Americans Used To Believe They Could Get Things Done. What The Hell Happened?
Three weeks after I was born Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to ever walk on the surface of another world. While I obviously have no memory of these events, I can at least say I was alive when it happened.
That this accomplishment was as much a product of the Cold War competition between the Soviet Union and the United States as it was scientific curiosity doesn’t really diminish it in any way. If nations are going to compete, I’d much rather they did so by trying to outperform each other in the race for discovery than by trying to outdo each other in the construction of weapons of mass destruction.
Regardless, ultimately everyone benefited from the healthy competition. Today most of us regularly use devices that can be traced back to the space program. What the United States accomplished in the summer of 1969 is now rightly seen as much a human achievement as it is an American one.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has continued to do great things over the course of my lifetime, in spite of Congress’ refusal to provide it with a budget that keeps up with humanity’s ever expanding imagination. Fortunately the European Space Agency and others have also gotten into the act, launching inspiring missions of their own.
But generally speaking the belief in America’s capacity to do great things has been seriously eroded by myopic cost/benefit analysis driven thinking and a now near universal belief in government ineptitude and overregulation. These leave both public and private sector performance languishing far behind where those of us raised in the immediate shadow of the successful Apollo program had good reason to think it would be by now.
Not only are American efforts to put humans on Mars moving along in low gear, but since the end of the space shuttle program the US has been relying on the Russians to get to the International Space Station. And does anyone remember the massive superconducting supercollider we were going to build in Texas? Politicians killed that one using a one-two punch of anti-science rhetoric and fiscal conservatism, arguing it had no practical applications and was going to cost a bundle. Thanks to that mentality it was the European’s supercollider in Switzerland that demonstrated the existence of the Higgs Boson. Meanwhile, the only objects colliding at the Texas site are giant tumbleweeds.
Adopting skepticism of big projects with lofty goals and fiscal restraint as our default positions hasn’t just hurt the space program and killed giant atom smashers. We can’t even seem to rally around the idea of maintaining the basic infrastructure that we already have and rely on every day. Vastly increasing our exploration of the solar system, crashing tiny particles into each other, or building a network of high speed trains is never going to win public support when people keep hearing that just fixing the potholes on their street strains their government’s budget and capabilities. Sadly that’s been the consistent message coming from the increasingly shrill right end of the ideological spectrum.
Infrastructure spending in the United States has languished for so long that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) now estimates that the country has a $4.6 trillion infrastructure maintenance backlog. According to a BBC story using the Oroville Dam’s near complete failure in March of 2017 to provide context, the ASCE’s most recent infrastructure report concluded that “over the previous four years there had been no overall improvement in aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, energy and roads.”
So, while other countries have been busy building high-speed rail the United States has allowed even basic highway maintenance to suffer. As Germany was blanketing itself with solar panels, tax incentives for alternative energy development in the USA remained small by comparison and came and went with such regularity that creating uncertainty was the only government priority the market could be sure of. And where’s this smart grid everyone keeps talking about? America can’t even seem to get the old one back up and running in Puerto Rico.
I’m not, to use Steven Pinker’s term, a progressophobe. I neither fear progress or deny it. I agree with Pinker that humanity in general and the United States in particular has seen incredible progress on a variety of fronts during my lifetime. Even if we fail to send people to Mars before my ashes are poured over the rim of a remote canyon somewhere, I still got to carry a device in my pocket that contains thousands of songs, gives me access on demand to news and commentary from every corner of the globe, captures high quality digital photographs and video, enables me to identify distant stars and galaxies simply by aiming it at the night sky, AND can facilitate communication with anyone in the world with a similar device.
In addition to having something I can hold in my hand that just 100 years ago would have made me seem godlike, I don’t have to worry about my granddaughter getting smallpox, polio, and numerous other dreaded diseases. I’m not the least bit ashamed to admit that I really like not having to worry about such things. I am profoundly grateful to both government and science for making so many rapid advances in public health possible. I’m also historically literate enough to know that the “good old days” weren’t nearly as good as we tend to think they were. I have absolutely no interest in returning to them.
However, a significant and growing number of my fellow countrymen and women do seem to have some pretty romanticized notions of the past. If the anti-vaccination crowd is any indication there are apparently quite a few individuals out there that really do believe, or at least suspect, that life was a lot better when mumps and measles were a guaranteed part of childhood. It’s as though millions of Americans have crossed the event horizon of some sort of nostalgic black hole. Longing to return to some imagined previous golden age now defines their political worldview. More and more those articulating a hopeful vision of the future are dismissed as naive or impractical.
In spite of all the red hats proclaiming a desire to “Make America Great Again” and the victory those wearing them enjoyed in 2016, there has been no call to marshal our intellectual and physical resources for any great cause like curing cancer or solving the climate change crisis as possible means to this end. When Donald Trump speaks about infrastructure — a topic that brings him about as close to having a vision for the future as he is likely to ever have — he isn’t referring to a smart grid that can handle huge increases in renewable energy production, high speed Amtrak trains zipping from city to city, or even massive investments in good old public transportation. He’s talking about Eisenhower’s interstate highway system, only with more lanes.
For far too many of my fellow citizens the past isn’t prologue; it’s the final chapter. Nothing of similar magnitude or collective emotional impact to the moon landing is considered likely either now or in the future. Sadly, it may be dangerous these days to even assume people believe the moon landing ever happened. Having picked all the technological and scientific low hanging fruit, there’s a lazy fondness for the days when progress’ yield could be reached from the ground instead of a drive to build the ladders that will get us to the good stuff higher up that’s still waiting to be harvested.
If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be — you didn’t know whether you were going to be born into a wealthy family or a poor family, what country you’d be born in, whether you were going to be a man or a woman — if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born, you’d choose now. ~ Barack Obama, 2016
This mood began to take root in earnest when it was supposed to be “morning in America.” Ronald Reagan is often portrayed as a sunny optimist, but he was only optimistic in comparison to the modern conservative. Reagan gleefully portrayed the government as dysfunctional, advancing the market instead as the best alternative mechanism for getting things done. In response to this philosophy the Democrats produced Bill Clinton. He gave us “the era of big government is over” and a sex scandal.
But markets, like children, need guidance. Left to their own devices without the carrots and sticks of government incentives and constraints, markets either evolve into giant monopolies that impose discipline by driving out the competition or devolve into a kind of chaos where free loaders and ethical actors all have to compete in the same unpredictable lawless environment. Industry is entitled to have an agenda, but so is society. When society’s interests clash with those of the private sector there should be no question which of these has the final word. For the better part of four decades now society’s interests have increasingly come in second place to corporate agendas that rarely stretch far beyond the next quarterly report. The consequences for bold scientific initiatives that cost large amounts of money and take a long time to pull off have been dire.
The latest example of America’s can’t do attitude can be found in the roll back of tougher Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards adopted during the Obama administration. These standards, officially put in place in 2012, require US automakers to establish a 54.5 mile per gallon average fuel economy for cars and trucks by 2025.
According to the New York Times, these standards “would have put the United States, historically a laggard in fuel economy regulations, at the forefront worldwide in the manufacture of electric and highly fuel efficient vehicles.” That’s because the US and Canada are so far the only nations to adopt rules mandating their auto industry meet such tough efficiency standards.
“But,” the New York Times continues, “within weeks of Mr. Trump’s inauguration last year, the chief executives of the nation’s Big Three auto companies met with him in the Oval Office to say that the Obama tailpipe standard was too difficult to achieve.” Trump, eager to make the auto industry “great again,” will therefore be rescinding the Obama efficiency rules and forfeiting any near term chance of the United States becoming a global leader in the development and manufacture of new electric, hybrid, and highly efficient traditional gasoline powered automobiles.
To put this in perspective, President Kennedy said the US was going to put a man on the moon within a decade in September of 1962. By July of 1969 we had done it. President Obama unveiled regulations in 2012 requiring that by 2025 the US auto fleet would be the most fuel efficient on earth. By March of 2018 Donald Trump and the US auto industry were busy writing press releases declaring the effort dead. Feeling “great again” yet?
Fortunately, California hasn’t gotten on board and plans to fight for its right to maintain the tougher standards on its own. In addition, it’s difficult to imagine Canada throwing in the towel, especially given all the bad press and growing resistance pipelines from the Alberta oil sands are receiving both domestically and globally. So, in spite of all their whining, US automakers may just have to buck up and make the most efficient cars the planet has ever seen anyway.
Though conservatives are loath to admit it, the truth is that government mandates are often what force innovation. Obama wasn’t declaring the US auto industry must find a way around the laws of physics when he set the 54.5 miles per gallon goal. Nor was Kennedy suggesting any violation of physical laws when he said we were sending people to the moon. They were telling scientists, engineers and industry that government, acting on behalf of the people it serves, had established a clear priority and that it expected them to get to work.
It’s not the market’s job to set priorities like that, even assuming it could. To the market efficiency only matters if it improves profits. The auto industry won’t make as much money selling efficient cars in the near term as it would selling gas guzzlers. They take time and resources to develop, and when they first become available for purchase they are a bit more expensive. Selling consumers cars that are less expensive on the front end, even if they’re more expensive for car owners to fuel in the long run, is good for the bottom line from an automaker’s perspective. It’s also good for the oil industry. But sooner or later oil prices will go back up and Detroit will discover that while they were dragging their feet manufacturers in Asia and Europe, with strong support from their governments, were developing more efficient vehicles. In other words, Governor Jerry Brown and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are far more likely than Donald Trump to be the ones that make North America’s auto industry great again.
The Republican Party has become the party of No!, while the Democrats have taken to hiding behind words like “pragmatic” and “realistic.” Obama’s 2012 CAFE standards serve as a sadly rare example of the kind bold action the United States used to crave. But providing the world with the most efficient cars isn’t as sexy as walking on the surface of the moon. Neither is the smart grid, or even high speed trains.
In spite of all our demonstrable progress in health, literacy, cleaner air and water, space exploration and computer technology, we’ve lost our belief that we can accomplish significantly more still or that the institutions that made so much of our past progress possible will continue to work for us in the future. We’ve forgotten that becoming great is a process, not a destination. It requires that we keep the faith. Perhaps in 2020 we’ll have a candidate whose slogan is “Make America Believe Again!” That’s a cause I could really get behind.
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