…or Apollo. I suffered through the president’s speech so you don’t have to.
The most egregious part of it was when he compared energy independence to Apollo. Here’s my response from the campaign:
He’s never met a problem that, in his mind, the “full power of the government” can’t solve.
It’s an understandable appeal, but it betrays a certain lack of understanding of the problem to think that we will solve it with a crash federal program, at least if it’s one modelled on Apollo.
Putting a man on the moon was a remarkable achievement, but it was a straightforward well-defined engineering challenge, and a problem susceptible to having huge bales of money thrown at it, which is exactly how it was done. At its height, the Apollo program consumed four percent of the federal budget (NASA is currently much less than one percent, and has been for many years). Considering how much larger the federal budget is today, with the addition and growth of many federal programs over the past forty years makes the amount of money spent on the endeavor even more remarkable.
But most of the other problems for which people have pled for a solution, using Apollo as an example, were, and are, less amenable to being solved by a massive public expenditure. We may in fact cure cancer, and have made great strides over the past four decades in doing so, but it’s a different kind of problem, involving science and research on the most complex machine ever built — the human body. It isn’t a problem for which one can simply set a goal and time table and put the engineers to work on it, as Apollo was. Similarly, ending world hunger and achieving world peace are socio-political problems, not technological ones (though technology has made great strides in improving food production, which makes the problem easier to solve for governments that are competent and not corrupt). So most of the uses of the phrase never really made much sense, often being non sequiturs.
It’s important to understand that landing a man on the moon (or developing atomic weaponry as in the Manhattan Project — another example used by proponents of a new federal energy program) was a technological achievement. Achieving “energy independence,” or ending the use of fossil fuels, are economic ones. And the former is not necessarily even a desirable goal, if by that one means only getting energy from domestic sources. Energy is, and should remain, part of the global economy and trade system if we want to continue to keep prices as low as possible and continue to provide economic growth.
Nothing has changed. My commentary remains true today.
[Wednesday morning update]
If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we stop the leak, Mr. President? That’s a much better Apollo analogy.