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Mitt Romney and the Apollo programme
Sep 3rd 2012, 16:26 by M.S.
MITT ROMNEY needed an iconic representation of the mid-20th-century American optimism his campaign wants to channel for his acceptance speech last week, and he settled on the recently deceased Neil Armstrong and the Apollo moon programme. "When President Kennedy challenged Americans to go to the moon, the question wasn’t whether we'd get there, it was only when we'd get there," Mr Romney said.
The soles of Neil Armstrong's boots on the moon made permanent impressions on our souls and in our national psyche. Ann and I watched those steps together on her parent's sofa. Like all Americans we went to bed that night knowing we lived in the greatest country in the history of the world.
God bless Neil Armstrong. Tonight that American flag is still there on the moon. And I don't doubt for a second that Neil Armstrong's spirit is still with us: that unique blend of optimism, humility and the utter confidence that when the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American.
In the age of Paul Ryan, you don't ordinarily hear Republicans praising massive government programmes to accomplish airy missions of national moral purpose. It got me thinking about something my colleague wrote in a post some weeks ago, something that's been bugging me ever since. In a post otherwise concerned with tax fairness and the "you didn't build that" controversy, my colleague said:
However, there are serious questions about whether all the underlying public goods that make modern business possible must be provided by government and financed with taxes. Education, roads, bridges, and fire protection are routinely financed privately. If most, or even many, of these goods are better provided privately, Mr Obama's "we're in this together" argument for higher top tax rates may be a non-starter. Of course we're in it together! Yet it remains unclear that government-financed bridges, much less NASA's moon boondoggle, represent the perfection of productive "in-it-together" public spirit.
I think the contrast here, between Mr Romney's praise of the lunar mission as reflecting an America that does "the really big stuff" and my colleague's sense that the effort was a "boondoggle", is interesting, because it goes to the question of what we mean when we say some form of government spending is or isn't worth it.
First off, I should acknowledge that I'm not quite sure what my colleague meant by calling NASA's moon programme a "boondoggle". I suppose there are two possibilities. The first, which would be logical in a post that mainly argued that the private sector might be able to more efficiently do lots of things the government currently does, would be that private entrepreneurship could have gotten us to the moon cheaper. But this would be an absurd argument. Private entrepreneurship couldn't possibly have put astronauts on the moon in the 1960s or 1970s, or in all likelihood ever. Who would have put up the capital? Why? It seems sufficient to note that in the four decades since the last moon landings, even though the technology is now off-the-shelf, no private entrepreneur actually has landed astronauts on the moon. Had America left this job to the private sector, people might have landed on the moon by the 1980s, but they would have been speaking Russian—not that there's anything wrong with that; the point is that the trip would definitely have been government-funded.
So I trust this isn't what my colleague meant when he called the moon programme a boondoggle. Which leaves the other possibility: the claim that the moon programme wasn't worth doing at all, or not for the money we spent on it.
I suppose I understand the grounds on which one might say that the Apollo programme wasn't worth the cost. It was pretty expensive, and it didn't produce many direct commercial applications, unlike the telecom satellites and so forth that grew out of the orbital space programme. The scientific benefits might not have been entirely achievable with robots at the time, but they would have been if we'd waited a decade or two, and that would no doubt have been cheaper. The space race was a significant battlefield in the cold war, and the American win was one of the most important demonstrations on the international stage that the future belonged to the capitalist democracies rather than to communism; but I suppose one could argue that both the American and Soviet moon programmes were "boondoggles", and that it would have been better if neither had tried. In any case, we don't today regard its strategic value, nor even its scientific value, as the chief justification for the Apollo programme. Rather, we think of sending human beings to walk on the moon a a monumental achievement of human science and engineering with a profound aesthetic and spiritual dimension—a spectacular technological achievement with deep moral implications, like Reims Cathedral but on a much larger scale. But the value of those sorts of things is hard to measure, and not everyone necessarily appreciates them.
Moreover, contrary to popular mythology, the moon shots didn't enjoy overwhelming public support at the time. Opinion polls in the 1960s generally found most people thought the programme to put a man on the moon wasn't worth the money being spent on it. The data isn't unequivocal; 60% to 80% of those polled consistently said they "approved of Apollo", though most disapproved of the price tag. Meanwhile, since 1965, about 80% have consistently said they approve of NASA's current funding levels, even though the public is under the impression that NASA's budget is over 20 times as big a part of federal spending as it actually is (ie, under 1%). This is all a bit hard to put together, but at the least, it does make it hard to say Americans approved of spending what it took to go to the moon.
For the rest, see http://www.economist....