One of the winners, Northern Virginia, pledged to Amazon up to $ 773 million in state and local tax subsidies – a public price tag for shiny high-tech towers that seems particularly high as Amazon joins with other tech giants to indefinitely push back post-pandemic plans to return to the office.

While America’s tech industry is much larger than it used to be, the list of major tech clusters – Bay Area, Seattle, Boston, Austin – has remained virtually unchanged from the days of 64K desktops and floppy disks. Even the disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic have does little to modify this remarkably static and very unbalanced technological geography.

Yet politicians are trying again. Bills making their way to Congress include the U.S. Innovation and Competition Actt (USICA), which contains significant increases in research spending, $ 10 billion in new grants and subsidies to develop “regional innovation hubs, and $ 52 billion to expand national semiconductor production.” the Rebuild Better Act currently battling in the Senate includes more than $ 43 billion for technology-driven programs to boost local economies. These measures focus on investment rather than tax breaks and, in sum, invest much more in local economic strategies than the United States for decades. They are promising. But they are just the beginning.

You don’t have to travel far into Silicon Valley to find a techno-libertarian proclaiming that the success of the industry is purely the result of entrepreneurial turmoil and that the best thing the government can do is step aside. But this conclusion ignores history. In fact, government spending has played a huge role in the growth of high-tech economies in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Boston, and Austin. Understanding how this happened is essential to imagine where the technology might develop next.

During the world war II, the unprecedented mobilization of people and resources of the United States government has reshaped the economic map of America. The depression-ravaged Midwestern assembly lines have come back to life on government orders, producing jeeps and tanks instead of passenger cars. Scientists and technologists have put aside the usual research activities to join the “brain army” in times of war. Many were involved in the top-secret push to develop an atomic bomb, living in entirely new communities built by the military in places so remote they could go unnoticed: the desert of New Mexico, the barren plains of Eastern Washington, rural Tennessee troughs.

World War II was the test of the use of public investment to stimulate scientific progress and remake regional economies. The Cold War gained momentum. Military spending that had declined by the end of the war increased in the early 1950s amid a new atomic arms race with the Soviet Union and the Korean War. Stroll around an American college campus today, notice the number of science buildings erected in the 1950s and 1960s, and you can see the results in poured concrete.

Initially, the regions at the top of the high tech heap were on the east coast; Boston was the nation’s largest tech economy until the 1980s. The region that ultimately ousted Boston from its high-tech throne was, before the war, better known as the nation’s prune-producing capital. The only thing that set the future Silicon Valley apart from its agricultural counterparts was Stanford University, which had some really good engineering programs and a few alumni tinkering at nearby garage startups.