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On the unintended consequences of President Obama

Hardly a day seems to go by nowadays without somebody with approximately the same kind of political attitude as me scratching his head, publicly, in writing, about President Obama’s bafflingly sensible space policy, which sticks out like a healthy thumb in an otherwise horribly mutilated hand of policies.

Critics are disturbed by the large and unprecedented role Mr. Obama sees for the private sector in space exploration. For a president who is often accused of being a socialist, he has more faith in the ingenuity of the private sector than his detractors do.

Maybe so. But how could someone so opposed to free market notions here on earth be so keen on them in space? I would like to offer a version of President Obama which maybe makes sense of this puzzle. What follows is sort of a joke. I certainly hope that readers of it will be entertained. But I also think it might be true. I start by asserting that President Obama wants socialism, collectivism, statism, whatever you want to call the opposite of free markets and the free society, to triumph, everywhere, in the USA and everywhere else. I’ll just call it statism from now on. President Obama wants statism, everywhere in the world. Accordingly, he imposes as much statism as he can on the USA, and he defers to and seeks to strengthen it in all other countries.

Suppose further that President Obama thinks that it will be all part of the triumph of statism that the USA should be become a relatively weaker power in the world than it has been for the last century or so. Logical enough. He won’t be President for ever. Not even he can suppose that. Inevitably, people whom he views as rabid free marketeers and rabid anti-statists will be back in the saddle in Washington, again not for ever, but periodically, and more often than in most other countries. Accordingly, President Obama believes that the weaker the USA is compared to the rest of the world, the better for the world, and – same thing – for the cause of statism in the world.

Now, a further assumption, which is that President Obama sincerely believes that free market policies are utterly misguided, and that statism is genuinely a much better way to run things. It’s not just that he is part of the statist team, and that he wants his team to damn well win and himself to get massively more rich and powerful from being one of the key leaders of his team, although I’m sure that’s part of his motivation. What if, in addition to feeling strong team loyalty and seeking personal career advancement, he is also genuinely convinced of the truth of the opinions proclaimed by himself and by his team? What if he sincerely believes that statism is good, and that free market capitalism is disastrous?

Now, what does President Obama want the USA to do in space? Suppose that, in a word, President Obama wants the USA in space to do: badly. What if, to President Obama, current USA space policy is a massive and decidedly successful exercise in USA power projection, of just the kind that he wants reined in, hobbled, even humiliated? What if he wants the USA to fail in space?

What would he do to accomplish such failure? He would impose the very policy that he sincerely believes will contrive such failure, namely free market capitalism, by, as Dale Amon notes in the piece linked to above, appointing enthusiasts for such policies and saying that he favours such policies. On earth, President Obama wants his domestic policies to be successful, and popular and good for everyone, so that US citizens will continue to vote for such arrangements, more often and with greater extremity than they have tended to in the past. And if paying for all this goodness means that the USA has less money to spend on being a great power, so much the better. But in space, there are fewer voters to worry about, and the overall amounts of money being talked about are relatively trivial. So a chaotic and disastrous space policy, that serves to undermine and weaken the USA as a great power, carries little risk of the voters of the USA getting angry and voting foolishly, as President Obama sees it, in the future, in serious numbers. An anti-statist space policy, which he believes will be a failure, will be, for him, pure gain.

The key to all of this is my understanding of what President Obama thinks he is accomplishing with his domestic policies. The claim I hear in my part of the internet/blogosphere is that President Obama wants to steal wealth for himself and his political supporters – for his team, and damn the interests of the USA as a whole, and of all its people aside from a few political apparatchiks such as himself. He wants to weaken the USA by imposing bad – statist – domestic policies. He is, in other words, a plunderer, a cynic and a traitor. But what if President Obama sincerely wants his domestic policies to be successful, and sincerely believes that they will be, in much the same way that sincere free marketeers like me are similarly optimistic about the impact of their (our) policies, if not immediately then in the longer run, and despite all the immediate political opposition that radical change in any direction inevitably stirs up from special interests who will thrive best if the rules are left as they now are?

The usual story I hear, to boil it down to its essentials, is that President Obama, mysteriously, wants domestic policy in the USA to fail, but, even more mysteriously, wants the USA’s space policy to be a success. Why else would he be so predictably and stubbornly stupid and destructive about domestic policy, but yet simultaneously so bizarrely sensible about space? My story says he wants to do well and believes that he is doing well with the USA’s domestic policies, so that the votes keep rolling in for statism in the USA. But he wants to badly with the USA’s space policy, so that more statist states can supplant the USA in space, thereby weakening the USA and strengthening statism the world over.

It’s just that President Obama’s understanding of how the world outside of politics works – he understands how the world of politics works very well – is the opposite of the truth. What he thinks will work, will fail. And what he thinks will fail, will work.

Will President Obama’s much criticised foreign policies, in addition to his seemingly much improved space policy, also serve to make the USA a more powerful nation, I wonder, an even greater great power? By – I don’t know – not getting the USA involved in so many foreign wars? By other nations realising that it is up to them to defend themselves against nearby statist bastards of the kind that President Obama now encourages, and which some future President might encourage yet again, and by other nations then doing a better job of that than the USA could ever do, by trusting themselves instead of the USA? That could also be, I think. I’m thinking: defender of last resort, moral hazard. That kind of thinking has unleashed havoc on the banking system. Cannot the same be said of foreign policy?

To put all of the above another way, and to use a phrase I am fond of in this connection, the best that politicians can often to do for this or that particular activity is to impose upon it a policy of malign neglect. The neglect means that those who choose to be directly involved can get on with it. Malign means that the politician really doesn’t care if everything goes tits up, which means that those directly involved are on their own and are going to be truly responsible for whatever happens. If they fail, they fail. If they make a mess of what they are doing, they’ll have to clean it up themselves, and they all know it, which concentrates their minds wonderfully. Politicians often do their best when trying to do their worst.

I am rather proud of a short story (there is also an html version, but I see that it contains at least one bad mis-copying error of omission and perhaps there are more), which I wrote some while ago. This story told of a man with similar opinions to those I have attributed here to President Obama about how the world does and does not work. But – hilarious twist, ho ho – my guy was also a psychotic would-be mass murderer, on a would-be global scale. Unlike my version of President Obama, he meant really badly. He wanted to kill everyone in the world and have everything for himself. So, he unleashed rampant free market capitalism on the entire world, imagining that this would cause global havoc and global slaughter. But alas for his murderous ambitions. He died a universally acclaimed hero and a miserably disappointed man, having killed absolutely nobody, in fact quite the opposite.

31 comments to On the unintended consequences of President Obama

  • Johnathan Pearce

    A lot of food for thought here. My two cents:

    I think that one thing we ideological obsessives tend to overlook is that our opponents, such as a Brown or Obama, might be sincere, and not just evil, or venal, or what have you.

    It is all too easy, in our despair about the turn of world events, to picture our intellectual, ideological foes as being so many Blofelds, sitting in their hollowed-out volcanoes and stroking a white cat and dreaming of “destroying ze corrupt earth, Meesta Bond.” That is not how it usually is. Even a total arse like Gordon “honey, I shrunk the economy” Brown is presumably sincere.

    This paragraph is also a good ‘un:

    Will President Obama’s much criticised foreign policies, in addition to his seemingly much improved space policy, also serve to make the USA a more powerful nation, I wonder, an even greater great power? By – I don’t know – not getting the USA involved in so many foreign wars? By other nations realising that it is up to them to defend themselves against nearby statist bastards of the kind that President Obama now encourages, and which some future President might encourage yet again, and by other nations then doing a better job of that than the USA could ever do, by trusting themselves instead of the USA? That could also be, I think. I’m thinking: defender of last resort, moral hazard. That kind of thinking has unleashed havoc on the banking system. Cannot the same be said of foreign policy?

    Well indeed. There are a whole bunch of libertarians, like Jim Henley over at his Unqualified Offerings blog, who has argued that “Hayek does not stop at the water’s edge”. Now I know what he means. He means that just as governments screw up their own nations via blundering statism, so they also screw up the world by cross-border interventionism (exhibits: Iraq, Afghanistan, etc, etc). Now this is not an argument one should press to far (which is what I think Henley does); there are self-defence reasons for getting rid of Saddam, or whoever. Even so, this is an important point to make.

  • Kevin B

    Of course another theory might be that Obama really is the empty suit, (or perhaps Manchurian candidate), that many have accused him of being. In which case, the contrast between his domestic, foreign and space policies is more easily explained.

    The reason his space policy guts the state system is that the Russians, or Chinese, or Indians, or whoever is pulling the strings, want the US space effort stymied so that they can take mastery of the High Frontier, and, as such, they think that neutralising NASA is the best way to accomplish this.

    This crazy conspiracy theory has the added benefit of not requiring any sincere beliefs be displayed by a person who has shown no such integrity in all his life.

    (Oh, and if the private sector should unexpectedly show signs of succeeding then the Federal regulatory system can easily take care of things.)

  • Owinok

    Let me get this straight. President Obama “wants” the US to do badly in spite of his tough choices. And when he does something that is perhaps consistent with a Libertarian view of future success for the US in space policy, then its because Obama really believes this too will lead towards US weakness through failure? Why does Brian have such faith in one man’s ability to think so well about the future when he also contends that he’s screwing things up today?

  • Alice

    No, Dale. Obama’s space policy is not a triumph of libertarianism and unfettered market capitalism. His policy is just empty words, uttered between his ever more frequent golfing expeditions. Looking for meaning in Obama’s utterances is about as useful as examining chicken’s entrails — maybe less so.

    It is possible that, buried deep in NASA’s bureaucracy, there is a person who yearns for freedom & progress. That person may be in a position to squeeze a few words into the Teleprompter In Chief from time to time. But the words are empty. No commitment from Obama — got another golf game to get to, before the next fundraiser.

    You are letting your hopes triumph over your reason if you epect anything good for space technology to come out of the cesspit of the Obama Administration.

  • Frederick Davies

    I think it is much simpler than that: Obama knows that without the interest and votes of the representatives and senators of some states, the US space program will disappear into nothing, and more money will be available for his pet projects (and without an unpopular tax raise!). So what is the best way to achieve that: get a new bunch of organisations (who, being new, do not have the lobbying power/expertise of the old ones) to replace the old ones. In the meantime he will offer the money, but knows it will not get spent in the fight between the new and the old. The fact that the fight happens between two groups aligned against him, is just the icing on the cake. In the end, less money will be spent in Space and the US space industry (as a whole) will shrink.

  • BFFB

    Doesn’t that just bring you back round to the “malign neglect” scenario. Ignoring the space industry and allowing it to “wither” and instead causing it to grow, unintentionally.

  • Laird

    Applying Occam’s Razor*, I’m going with Kevin B’s theory.

    * (As well as its cousin, Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”)

  • theodore rud

    You are in fine form today! I trust you are feeling better.

  • Alice

    Reading CountingCats link to the Spectator — isn’t it amazing that the “International Space Station” has disappeared from everybody’s radar? If it physically disappeared tomorrow, virtually no-one (outside the NASA bureaucracy) would give a tinker’s damn. And the only role of the soon-to-be-unlamented Space Shuttle was to get to the ISS. So that somebody could do something … undefined.

    This history shows the importance of getting the Big Decisions right. When a bunch of bureacrats & politicians dreamed up the Space Shuttle/Space Station (“I know! I know! Let’s make it the INTERNATIONAL Space Station!”), they really did screw the pooch, to use the Right Stuff expression. Decades & billions of dollars wasted.

    This time round, let’s take as long as it needs to get the Big Decisions right. Let’s not pretend that a few verbal ticks from a lying incompetent president mean that those decisions have been recognized, let alone made.

  • cjf

    “Unintended Consequences”, by John Ross, I recommend.
    Notice the disinchanted liberals and even some farther left. The DHS and TSA are getting popular. And, too many crooks spoil the plots.

    Politics is where syncophanties get in a bunch. And, the payoffs to some have alienated others. Playing one underdog against another has limits.

    Many have lost their dress shirts. But, many more have lost their Che t-shirts.

  • Eric

    The US space program is popular politically as well as institutionally. The institutional part is obvious, since people have jobs and are making money. I think this is simply an attempt to strangle NASA’s institutional support while minimizing the political fallout.

    It’s probably actually the right thing to do, if he follows through. But I suspect what’s really going to happen is without the institutional support funding will be attacked and moved to other programs, leaving only token government support for any space effort whatsoever.

  • I’m with Kevin B. Also don’t forget Clark’s Law(Porter not Arthur C.) “sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice”

  • Jacob

    It seems clear to me.
    Obama doesn’t believe in space exploration and doesn’t care about it. He is uninterested. Therefore he doesn’t attempt to manage it or fix it the only way he knows – by state management. He is willing to leave it alone, to ignore it, to stay away from it.
    He cares about social policy (“spreading the wealth”) – space has nothing to do with this. It’s not his cup of tea.

  • While I think the theory isn’t THAT out there, I think the actual reason for Obama’s surprisingly reasonable policy is far more straightforward: cost cutting. He’s got to find places to cut without irritating his key constituencies as well as not touching the ‘important’ things he believes the government should be spending its money on.

    While the US space program is relatively cheap, its not an insignificant sum of cash as a percentage of discretionary spending. I think this is simple cost cutting to appeal to the three remaining swing voters who still think he’s a moderate.

  • Nuke Gray

    I think he needs NASA’s money to fund Obamacare. If you think about it, most of the administrators in NASA could go right on button-pushing and box-ticking, but for different reasons. A manager in NASA could fit right in as a manager of Medic-Care, or whatever they’ll call it. (Medicine Sans Frontiers Financiels?) Medical Costs- the unending frontier!

  • MlR

    There’s always simpler potential answers like say, knowing jack about space policy he had nothing to do with it, or he’d rather have the government blowing our money (which even he probably realizes is finite) on his great social causes.

  • DCP

    I would suggest that the key to Obama’s space policy is very simple.

    He wants to turn space over to the private sector because he doesn’t want to spend any government on it. Government funding is reserved for all the things he cares about.

    I really believe that it is just that simple.

    DCP

  • Pawn

    Came here by way of Insty. I’ve been working as a NASA contractor for many years. Unless you have been following closely the best way to explain it is the “malign neglect” comment above. The current state of affairs is a continuation of the Bush VSE which was just plain neglect. Now that Obama is neutering America, the malign part has been added. The real twist is that NASA is not up to anything new at all because over the last 30 years it has bureaucratically devolved in to a Post Office like jobs program.

    If your interested, go to NASAwatch dot com to check out the action.

  • sherlock

    1. Cancel near-term plan to go to Moon.
    2. Announce long-term plan to go to Mars.
    3. Do absolutely nothing.

    Obama realizes he can’t be seen to be cancelling the space program by most Americans, so he did the next best thing – pull a bait and switch and let NASA flounder along for a decade and then cancel it the next time the Dems have a chance.

    I’d like to see the Tea Party movement get behind an American space program, because if somebody doesn’t we will keep having to pay the Russians for a ride.

  • BobinFL

    The space coast usually votes 65-70% Republican. Even in 2008, it went 56% for McCain. Then there’s Texas, where the main NASA facilities are located.

    The purpose of power, in a corrupt Chicagoland pol’s mind, is to reward friends and punish enemies. So…this is simply payback: 22,000 jobs lost in the day after the last shuttle launch (while FL is already at 12% unemployment) — because none of the “new plan” money will ever reach Brevard County; IF it actually exists, it will all go to companies in AZ, NM, and CA.

    Sure, I realize I’m talking about NASA as a “jobs program,” and I’d prefer a more decentralized free market approach. But…because the entire sector has been heavily government controlled — nationalized — for 40 years, the transition should have been handled more…gracefully. Instead of “thanks for playing, go F yourselves tomorrow. I hear McDonald’s may be hiring”.

    EVERYTHING Teh Won does is political. EVERYTHING. This is political punishment for the sin of voting Republican.

  • Patrick Carroll

    Two words: “Bolt hole.”

    The dude’s not going to ruin the US without having an escape arranged for himself. Private enterprise is more reliable than NASA, so it gets freed.

    What better way to celebrate the end of the world than from LEO? The view ought to be *awesome*.

    Tongue-in-cheekily yours.

  • M. Report

    The 1930s were a really good decade for plausible but
    erroneous assumptions, not all of them political.
    Two quotes from Chemistry textbooks of the era:

    1) Uranium – A heavy metal whose only use is
    to impart a purplish glaze to cheap pottery.

    2) Those who understand Chemistry, and Celestial
    Mechanics, realize that spaceflight is forever impossible.

    The first Single-Stage-To-Orbit (SSTO) spacecraft will
    probably _not_ use the ‘Dumbo’ fission powered
    rocket; There are other, better ways to get there,
    so many that at least one will turn out to be a real
    winner, enabling an exponential economic effect
    analogous to that produced by the microprocessor.

    Obama’s choice was made in ignorance of this fact,
    and his reluctance to recognize inconvenient truths
    should protect the nascent commercial space
    exploitation effort until the profits start rolling in,
    Big Time, by which time it will be to late to put
    the Djinni back in the booster. :)

  • Orion

    Look at the “policy” more closely. It doesn’t require him to DO anything until the middle of his 2nd term (if there is one). Canceling Ares simply allows him to put off the decision over how to go back to the Moon until later while saving him a few bucks to spend elsewhere.

    My guess is a couple of years down the road the deficits will eat up so much of GDP that he will “sorrowfully and regretfully” cancel all space missions other than those absolutely necessary to supporting ISS. That means we’ll be hitching rides on Russian ships for the next 20 years to that @#$%^& white elephant in LEO while the Chinese build slave-labor factories on the Moon in preparation for their mission to Mars.

    Obama’s proposal simply reflects his own indifference to space exploration. He thinks it a needless waste of money and resources that could be spent here on Earth. If private companies want to shoot fireworks of, that’s fine: he won’t stand in their way. He’ll just tax them to death if they start making money at it. Why it hurts is the chance of anyone doing anything more substantive than ferrying satellites and tourists into LEO w/o NASA is dim. W/O leadership and guidance the future of manned exploration of space is left up to countries that care. One of those won’t be the US.

  • Porkov

    It is a requirement for the job of POTUS to be a shape-shifting alien pod person. What do you think Lincoln was talking about when he said “You can fool all of the people some of the time …?” It just isn’t so obvious most of the time. I suspect that there is a problem with Obama’s symbiote.
    This seems the most logical explanation for his reasonable approach to the space program. He is trying to go home.

  • Someone should check his fingers.

  • Sunfish

    I’d like to see the Tea Party movement get behind an American space program,

    Ain’t gonna happen. The two tea parties I attended, the only government programs that seemed at all popular were the US Border Patrol and the military, and even they weren’t universally loved. I’d hate to see the tea parties co-opted off of their limited-governement/stop-spending agenda.

  • John

    What Democratic voting coalition or special interest group lives in space?

    What Democratic voting coalition or special interest group would reap major rewards from having their non-profit/community activist organization/commodity distribution group get space related funding?

    The big government left was yelping 45 years ago during the Gemini and Apollo programs that America had no right to spend money on sending astronauts into space or to the Moon, while there were still unfunded or underfunded social welfare programs at home. That’s the mindset Obama’s coming from — why spend that money where it does no good for the people who are your core supporters when it can be spent elsewhere? It’s not as if in the end he’s not going to spend the funds. He’s just not going to spend them in an area he thinks doesn’t get him any votes or benefit any of his main backers.

  • Dan H.

    If you think Obama’s going to be good for private space exploration, you don’t have the evidence you need yet.

    What you need to be watching for is what the regulatory agencies in the Obama administration start doing once these private space initiatives really start ramping up.

    My cynical guess as to what’s going on – this is a multi-part plan to simply turn NASA into an arm of the EPA, with all its energy directed towards monitoring the earth for global warming and environmental causes. Everything else will be shut down.

    NASA’s funding may not even decline – it’s being increased this year – it will just be increasingly used to fund earth-based research into things Obama cares about. He’ll keep programs to research ‘green’ aircraft engines, he may even support work on space solar power or other energy initiatives. But he’ll kill NASA as an agency looking out towards the stars. If we’re lucky, he’ll keep the big telescope programs.

    So is this good for private space? Maybe. But my guess is that if they start showing real success, his regulatory agencies will turn them into quasi-public utilities anyway.

    Given what we’ve seen over the past two years, I’m only willing to interpret Obama’s actions as being hostile to private enterprise and indifferent to space. Right now, private enterprise is a useful tool allowing him to shut down NASA’s space efforts while seeming to support space research in general. Next year’s budget will be very interesting.

    I hope to be proved wrong. I’d like space policy to be one bright spot in his dismal presidency. But I’m not willing to give him the benefit of the doubt at this point. He’s got to prove it with further actions.

  • tehag

    Regardless of who builds a space program in the U.S., space companies will need hundreds, maybe thousands of permits from every level of government, which they will not get. Then the failure of space exploration can be placed squarely on Capitalism.

  • Rich Rostrom

    As has been noted above: this is a way for Obama and his team to kill most of the space program (which they don’t like) without appearing to do so, and while drawing support from people normally opposed to them (libertarians and such who want space privatized). It will allow the Left to break the “Iron Triangle” of NASA employees, aerospace contractors, and FL/TX/AL/UT politicians that sustains the NASA budget.

    I’m not sure how conscious the malice is. Most likely it’s a mix of “stop wasting billions on the Shuttle etc now”, “these private space guys are really clever, they’ll get it done”, and “once our programs are enacted there will be wonderful prosperity and scads of money for everything”.