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Big Problems and Big Government: Siamese Twins for Special-Interest Groups
Reality Check (Dec. 27, 2012)
This article is in the Technology Review. It is typical of an engineer's view of social problems. Each of the big ones has a technological solution, he says. But they rarely do.
The article began with the 1969 walk on the moon. That was the most spectacular and most expensive PR stunt in American history. It had no viable payoff to the voters, other than PR. It was a kind of fireworks show.
This required the greatest peacetime mobilization in the nation's history. Although NASA was and remains a civilian agency, the Apollo program was possible only because it was a lavishly funded, semi-militarized project: all the astronauts (with one exception) had been Air Force pilots and naval aviators; many of the agency's middle-aged administrators had served in the Second World War in some capacity; and the director of the program itself, Samuel Philips, was an Air Force general officer, drafted into service because of his effective management of the Minuteman missile program. In all, NASA spent $24 billion, or about $180 billion in today's dollars, on Apollo; at its peak in the mid-1960s, the agency enjoyed more than 4 percent of the federal budget. The program employed around 400,000 people and demanded the collaboration of about 20,000 companies, universities, and government agencies.
What was the payoff?
Why did they go? They brought back little--841 pounds of old rocks, Aldrin's smuggled aesthetic bliss, and something most of the 24 emphasized: a new sense of the smallness and fragility of our home. (Jim Lovell, not untypically, remembered, "Everything that I ever knew--my life, my loved ones, the Navy--everything, the whole world, was behind my thumb.") The cynical, mostly correct answer is that Kennedy wanted to demonstrate the superiority of American rocketry over Soviet engineering: the president's challenge was made in May of 1961, little more than a month after Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. But it does not adequately explain why the United States made the great effort it did, nor does it convey how the lunar landings were understood at the time.
There was a religious impulse. "Apollo was not seen only as a victory for one of two antagonistic ideologies. Rather, the strongest emotion at the time of the moon landings was of wonder at the transcendent power of technology."
This was part of a myth, one which still endures: "Solving complex social problems is as easy as solving technologically defined engineering problems." Solution: "we need more government programs."
Since Apollo 17's flight in 1972, no humans have been back to the moon, or gone anywhere beyond low Earth orbit. No one has traveled faster than the crew of Apollo 10. (Since the last flight of the supersonic Concorde in 2003, civilian travel has become slower.) Blithe optimism about technology's powers has evaporated, too, as big problems that people had imagined technology would solve, such as hunger, poverty, malaria, climate change, cancer, and the diseases of old age, have come to seem intractably hard.
It is nonsense today. It was nonsense in 1969. I wrote an article on this a few months after the moon landing.
THE MYTHOLOGY OF SPACESHIP EARTH
The flight of Apollo XI was probably the most stupendous technological achievement of the decade. (Unquestionably, it was the most stupendous bureaucratic achievement of the decade: scheduled for 1969, it actually took place in 1969!) Editorials in every paper in America, I suppose, have lauded the flight as the monument to the capacities of mankind to conquer nature and order our affairs, the assumption being that the ability to fly a rocket implies the ability to organize a society, in theory if not in practice. The flight has brought to the forefront that old cliché, "Man's scientific wisdom has outrun his moral wisdom"; we can go to the moon, yet somehow we have failed to solve the problem of mass poverty in the United States. . . .
Unfortunately, the planners can never be neutral; hence, their application of technology to the affairs of men cannot be neutral. Planning involves the allocation of scarce resources, and some programs must be accepted while others are rejected. The planners must use a scale of values--non-empirical, a priori moral values--in the administration and formulation of their plans. . . .
From the Moon to the Earth
During the week of the moon shot, I fully expected some local television station to show George Pal's 1950 classic, Destination Moon. Sure enough, a Los Angeles station presented it one evening. No doubt it was shown in other cities around the country. I missed it this time, but I have seen it often enough to reproduce some of its dialogue verbatim (the dialogue, however, was considerably inferior to Pal's special effects). Tom Powers played a military man whose rocket programs kept producing failures. He finally is able to convince John Archer, a captain of private industry, to construct the rocket that will get the job done.
The message: only American private enterprise can get us to the moon.
That was great stuff in 1950. Yet the reality is far, far removed in 1969. The moon shot was, by its very nature, a task for the state. Private firms could be contracted, but the NASA officials were behind it, financially and administratively, from start to finish. Tom Wicker, writing in his nationally syndicated column, put the fact in all its clarity: "No one ever made the remotest pretense that men could get to the moon via free enterprise, states' rights, rugged individualism, or matching grants."' The reason: ". . . this was government-managed enterprise, pointed toward an agreed goal, operating on planned time and cost schedules, with ample administrative authority derived from Federal power and wealth." An amen is due here. Good show, Mr. Wicker.
Mr. Wicker, unfortunately, made a great leap of faith when he began to compare our heavenly achievement with our supposed capabilities for solving more earthly tasks. He was not alone in this leap. Editorial after editorial echoed it, and I single him out only because he is widely read and generally regarded as one of the superior liberal pundits. He makes the leap seem so plausible: "So the conclusion that enlightened men might draw is that if the same concentration of effort and control could be applied to some useful earthly project, a similar success might be obtained." He recommends a vast program of publicly-owned housing construction, say, some 26 million new units by 1980.
Flora Lewis' column was far more optimistic; her horizons for mankind's planning capabilities are apparently much wider. "If the moon can be grasped, why not the end of hunger, of greed, of warfare, of cruelty?" She admits that there are problems: "They seem provocatively within our new capacities and yet maddeningly distant. We are told it is only lack of will that frustrates these achievements, too."² Nature is boundless, apparently; only our "lack of will" prevents us from unlocking the secrets of paradise and ending the human condition as we know it. This is the messianism of technological planning. It is basic to the thinking of a large segment of our intellectuals, and the success of the Apollo flights has brought it out into the open.
Mr. Wicker wisely set for our government a limited goal. Miss Lewis does not necessarily limit the task to government planning alone, but it is obvious that she is basing her hopes on a technological feat that was essentially a statist project. At this point, several questions should be raised. First, should the state have used some $25 billion of coerced taxes in order to send two men to the moon's surface? Would men acting in a voluntary fashion have expended such a sum in this generation? In short, was it worth the forfeiting of $25 billion worth of alternative uses for the money? Second, given Mr. Wicker's plans, could we not ask the same question? Is the construction of public housing, and the use of scarce resources involved in such construction, on a priority scale that high in the minds of the American public? Would a noninflationary tax cut not be preferable?3 It is typical of socialistic thinkers to point to emergency spending (e.g., a war) or some statist rocket program and recommend a transfer of funds from one branch of the state's planning bureaucracy to another. I have never heard them recommend a reduction of spending by the state. Spending precedents set in war time, like "temporary" taxes, seem to become permanent. Finally, in Miss Lewis' example, is the mere application of the techniques of applied science sufficient to end warfare and cruelty? Or could it be, as the Apostle James put it, that our wars come from the hearts of men? Conversion, in and of itself, may not redeem technology, but can Miss Lewis be so certain that technology can redeem mankind? . . .
The Technocrats of the 1930's urged us to accept the economic guidance of the engineering elite. They would eliminate "waste." Yet the engineers of the Soviet Union have been forced to construct crude economic accounting techniques in order to deal with such "capitalistic" phenomena as value and the rate of interest. Engineering--meaning specialized, technological competence--cannot deal with such psychological imponderables as consumer preferences. Only the price mechanism of a free market can do this with any degree of accuracy, which is why Ludwig von Mises rejects socialist planning.5 If we confuse engineering with economic calculation, we will destroy the rational allocation of scarce resources by the market. It would involve turning over the task of ordering literally quintillions of economic relationships to a centralized elite with necessarily limited knowledge.° The results can be predicted: irrational decisions, petty bureaucratic coercion, and a loss of political freedom. . . .
The astronauts are back on earth. We must seek to keep them here. It is time to ground our spaceship programs, both interplanetary and domestic. Let the captains go down with their ideological ship. There are better ways of allocating our scarce resources than in constructing spaceship earth.
THE ENDLESS QUEST FOR GOVERNMENT BOONDOGGLES
The writer for Technology Review laments the ending of Big Projects. The government should send people to Mars.
It won't. Why not? "We won't, because there are, everyone feels, more useful things to do on Earth. Going to Mars, like going to the moon, would follow upon a political decision that inspired or was inspired by public support."
I say: Hooray!
What this guy wants is government spending, and lots of it.
Sometimes we fail to solve big problems because our institutions have failed. In 2010, less than 2 percent of the world's energy consumption was derived from advanced renewable sources such as wind, solar, and biofuels. (The most common renewable sources of energy are still hydroelectric power and the burning of biomass, which means wood and cow dung.) The reason is economic: coal and natural gas are cheaper than solar and wind, and petroleum is cheaper than biofuels. Because climate change is a real and urgent problem, and because the main cause of global warming is carbon dioxide released as a by-product of burning fossil fuels, we need renewable energy technologies that can compete on price with coal, natural gas, and petroleum. At the moment, they don't exist.
In short, the free market is cheaper. This is supposedly a bad thing, because of global warming. So, we need government subsidies for the losers.
Happily, economists, technologists, and business leaders agree on what national policies and international treaties would spur the development and broad use of such alternatives. There should be a significant increase in public investment for energy research and development, which has fallen in the United States from a height of 10 percent in 1979 to 2 percent of total R&D spending, or just $5 billion a year. (Two years ago, Bill Gates, Xerox chief executive Ursula Burns, GE chief executive Jeff Immelt, and John Doerr, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist, called for a threefold increase in public investments in energy research.) There should be some kind of price on carbon, now a negative externality, whether it is a transparent tax or some more opaque market mechanism. There should be a regulatory framework that treats carbon dioxide emissions as pollution, setting upper limits on how much pollution companies and nations can release. Finally, and least concretely, energy experts agree that even if there were more investment in research, a price on carbon, and some kind of regulatory framework, we would still lack one vital thing: sufficient facilities to demonstrate and test new energy technologies. Such facilities are typically too expensive for private companies to build. But without a practical way to collectively test and optimize innovative energy technologies, and without some means to share the risks of development, alternative energy sources will continue to have little impact on energy use, given that any new technology will be more expensive at first than fossil fuels.
He goes on and on about the lack of boondoggles. Then he writes:
It's not true that we can't solve big problems through technology; we can. We must. But all these elements must be present: political leaders and the public must care to solve a problem, our institutions must support its solution, it must really be a technological problem, and we must understand it.
The Apollo program, which has become a metaphor for technology's capacity to solve big problems, met these criteria, but it is an irreproducible model for the future. This is not 1961: there is no galvanizing historical context akin to the Cold War, no likely politician who can heroize the difficult and dangerous, no body of engineers who yearn for the productive regimentation they had enjoyed in the military, and no popular faith in a science-fictional mythology such as exploring the solar system. Most of all, going to the moon was easy. It was only three days away. Arguably, it wasn't even solving much of a problem. We are left alone with our day, and the solutions of the future will be harder won.
And so it goes. Each narrow special-interest group wants taxpayers to fund its favorite projects, thereby providing lifetime employment. This is why the West is going bankrupt.