This post by Matthew Yglesias would be a lot more interesting if he explained why it was “advantage, Obama.”
What is Yglesias’ position?
It kicked off a lively discussion in the comments section, in which he doesn’t participate (so we still don’t really know what he thinks), but in which sometime commenter here, Bill White, and Ferris Valyn, do. Ferris has further thoughts, and links.
It also roused a spirited defense of government manned spaceflight programs (at least I assume that’s what he’s defending) by Chris Bowers. I find Bowers’ argument a little (well, OK, a lot) incoherent:
…the space program is about as good an example of stretching and expanding our capabilities as a nation and as a species that one can name. Deciding to not test the limits of our engineering and intellectual potential, and to not explore our surroundings because we have more important things to do, strikes me as a profoundly dangerous path to follow. That is the path of stagnation, and even regression, as a people. Further, it is a terribly utilitarian approach to life, concluding that only bread matters, and that roses are worthless. Personally, I don’t want to live that way, and I don’t think many other people want to live that way, either. Everyone, no matter their financial situation, has aspects of their life that expand beyond mere bread and into roses: art, religion, family, travel, and scholarship are only a few examples of this. To think that we shouldn’t have government funded roses in our lives is to posit a far more dreary nation than the one in which I want to live.
Well, I think that a nation in which one must count on the government to provide either bread or roses a dreary one. Last time I checked, there was plenty of bread, of all varieties, on the shelves of the local grocery, and I suspect that if the government weren’t involved, it would be even cheaper. I also bought two dozen roses last Thursday at the same place–there was no shortage, and they didn’t seem to have a stamp that said they were manufactured by the government. If he means rose gardens, there are plenty of those, too, both government and private. And I sure don’t want the government involved in family or religion, so I guess I just don’t see what his point is.
I do agree with this, though:
Space exploration is not an issue with clear partisan divisions. Some conservatives view it as a wasteful government expenditure that is better handled through private enterprise, while some progressives view it through a utilitarian lens in that it does not provide much direct benefit to humanity.
Unfortunately, this is quite true. In fact, it’s one of the reasons that our space policy itself is so incoherent. The people who promote it don’t generally do so from any kind of ideological base. It’s either a bread-and-butter local issue to provide jobs, or it’s a romantic urge that crosses ideological boundaries. And that’s why the arguments (in both Bowers’ and Yglesias’ comments section) are never ending, and never resolved. Heinlein once wrote that man is not a rational animal; rather, he is a rationalizing animal. Most arguments for a government space program are actually rationalizations for something that the arguer wants to do for emotional reasons, which is why so many of them are so bad. I say this as a space enthusiast myself, but one who recognizes that it is fundamentally an emotional, even religious urge.
I’m not going to beat up on Obama over this (though I’m not going to vote for him, either). Here’s what he reportedly said:
…the next president needs to have “a practical sense of what investments deliver the most scientific and technological spinoffs — and not just assume that human space exploration, actually sending bodies into space, is always the best investment.”
Contrary to what some reading-challenged people write (see the February 16th, 2:22 PM comment), this doesn’t mean that he “hates manned spaceflight.” Those words, as far as they go, are entirely reasonable, and Hillary was pandering for votes in Houston. The rub lies in how one makes the determination of what is “the best investment.”
Unfortunately, in order to evaluate an investment, one must decide what is valuable. That’s where all these discussions founder, because everyone comes to them with their own assumptions about goals, values, costs, etc. But these assumptions are never explicitly stated, or agreed on, so people tend to talk past each other. Until we have a top-down discussion of space, starting with goals, and then working down to means of implementing them, people will continue to argue about what the government should be doing, and how much they should be spending on it.
This is why getting a private space program, a dynamist space program, going is so important. Because it will short-circuit all the arguments, because we won’t be arguing about how to spend other people’s money, which is always contentious. We will be spending our own money, for our own goals, rational or irrational, with no arguments in the political sphere, or blogosphere.