Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right or below. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.
The recent history of NASA illustrates a fundamental problem with how our political class thinks.
In 2004 George Bush announced that NASA would have a new goal, that of the exploration of the solar system. The shuttle would complete construction of the International Space Station and then be retired in 2010. NASA would meanwhile build a replacement for the shuttle, designed to return to the Moon and beyond, and have it flying by 2014.
Notice the gap? The shuttle retires in 2010, four years before its replacement is available. Notice also that the plan insisted that ISS would be finished, fully occupied, and in need of significant resupply and maintenance during this entire time, when neither the shuttle or its replacement would be on hand.
Yet, as obvious as this seems, no one at NASA, in the Bush administration, or in Congress, seemed to notice this gap. The Bush plan was implemented exactly as described, so that today we are about to be left with a space station in orbit and no way to reach it for at least four years. (That other countries can reach the station changes nothing: the United States has been left hanging, lacking a method for transporting its crews to its own space station.)
It was as if, among the political and elite class that runs the government, there was great disconnect between the fantasy of the intended plan and the reality of its implementation.
Consider another more current example. The present debate over NASA’s future involves a lot of talk about whether the government should spend significant funds building a new government rocket (some variation of the Ares I and Ares V rockets that NASA was developing under the Bush plan), or instead commit significant funds to buy this rocket capacity from private companies, who will develop their own new rockets using government subsidies.
In both cases, there is an assumption that the government has the billions of dollars required to do either task.
Yet, these billions simply do not exist. As I noted in an earlier post, Obama’s own Debt and Deficit Commission, created to review the spending problems of the federal government, has stated clearly that there is literally no money for anything but Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. As noted in this Washington Post article:
The commission leaders said that, at present, federal revenue is fully consumed by three programs: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. “The rest of the federal government, including fighting two wars, homeland security, education, art, culture, you name it, veterans — the whole rest of the discretionary budget is being financed by China and other countries,” Simpson said.
Even if you don’t accept this analysis entirely, the terrible state of the federal budget should still give you pause. This graph illustrates the budget situation concisely, taken from an article published in October 2009, immediately after the Congressional Budget Office announced the deficit for 2009:
These numbers make past deficit numbers pale in comparison, even though those past numbers were horrible in their own right. Nor does it matter whether you want to blame Bush, Obama, Democrats, or Republicans for this situation. They all share some of the blame.
Yet, the debate about NASA’s future has completely ignored this budget reality. Somehow, everyone in Congress and the administration imagines that the billions that NASA needs will be available, almost as if they think it grows on trees.
The delusional disconnect that seems to exist in our political class between the fantasy of what the government wants to do and the reality of what it can actually achieve is not limited to NASA. As only one example out of many, the healthcare bill was passed this spring, even though there are little or no government resources at this time available to implement it. (Note that I am not arguing here whether the heathcare plan was a good idea, only that, with approximately $1.5 trillion dollar annual deficits, the federal government is simply incapable right now of handling this new and gigantic responsibility.)
This disturbing disconnect between fantasy and reality is so deep and profound that even the presentation of plain facts cannot penetrate it.
Consider the reaction of many in the political class to the tea party movement. Rather than listen to their concerns, which routinely revolve around the government’s out-of-control spending, the reaction of much of the political class has been to accuse these citizens of racism, even when there is absolutely no evidence for such an accusation. It is for this reason that some variation of the protest sign below appeared at almost every tea party rally I attended.
Still have doubts about this disconnect between reality and fantasy in elite class of our society? Then just try to explain the state of the federal budget to most modern college-educated Americans. I have, in vain, for more than twenty years. No matter what facts or evidence you show them, they simply refuse to recognize the reality that the federal government is spending money it does not have and cannot raise in any realistic manner for the foreseeable future. Instead, it must borrow the money, and when that fails (as it surely will very soon), it must print it.
Instead, their eyes glaze over. Many will quickly tell you that you are evil, mean, racist, and judgmental (as has been done to tea party protesters). In rare circumstances, I will be surprised by someone who will listen and admit my arguments have merit. Nonetheless, when the conversation ends and they go off to discuss these issues among themselves, I have watched as everything I have said is completely forgotten. Instead, they once again eagerly join into any discussion on how the federal government should be used to solve whatever problem happens to be the problem-of-the-day, spending whatever sums required without regard to cost.
There are some hopeful signs, however, indicating that this disconnect is mostly confined to the political and intellectual elites. Recent polling data reveals that while the political class still sees government spending as the solution to our problems — despite the clear lack of available cash — much of the general public is very aware of the problem and does not believe that government spending will work or is practical at this time. Similarly, the rejection by Missouri votes yesterday of the Obama healthcare mandate by a margin of more than 3 to 1 suggests that the public has far more common sense than our leaders.
In fact, the very rise in the last year of the tea party movement confirms these trends. It isn’t often that large numbers of ordinary citizens suddenly take to the streets, carrying protest signs and demanding that their elected officials listen to them.
Whether these trends are real or not still remains to be seen. In both yesterday’s voting, as well as in the above polling data, a very large minority of the general public, approximately one quarter to one third, remained as oblivous to these issues as the elite political community.
For good or ill, the upcoming elections in November 2010 will tell us what is going to happen. Based on their actions concerning NASA alone, however, it seems to me that the political class of the United States should experience a significant changing of the guard. New blood is required, with new ideas and a willingness to face reality honestly, without fear.
And it appears that the public is increasingly willing to commence this house-cleaning.