12 October 2012


Lack of political courage

Vision can be expensive. Most politicians love expensive projects if the projects can give the voters something for “free.” A new interstate highway located solely in their district, a bridge to nowhere, anything that brings cash to a district or a favored subset of the population.

True vision, on the other hand, is not so easy. It usually involves spending on pure research and things that do not immediately impact any particular constituency. Kennedy’s vision of going to the moon in less than a decade is an example. It ultimately thrilled the Nation, but first, the naysayers started in. “We should spend it here for education (the teachers’ unions), schools (the contractors and building trade unions), to eradicate poverty (ask LBJ how the “War on Poverty” worked out—hundreds of billions passed around, usually through a huge bureaucracy), anything that can be sent to a politician's voting district before the next election.

President Obama’s stimulus first stimulated the roadside sign industry: politicians such as the late Senator Robert Byrd (D.WV) quickly erected signs on already paid for and completed road projects touting that the money came from the stimulus.

Kennedy, on the other hand, recognized that to do something really big, lots will be spent on work that will not be immediately visible to the average voter. In addition to the regular budget for space projects,
We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar space craft. We propose to develop alternate liquid and solid fuel boosters, much larger than any now being developed, until certain which is superior. We propose additional funds for other engine development and for unmanned explorations--explorations which are particularly important for one purpose which this nation will never overlook: the survival of the man who first makes this daring flight. But in a very real sense, it will not be one man going to the moon--if we make this judgment affirmatively, it will be an entire nation. For all of us must work to put him there. (Emphasis added.)
Secondly, an additional 23 million dollars, together with 7 million dollars already available, will accelerate development of the Rover nuclear rocket. This gives promise of some day providing a means for even more exciting and ambitious exploration of space, perhaps beyond the moon, perhaps to the very end of the solar system itself. (Emphasis added.)
Third, an additional 50 million dollars will make the most of our present leadership, by accelerating the use of space satellites for world-wide communications.
Fourth, an additional 75 million dollars--of which 53 million dollars is for the Weather Bureau--will help give us at the earliest possible time a satellite system for world-wide weather observation.
In one year, in which the federal budget was a little less than $98 billion ($97,723, 000,000), President Kennedy asked for an additional $148 million for work to lay the groundwork for the advances he envisioned. Twenty three million dollars for a nuclear powered rocket that still does not exist. Why? Because “some day” it might open doors to new, unexplored frontiers. Fifty million dollars for the then unimaginable satellite system that does everything from allowing us to see news events happening in real time and transfer data around the world in microseconds, to guiding us via global positioning systems to great-aunt Sadie’s new apartment in Arizona.

At a time when Huntley-Brinkley was the television news leader, the President proposed a system that needed another 18 years before CNN was able to institute that staple of the news media today: cable television’s 24 hour news networks. Seventy five million dollars for weather satellite systems that allow us to track hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones, and blizzards, to warn people of impending danger, even though the last reported hurricane in Chicago was, well, never.

Can you imagine the outrage of groups from “community organizers” and the NEA to the AARP and NOW if President Obama asked for an additional $200 billion for such projects? That is why “vision” is politically unpopular. It is risky and requires leaders who are not afraid to think big.

Oh, I can hear a lot of people thinking right now. “Aren’t you the guy who vehemently opposed President Obama’s visionary health care reform?”

You got me. But, friends, Obama-care is not visionary. It did absolutely nothing to substantively improve health care. It is simply moving money around to satisfy a lot of voters (although a significant amount of polling data reveals that satisfaction is low). It was a program that promised a lot of people something for nothing and right away, too. That is not vision—it is bread and circuses.

Vision has risks. It requires boldness, faith, confidence, effort, and, yes, sacrifice. Listen to President Kennedy.
Now it is time to take longer strides--time for a great new American enterprise--time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth. I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshaled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment. Recognizing the head start obtained by the Soviets with their large rocket engines, which gives them many months of lead-time, and recognizing the likelihood that they will exploit this lead for some time to come in still more impressive successes, we nevertheless are required to make new efforts on our own. For while we cannot guarantee that we shall one day be first, we can guarantee that any failure to make this effort will make us last. . . . Space is open to us now; and our eagerness to share its meaning is not governed by the efforts of others. We go into space because whatever mankind must undertake, free men must fully share.
Fifteen months later, an American having orbited the earth seven months before, in a speech Rice University's Rice Stadium to 35,000 Houstonians, Kennedy said
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too. (Emphasis added.)
The growth of our science and education will be enriched by new knowledge of our universe and environment, by new techniques of learning and mapping and observation, by new tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school. Technical institutions, such as Rice, will reap the harvest of these gains.
And finally, the space effort itself, while still in its infancy, has already created a great number of new companies, and tens of thousands of new jobs. Space and related industries are generating new demands in investment and skilled personnel, and this city and this state, and this region, will share greatly in this growth. What was once the furthest outpost on the old frontier of the West will be the furthest outpost on the new frontier of science and space. Houston, your city of Houston, with its Manned Spacecraft Center, will become the heart of a large scientific and engineering community.
To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money. This year’s space budget is three times what it was in January 1961, and it is greater than the space budget of the previous eight years combined. That budget now stands at $5,400 million a year–a staggering sum, though somewhat less than we pay for cigarettes and cigars every year. Space expenditures will soon rise some more, from 40 cents per person per week to more than 50 cents a week for every man, woman and child in the United States, for we have given this program a high national priority–even though I realize that this is in some measure an act of faith and vision, for we do not now know what benefits await us.
But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold.
(Emphasis added.)
 He also cautioned “[I]t is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait.” 
 But this city of Houston, this state of Texas, this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them. This country was conquered by those who moved forward–and so will space.

Finally, vision requires a national commitment. Returning to his 1961 speech to Congress, President Kennedy said
This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. . . . Let it be clear. . . that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs: 531 million dollars in fiscal '62--an estimated 7 to 9 billion dollars additional over the next five years. If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all. (Emphasis added.)
And that leads me back to my original question:  Where is the vision today

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