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Big Problems and Big Government

Written by Gary North on December 27, 2012

Gary North’s 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 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. . . .

(For the rest of my article, click the link.)

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5 thoughts on “Big Problems and Big Government

  1. Old timer! says:

    Ah yes! But Star Trek tells us that one day we can and will go farther! That it will be the result of war on earth coming to an end! When we finally realize that we are all brothers, we will accept each other under higher ideals that end poverty, money, and housing under a utopian plan that makes every person on the planet–somehow equal! This plan enables us to take the worlds resources and bring them to bear upon curing all diseases to even the common cold, finally ending up with the population working worldwide to one goal! “Wondering what’s out there! Who’s out there? How far IS out there?”
    Of course there’s a few things wrong with the scenerio! Like radical Governments that care only about themselves and not the people! Things like believing in man-made climate change, and people realizing that, even though it’s not true, they can and WILL exploit the gullible’s belief that something can be done about it to make money, promising results “if we all can sacrifice the money, and radically change the way we do things to stop it!” Of course the collective ‘we’ can’t stop what has been an ongoing process for eons! But we can waste money on trying to stop it, so that we can feel good about ourselves!
    Want back into space? Convince the gullible that the answer to stop global warming will be achieved by the new space program and they’ll insist that the government ‘hug the new tree” to do so! After all, the last one gave us things like “Tang” that we can all use!

  2. I'm not drinking the Tang.

    Seems to me that even NASA is backing off from its moon landing claims, if you read between the lines of these press releases, i.e., there is no plan to build on past technologies/achievements to solve the radiation exposure problem.

    The Apollo 'moon orbits' and 'moon landings' were a great, big video hoax.

  3. Gary North must think the Hubble Space Telescope was a waste as it subsidises geeks desire for pretty space pictures. Or that laying down a fibre optic network amounts to subsidising others' high-speed internet porn habit. Then again since this guy's a fundamentalist Christian he probably believes there's no point in exploring the Universe as it will be destroyed and renovated by God due to humanity's sinfulness.

  4. Yes, those evil fundamentalist Christians like Copernicus, Galileo, Columbus, and Newton. The saving grace for you Gil is that your ignorance of Christianity (and what it says about science) is only exceeded by North's intellectually inept attempt to say that NASA and the rocket programs weren't necessary.

    If North want's to illogically claim that the space program was one big "PR stunt," let him. So was SDI and Reagan caused the Soviets to crater their economy around it.

    I get a little stick of Libertarians who have nearly the same historical knowledge of an MSNBC anchor assuming that all wars were just attempts to enrich the Bilderbergs and that the Hitler's, Lenin's (or even Husseins) just shelve their plans for world enslavement. The psychological advantage for the United States in "winning' the space war was critical in many ways that actually brought the country together and spurred entrepreneurship. People like North always make the insane argument that people (and our collective knowledge) was the same back then as it is now. The idea of the Soviets "ruling space" seemed a very real threat to people that still couldn't get it through their heads that it was POSSIBLE to go to the moon.

    Was spending excessive? Absolutely. Did greedy corporatists profit on the backs of the taxpayer? Unfortunately so. Space exploration has provided military, economic and societal advantages (microwaves, GPS, satellite technology, etc) that may have well either been developed by other countries (and thus robbed America of an economic and intellectual base of capital) or worse, may have never been implemented.

    One sign that NASA is important? Obama targeted to shut it down immediately upon taking office while starting a "made by Muslim" PR initiative.

    And God help the Gil's and Gary's of the world who believe that a political system, technology or anti-Founding Father economic philosophies will save us.

  5. This is why the EU is going bankrupt. This is why the Big World is going bankrupt. "Better is an handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit." Ecclesiastes 4:6