The Roots Of Liberal Nostalgia

Michael Barone has an interesting article at the Journal today (subscription required, at least for now):

There’s a longing on the left for the golden years of the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s. Income distribution was significantly more egalitarian than it is today, and Americans had far more confidence in big government, the wisdom of our elected officials, and the ability of Keynesian spending policies to stimulate economic growth.

Hence the search for policies that will somehow get us back to those golden years.

I would note that the current nostalgic longing among some for a big-government space program has its roots in that same “liberal” impulse, though many, perhaps most conservatives don’t understand what an unconservative project Apollo was. NASA was, after all, one of those big-government institutions in which so many had faith in the post-war, early sixties. If you take away the raw rent seeking on the part of those who don’t want to see their home-state pork going away, this nostalgia lies at the heart of much of the outrage over Obama’s sensible new space policy. But unfortunately for NASA, the current justifiable disillusionment with government institutions in general is bleeding over to them as well.

20 thoughts on “The Roots Of Liberal Nostalgia”

  1. “NASA was, after all, one of those big-government institutions in which so many had faith in the early sixties. ”

    Actually in the very early 60’s (and late 50’s) NASA was pretty small as big-gov institutions go. Not that I disagree with the thrust of your post, but one of the reasons things there’s thick nostalgia about the NASA of that age is because it was pretty small, pretty responsive, and things could get done. Not done in the best way, but done.

    However as most organizations will do, NASA got larger and sclerotic and lost all of whatever efficiency and zest it had.

    I see it everywhere….the moment my favorite restaurant announces it’s going to move to a big new facility, that’s the moment I know that restaurant is most likely doomed. Or at least will be a mere shadow of what it used to be.

  2. The only reason NASA ” got things done” was because it was given a hard, definite goal. After that, it reverted to a more natural state, becoming just another Big Government bureaucracy.

    This downsizing might even be a blessing, of sorts. It appears that soon we are going to see a Great Dying of bureaucratic dinosaurs, and unlike the Depts. of Energy, Education, “Welfare”, Commerce, Labor, Agriculture, etc., it might actually be in a position to survive.

  3. Raoul Ortega Says:

    “The only reason NASA ” got things done” was because it was given a hard, definite goal. ”

    I disagree though a hard definite goal is necessary.

    But consider this:

    If you gave today’s NASA a hard definite goal, do you think they could deliver?

  4. NASA had a big, definite goal which was important. It also had a big wad of cash, so much so that their unoffical motto was “Waste anything but time.”

    Those days are unlikely to ever return, so even if they’re given a big, definite goal, it’s unlikely they would be successful especially given that almost all of the old timers who actually knew how to get things done quickly are long retired or dead. Today, NASA is the embodiment of “paralysis by analysis.” They’ll spend years and vast amounts of money on paper studies and PowerPoint engineering with nothing to show for it and then complain they were underfunded.

  5. It wasn’t NASA getting things done. It was great private companies: Grumman, North American Aviation (later Rockwell), Northrop.

    Their brilliant engineers did the heavy lifting, then allowed NASA to put their logo on their work.

    In the end, it wasn’t Big Government that achieved greatness. It was dedicated private companies.

    And the Germans….

  6. “Income distribution was significantly more egalitarian than it is today”

    Not true btw. They make it sound that way by switching gears between per capital and family incomes (same game/s they do with income tax / assets owned and medicare operating expense / medicaid’s costs)…

    Income distribution has hardly budged at all since the numbers have been collected….

  7. With just about the only advanced economy left functional at the end of the war, the US experienced an incredible amount of prosperity. So much money was sloshing around we could afford to indulge ourselves in nearly anything.

    But after twenety years, the money started running out. Lots of people all over the political spectrum yearn for those days now.

  8. NASA “got things done” because it was a nascent bureaucracy and mission could overcome bureaucratic hurdles.

  9. What do you mean “bleeding over to NASA”? NASA earned it “justifiable disillusionment” all on it’s own.

    Consider manned space flight.

    40 years after NASA headed off on their ‘cheap, re-usable shuttle” boondoggle (which BTW ended up costing the lives of 2 separate crews), we find ourselves in a situation where if we want to people into space we have to ask the Russians to do it for us.

  10. My liberal parents are sure that, since “we put a man on the moon”, the US government can do anything if they put their mind (and my money) to the task.

    Certainly, when it comes to a magical belief that the government is the answer to all of human woes, the NASA example is one that most people think of, since we have a rapidly declining number who actually remember WW2.

  11. The Apollo program was before Affirmative Action, especially the feminism-demanded sort.

    No such program would succeed today, as it would be weighed down by women in bureaucratic jobs.

  12. Putting a man on the Moon today would cost a much lower percentage of GDP than in the 1960s, of course.

  13. NACA, the predecessor to NASA wasted money hand over fist. There were entire families of low drag “laminar flow airfoils” developed by the geniuses at NACA, who spent years in development, and then, when they were installed on actual aircraft, were high drag and turbulent.

  14. For the geopolitically inspired purpose of beating the Soviets to the Moon, NASA got the biggest blank check in American history, including the Manhattan Project. And it did the job.

    What’s often forgotten about the Apollo-era NASA was the antecedent experiences of the people who carried it off. A vast number had been vets of WW2 or Korea, and everyone was used to doing big important things by means of a hierarchically organized institution. You solicited opinions, then a decision got made in short order and everybody carried it out.

    To put it mildly, organizations today — most especially large ones — do not function the same way now. And to Barone’s point, people today would not wish to live within the everyday structures that were common throughout society back then.

    What NASA achieved in in the 1960s is unachieveable today, for a great many reasons, primarily social. The closest thing we to it that we have now are companies like Google, Facebook, etc., etc. — at least at the point before they too become huge.

    Not only is history contingent on fate and luck, but what a society can do depends critically on the formative experiences of its members.

  15. Barone’s remark about “Income distribution was significantly more egalitarian than it is today” fails to acknowledge the non-egalitarian nature of the 1950/1960/1970 tax law, allowing off-the-books compensation such as:

    a) company paid country club memberships
    b) company paid travel including your spouse and family
    c) generous company expense report policies
    d) company paid vacation spots (e.g. HP had ‘resorts’ scattered throughout the US and Europe with special lodging for execs)
    e) company cars for management who ostensibly had no need to travel
    f) any retirees want to volunteer other off-the-books fringe benefits from the Apollo-era?

  16. “Income distribution was significantly more egalitarian than it is today”.

    Even if true, it is essential to remember how low immigration was then. You can’t admit millions of largely poor immigrants into a wealthy country every year and expect to keep income distribution “egalitarian

  17. “NASA had a big, definite goal which was important.”

    It also had a.) competition to whom losing was not an acceptable option, and b.) a hard time limit. Plenty of government agencies have big, definite, important goals and never even come close to them–for one thing, getting there would put them out of jobs.

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