Jonathan Chait

versus reality.

We can’t do anything about the White House for another two years, but I’ll bet that a Speaker of the House other than Nancy Pelosi would be a huge shot in the arm for business confidence.

[Update a while later]

The Lady Gaga economy:

Right now, there’s lots of demand for Lady Gaga, say; but maybe too many houses, cars for sale, and hokey Internet startups.

Economic recovery requires massive spending cuts, deregulation, privatization, tax-cutting, avoidance of monetary inflation, and elimination of government-granted monopolies and favors. But, more importantly, economic recovery requires allowing prices and wages to adjust to market clearing levels. Politicians don’t allow that, so downturn is deliberate policy in a sense. Politicians instead stimulate demand in random, whim-driven ways that create new distortions that harm us later (when they’re out of office, or their earlier misdeeds are forgotten or forgiven).

Such policy prescriptions foster political ends that have little to do with actual economic recovery. Recession is already inevitable if government does not perform its core function of preventing the interest group manipulation that distorts smooth economic enterprise. It’s doubly so when politicians deliberately distort the economy’s workings.

Beyond performing its “classical” functions of maintaining order and thwarting contrived scarcity, government can only serve as a transfer mechanism. Inherently limited in what it can contribute to the real economy, it can certainly subtract a lot.

And it certainly has.

[Update a while later]

The Money Honey weighs in:

You are seeing businesses follow the growth outside of the United States. But absolutely – that is the positive. The reason that they’re not hiring right now is because there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty. And that has everything to do with the policies coming out of this administration. Higher taxes in 2011, higher expenses as a result of health care costs. That’s why they’re not hiring.”

Well, duh.

On The Fence

Bob Zimmerman likes the new space policy, but doesn’t trust the administration to execute it. Well, neither do I. But that’s no reason to oppose the policy itself. As I wrote in April:

Many don’t trust President Obama to execute this policy along these lines. Neither do I, necessarily. But I’d rather have good policy poorly executed than poor policy well executed. The execution can always be improved later. Do I believe that Obama really cares as much about human spaceflight as he said in his speech at the Cape? No, and I think that’s a good thing. I think he sees NASA as a problem he inherited from George W. Bush, and in that, he is right for once. He assigned to the problem people who do care about getting humans into space and, like Bush, he now wants to move on to other matters. Really, we should fear the day he gets interested in spaceflight; that will be the day that private enterprise is no longer trusted to conduct it. Let’s hope that day never comes. In the meantime, remember that when government does the right thing, it doesn’t matter whether it’s done for the wrong reason. Whatever the motivations behind it, this is a much more visionary space policy than we’ve ever had before.

Nothing has happened in the interim to cause me to change my mind.

And Bob is unrealistic here:

From a political perspective, I might have believed the sincerity of the Obama administration proposal, including the decision to cancel Constellation, had they simultaneously announced that they would extend the shuttle program a few years until the new private companies could get up to speed. Such a compromise would have gone over well in Congress, as it would have eased the job losses. It would have eliminated the need to rely on the Russians to reach orbit. It would eased the transition from the government manned program to the private manned program. And it would have demonstrated that the administration really does consider manned space exploration important. The result: the administration would have probably had little problem selling the proposal to Congress, thereby increasing the chances that the money would have been there to fund the development of the new private rockets and spacecraft.

It’s no longer possible to “extend” the Shuttle program. The last ET was rolled out of the plant in Michaud this week, and it would take years and billions to resurrect the second- and third-tier contractors for the parts needed to continue to fly. Not to mention the risk of losing another orbiter, at which point you’ve invested billions to keep it flying when the fleet is no longer of a viable size.

As Clark says, there was a reason that Mike Griffin wanted to get rid of the Shuttle and ISS — they eat up all the available budget. Even if you could continue to fly at a reasonable cost, Congress doesn’t give a damn about private rockets — they just want their pork. If they could keep Shuttle going, and ISS, they’d be happy to just continue making no progress, because they just don’t care, as long as the jobs and symbolism remained intact.

I have to say, though, that I’m still skeptical that Congress will even get an authorization bill out this year, regardless of what the Gray Lady says. The House has yet to speak, and they have to reconcile in conference. And I think that on the south side of the Hill, Dana Rohrabacher may have some influence on doing something sensible. Gabby Giffords wants to save Ares/Orion, but that’s not in the cards, and I think there’s a good chance that they won’t be able to compromise with the Senate. I don’t think that there will be any serious space policy making until next calendar year, when the new Congress comes in (very likely a Republican House). We have to be doing battleground preparation for that now.

[Update early afternoon]

Clark Lindsey has the budget numbers:

As you can see for 2010, Space Shuttle took up about a third of that $10B. Now that it has slipped into 2011, that category rises from about a billion back to around three billion. There will be about four billion for the HLV, Orion, commercial cargo, commercial crew, flagship technology demos, etc. (There are some HSF related tech projects in the Space Technology category (pdf).) If the Senate forces a full scale HLV and Orion programs, that leaves nothing much for those initiatives that will lead to lower cost spaceflight for NASA in the future.

And remember, these are just authorizers. Even if they want to up the budget, they can’t — that happens in appropriations, and that number is already pretty much set. So if they persist in this, all they’re doing is eating the seed corn, and locking us into continued high costs, and no progress, for years.

[Update a few minutes later]

Jeff Foust has more on the Senate authorization activity. As “Major Tom” points out in comments, those hoping for a Restoration don’t realize how weak authorization committees are:

he devil is in the details. I doubt the authorization language would require any real programmatic changes to NASA’s FY11 budget. For example, it’s hard to see the authorization bill specifying a particular HLV design or heritage or a particular level of HLV design decision in 2011. In response to authorization language dictating an HLV design decision in 2011, NASA could simply state that the HLV will employ a LOX/kerosene engine and have at least 50mT of lift and leave the level of specificity at that until more informed and detailed decisions can be made in a few years. Similarly, with authorization language dictating a deep space Orion variant, NASA could argue that it is pursuing such a “Block 1″ variant by developing the “Block 0″ CRV. Or use the language as justification to recompete Orion to create something more affordable within the resources provided by the appropriators, who didn’t provide additional funding for Constellation, ESMD, or NASA overall. (The devil is also in the budget.)

Of course, unlike appropriations bills, which combine NASA’s budget with funding for other departments and agencies, it’s easy to derail or veto standalone authorization bills. If the Administration doesn’t like what it sees in the authorization bill, it’s relatively easy for NASA legislative affairs to raise issue after isse until the bill dies in subcommittee or committee, and the appropriators are forced to act. Or for the White House to simply veto the bill outright if it gets that far.

Yup.

Actually, given the incompetence of this administration, I supposed they could get rolled by the Congress. Then I remember that we’re talking about people like Bill Nelson, here.

Et Tu, Cal?

The latest foolishness about the new space policy from an ostensible conservative comes from Cal Thomas. The nonsense begins with almost the opening sentence:

Silly me. I thought America’s unparalleled space program (before the present administration began dismantling it) was a triumph of American ingenuity, technology, vision and boldness.

If you thought that, you weren’t paying attention. There was nothing “ingenious,” “visionary” or “bold” about Constellation and Apollo on Steroids. It was warmed-over technology from decades in the past, and it was obscenely expensive. If it were the only way to do the job, it might have been worth the money, but I don’t think so, even then. The new policy is much more innovative and visionary, and yes, bold, than the old one, regardless of one’s opinion of the president.

More On The Muslim Outreach Kerfuffle

Keith Cowing points out that this isn’t really new, but I think he’s missing the point. Yes, this isn’t the first time that NASA has said it is going to do an outreach. What has people upset is that Bolden said it’s one of the agency’s top priorities.

[Update a while later]

Thoughts on the business of government:

The true business of government involves converting limited authority, granted through reason, into a limitless moral imperative. The Founders were very logical men. Both the Constitution and Bill of Rights are tightly reasoned documents. So were the original charters of government agencies which have since swollen to grotesque size. A calm, logical application of Constitutional principle would have prevented this… but when government transforms itself into a moral enterprise, people become willing to let it bypass its restrictions. Thus, NASA began with a clear mission whose success was easily measured – is space travel advancing or not? It ends in a great, gelatinous mass of international outreach and Muslim self-esteem, open-ended projects that will never require less funding in any future year.

Success is punished, failure is rewarded.

[Update a few minutes later]

Thoughts on why the New York Times and others refuse to cover this:

The reason the MSM has the lid on NASA’s new “mission” to snuggle up to Islam (in between decapitations and floggings) is that it would be devastating to Obama if it became known. On the surface, the new NASA “mission” seems merely screwball, and thus a small story. But I think it’s a good deal more than that. It shows that Obama’s thinking is unrecognizable to the average person. It also shows that he’s unserious — frivolous, really — about something that made a generation of Baby Boomers take pride in their country. How many millions of people sat in their junior high auditoriums and watched the Alan Shepherd and John Glenn launches? How many millions more were up at midnight on July 20, 1969 to watch the first human being, an American, put his foot on the moon?

When the domestic roots of skepticism about America (and sometimes flat-out anti-Americanism) were being laid — in the 60’s assassinations, the Vietnam War, and the exposure of the country’s treatment of blacks — the one thing in which we all took pride was the space program. So for Obama, it’s now one thing that needs to be perverted. Making it a dumbed-down PR front for Islam is, in its way, a genius move for this purpose. But as the MSM recognizes by its silence, it’s a bridge too far.

This makes me crazy, though:

Under Obama, NASA has ended plans to go back to the moon, or go to Mars (something also underreported). Budgets are tight, you know. Time to hunker down and lower our sights. But we can do Muslim outreach.

There were never any serious plans to go back to the moon to end, let alone Mars. The only plan was to keep Marshall and Kennedy busy building big, unnecessary rockets. Work on the (unneeded) heavy lifter wasn’t going to start for years, and work on the necessary earth departure stage and lander wasn’t going to start for year after that. Constellation wasn’t going to get us back to the moon — it was going to collapse of its own fiscal weight at some point. It was better that it happen now than before we sunk too much more money down that rat hole. We have much better prospects for a lunar return now than we did with Constellation, and not just for a few NASA civil servants, but for private adventurers and wealth seekers, even if there isn’t a Glorious Fifteen-Year Plan to do it. Apollo is, finally, over.

A Pig’s Breakfast

It looks like the Senate is moving forward on a NASA authorization bill:

In its current version, the bill would direct NASA to fly one more space shuttle mission in the second half of next year. The bill would also in effect restore full capabilities to the Constellation program’s Orion crew capsule by telling NASA to build a spacecraft that can undertake deep-space missions to destinations like the moon or an asteroid.

In April, President Obama said he wanted to retain the Orion crew capsule after shuttering the Constellation program, but as a stripped-down lifeboat for the International Space Station.

The authorization also directs NASA to start development of a new heavy-lift rocket immediately rather than waiting as late as 2015 in the president’s proposal.

First, the good news. Like Francisco Franco, Ares is still dead.

The bad news: they’re going to waste billions on a heavy lifter, when they don’t even know what its requirements are (other than full employment for the Marshall Space Flight Center). They’re also going to waste money on Orion. On the other hand, these programs will take so long to develop that they’ll probably die of fiscal atrophy before we can waste money attempting to operate either of them, and it will have become clear that they’re unneeded, if they don’t steal all the money from technology development. I wish that I were more sanguine that they won’t do that.

The other problem is that this will complicate commercial crew, because Boeing isn’t going to want to have to compete with a taxpayer-subsidized Orion for their commercial crew capsule. On the other hand, again, it will take a long time to develop, and Boeing may have more immediate customers, such as Bigelow, and they may assume (correctly) that even with the development subsidy, it won’t be competitive for crew transport to orbit or as a lifeboat, even with the reduced launch abort system requirements now that Ares is gone. And SpaceX will continue Dragon development regardless.

Of course, as the article points out, the Senate bill isn’t a done deal yet, nor have they reconciled it with the House, which may have different ideas. So it’s still unclear what the final authorization will say, or even if there will be one this year. If one is to go by history, there won’t be.

[Evening update]

Clark Lindsey has more thoughts. He’s (not unexpectedly) unhappy. But given what a disaster this Congress has been on every other front, why would we expect better?

Biting Commentary about Infinity…and Beyond!