Kevin Drum

Can NASA Outsource Space Travel?

| Mon May 3, 2010 6:47 PM EDT

I had dinner with some friends the other night, and one of the guys who showed up was Rand Simberg, an aerospace engineer who writes frequently about NASA and space flight in general. As it happens, Rand and I disagree about the value of a manned space program, and since he's a conservative, we disagree about nearly everything else as well. But it turns out there's at least one thing we agree about: Barack Obama's plan for space exploration is both pretty conservative and pretty good.

At least, I thought we agreed. But then I read Charles Homans' piece about the space program in the latest issue of the Washington Monthly. Here's how he describes it:

Under the budget released by the Obama administration in February, NASA was to get out of the business of human spaceflight altogether, at least for the near future — no more space shuttle or rockets, no capsules or moon-landing apparatus. In their place, NASA would oversee something very different: a $6 billion, five-year contract for a handful of private companies to ferry American astronauts to and from the International Space Station — to operate a fleet of space taxis, more or less. Human spaceflight, the province of national identity and aspiration since Yuri Gagarin first hurtled into orbit, was going to be outsourced.

....The idea in a nutshell is this: if NASA helps commercial companies get their rockets onto the launch pad, and those companies find a market for their services beyond NASA, the agency’s human spaceflight program will finally be free of its expensive obligations to maintain its rudimentary orbit-oriented activities....With the money it saves, NASA can redouble its research and development efforts to acquire the technology it needs to push the boundaries of exploration once again.

And here's Rand:

I find the current debate over President Obama’s new space policy mind-bendingly ironic. We have a radical president bent on socializing and nationalizing everything from the auto industry to hospitals, but when he comes up with a policy that actually harnesses free enterprise, we hear from conservatives nothing but complaints.

....If we can finally get on with the business of letting private industry take on the (literally) mundane task of getting people only 200 miles above and let NASA focus on new technologies, there is plenty of time over the next few years to decide exactly where to go from there....The important thing is that we had to euthanize NASA’s expensive, unneeded new rockets and move on to the more critical development of opening up space. We’re now on a path to do so, assuming that Obama’s plan survives Congress.

Sounds good! Unfortunately, the Homans piece goes on to take a pretty gimlet-eyed view of whether the private-enterprise version of hauling people and cargo into earth orbit is actually likely to succeed. The genius of private enterprise, of course, is that it might, and it might do so in ways that nobody can predict. That's why I support it: I'm not thrilled at the idea of spending massive amounts of taxpayer money on manned space flight, but I am willing to spend moderate amounts of taxpayer money on seed money to help the private sector do it.

But will it work? Homans, frankly, doesn't provide much hope that it will: the market, he says, is just too small, consisting mostly of space station ferrying and unmanned satellite launches. And not only is that market small, but it's not growing either. Space tourism is another possibility, but launching people into orbit is no $200,000 lark that any Wall Street tycoon can afford. The Russians charge $20 million a pop for this, and that price would have to come way down before there was much of a demand for this kind of excursion.

There's more — including a grim description of what happened when the Pentagon tried to outsource its satellite launch capability under Bill Clinton — and none of it is very hopeful sounding. I think I may be about to retreat back to my original position: NASA should fund unmanned exploration but get out of manned space flight entirely. Let's hope private industry proves me wrong.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Starving the Beast

| Mon May 3, 2010 4:12 PM EDT

Conservative Steve Chapman summarizes recent research showing that cutting taxes does not, in fact, "starve the beast." That is, it doesn't motivate the public to demand lower federal spending as deficits rise. In fact, it does just the opposite:

Forced to pay for everything they get, right away, Americans would undoubtedly choose to make do with less. But given the opportunity to party now and pay later — or never, if the tab can be billed to the next generation — they find no compelling reason to do without.

Think of it this way. If you want people to consume more of something, you reduce the price. If you want them to consume less, you raise the price. For most of the last 30 years, federal programs have been on sale, and they've found lots of buyers.

True enough. The Republican Party has basically taught Americans that deficits don't matter. We can have all the government services we want and there's no need to pay for them. Under the circumstances, who wouldn't want more government services?

Of course, over the past decade conservatives have amped up the game, and they might eventually win it. Here's how: First, slash taxes dramatically. Then increase spending explosively. Finally, destroy the economy, thus forcing a truly gargantuan increase in the federal deficit that wrecks the creditworthiness of the federal government. Eventually, whether anyone likes it or not, that's going to rein in spending.

Of course, it will only do so after spending has already gotten far higher than conservatives ever imagined — and higher taxes will be part of the endgame too. And America will basically be a banana republic. But it will constrain spending. And when it does, the GOP can finally claim victory!

The Elephant in the Room

| Mon May 3, 2010 2:45 PM EDT

Bloomberg reports on the course of financial reform:

A standoff over protecting consumers against shady lending practices is the biggest obstacle to Senate passage of the biggest redesign of U.S. financial regulations since the Great Depression.

Republicans have ended a logjam blocking Senate debate, and a federal fraud suit against Goldman Sachs Group Inc. gave new momentum for tougher Wall Street oversight. The most contentious issue remains a Democratic consumer-protection plan that Republicans say would give regulators unprecedented power over commercial lending and threaten economic growth.

It’s still “the elephant in the room” preventing a bipartisan agreement, said Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker. He has been involved in months of on-again, off-again negotiations with Democrats.

Huh. And here I thought resolution authority was the elephant in the room. Or was it derivatives reform that was the elephant in the room?

Or maybe it's really all three. There's always another elephant in the room, isn't there?

Quote of the Day: Hiding the Housing Bubble

| Mon May 3, 2010 2:00 PM EDT

From Alan Greenspan, arguing in a 2004 Fed meeting that arguments about a possible housing bubble should be kept private:

We run the risk, by laying out the pros and cons of a particular argument, of inducing people to join in on the debate, and in this regard it is possible to lose control of a process that only we fully understand.

Italics mine. So how'd that work out for you, Alan?

UPDATE: I've been had. Greenspan wasn't talking about the housing bubble, he was talking about a discussion of the Fed's communication policy. Apologies.

The GOP and Immigration Reform

| Mon May 3, 2010 1:05 PM EDT

Ron Brownstein recaps how the explosive growth of nativism on the right has torpedoed any chance for immigration reform:

Just four years ago, 62 U.S. senators, including 23 Republicans, voted for a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens....In 2007, Senate negotiators tilted the bill further to the right on issues such as border enforcement and guest workers. And yet, amid a rebellion from grassroots conservatives against anything approaching "amnesty," just 12 Senate Republicans supported the measure as it fell victim to a filibuster.

....For months, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., have been negotiating an enforcement-legalization plan that largely tracks the 2006 model with some innovative updates....Yet it has been stalled for weeks because Graham had demanded that a second Republican sign on as a co-sponsor before the legislation is released, and none stepped forward.

I remember being astonished by the collapse of the GOP on this subject in 2006. It wasn't an issue I followed closely, and I vaguely figured it seemed like a pretty good bet for passage. But then, seemingly out of nowhere (to a lamestream-media-reading liberal like me, anyway) opposition among the base just exploded. It was like watching the tea parties in action opposing healthcare reform during the 2009 summer recess. The Republican leadership caved in to rabid fearmongering, Hispanics defected en masse to the Democratic Party, and the entire topic has been radioactive ever since. If you want to know what's happened to the Republican Party over the last decade or so, this is it in a nutshell.

Bad News on Net Neutrality

| Mon May 3, 2010 12:30 PM EDT

Last month a federal court ruled that the FCC has no authority to enforce net neutrality rules on broadband internet providers. That was a setback, but hardly an insurmountable one: the FCC could overcome it simply by reclassifying broadband internet as a "telecom service," which would leave no doubt about its regulatory authority. Today that option became a lot less likely:

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to respond soon to the court ruling. Three sources at the agency said Genachowski has not made a final decision but has indicated in recent discussions that he is leaning toward keeping in place the current regulatory framework for broadband services but making some changes that would still bolster the FCC's chances of overseeing some broadband policies.

The sources said Genachowski thinks "reclassifying" broadband to allow for more regulation would be overly burdensome on carriers and would deter investment. But they said he also thinks the current regulatory framework would lead to constant legal challenges to the FCC's authority every time it attempted to pursue a broadband policy.

Well, reclassifying broadband would be more burdensome on carriers. That's the whole point. And investment in existing telecom companies doesn't seem to have suffered much from the FCC's heavy hand. After all, reclassified or not, the FCC is still allowed to show some discretion in which rules it applies and how it applies them.

Still, Genachowski might be right. Quite possibly, neither classification is really ideal given the existing state of the industry. That's why the best bet is, as it always has been, to have Congress step in. I don't know if they should change the classification rules set down in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, but they could certainly impose net neutrality rules across the board without touching them if they wanted to. They should get cracking on this.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Mickey and the Unions

| Mon May 3, 2010 12:05 PM EDT

Some guy named Robert "Mickey" Kaus has an op-ed in the LA Times today. Apparently he's "a blogger and the author of The End of Equality," as well as "a candidate for U.S. senator in the Democratic primary." How about that.

And guess what? To go along with the more decorous name, we also have a more decorous Mickey. The op-ed is basically his usual anti-union spiel, but pitched to persuade the median liberal LA Times reader. For example, check this out:

I don't mean we should embrace the right-wing view that unions are always wrong. Unions have done a lot for this country; they were especially important when giant employers tried to take advantage of a harsh economy in the last century, not only to keep down wages but to speed up assembly lines and, worse, force workers to risk their lives and health. If you think about it, unions have been the opposite of selfish. By modern standards they've been stunningly altruistic, lobbying for job safety rules and portable pensions and Social Security and all sorts of government services that, if they were really selfish, they might have opposed, because if the government will guarantee that your workplace is safe and your retirement is secure, well, then you don't need a union so much, do you?

Huh. It's been a while since I've heard Mickey make any concessions like that. What's more, when he's in this mode, I don't even find very much to disagree with in the rest of his piece. Union work rules did explode out of control in the 50s and 60s. Teachers shouldn't be effectively impossible to fire. Pensions for California state employees, especially public safety workers, are pretty rich. On the other hand, he also writes this:

When I was growing up in West L.A., practically everyone went to public schools, even in the affluent neighborhoods. Only the discipline cases, the juvenile delinquents, went off to a military academy. It was vaguely disreputable. Now any parent who can afford it pays a fortune for private school. The old liberal ideal of a common public education has been destroyed. And it's been destroyed in large part not by Republicans but by teachers unions.

You know, the first area of the country to ditch public schools en masse was....the South. And the area of the country with the weakest teachers unions is....the South. It wasn't teachers unions that drove parents out of public schools in LA. It was mostly a combination of court-ordered busing, massive growth in the number of low-income students, and plain old racism. If unions played a role, it was a pretty modest one.

Still, I agree that job protection regs got out of hand long ago. Ditto for work rules and public sector pensions. If you stick to that stuff but maintain strong and genuine support for the role of unions in bargaining for wages, benefits and basic working conditions in the private sector, then I'm pretty much on board. Unfortunately, the union bashers never stop there. No matter how reasonable they sometimes sound, what they really want is the end of unions. And I'm not on board with that.

Ethics Hearings for Ensign?

| Mon May 3, 2010 11:13 AM EDT

It's not clear to my why this has taken so long, but apparently Senate Democrats are at least considering holding ethics hearings on Sen. John Ensign (R–Nev.):

“If it is true that indeed he did make these payoffs and all that kind of stuff, then I would think the honorable thing would be to resign,” Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said in an interview.

....Harkin’s public declaration — the first of its kind by a sitting senator — comes as Ensign’s Senate colleagues stand to make life more difficult for him. The bipartisan Senate Ethics Committee is not ruling out holding public hearings in the case, a move that some believe could help drive Ensign from office. A number of senators signaled to Politico they’d be supportive of seeing Ensign sit before a public forum to address the allegations, something that has not been done since the Keating Five scandal in 1991.

....Other Democratic senators are supportive of such a step. West Virginia Sen. John Rockefeller, who backed public hearings on Packwood, said he “would have to be consistent” with Ensign. “Situations change, but people don’t,” he said.

A third Democratic senator, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said he’d back public hearings on Ensign as well, “but I would hope he would do the right thing before then, which is to [resign].”

The craziness of the 90s gave both sides pause about the use of ethics charges as political weapons, and I get that nobody is thrilled about diving into that particular cesspool again. But come on. This isn't just an affair or an undeclared golf trip or something like that. There's considerable evidence to suggest that Ensign not only had an affair with an aide's wife and covered it up, but that he deliberately paid off the aide in a way calculated to evade IRS disclosure laws and then used his influence to try and get his aide outside employment. This is crazy bad stuff. If the ethics committee can't hold hearings on that, they might just as well disband themselves.

Hispanics and the GOP

| Sun May 2, 2010 9:34 PM EDT

Least surprising headline of the day:

Conservative Latinos Rethink Party Ties

"Many Hispanic-Americans," says this WSJ story about Arizona's new immigration legislation, "say they feel stung by a law they allege invites racial profiling, incites hatred and discriminates against all Latinos." Ya think?

Behind the Scenes at Copenhagen

| Sun May 2, 2010 6:58 PM EDT

In yet another case of politicians forgetting to turn off a microphone, it turns out that some of the private negotiations on the final day of the Copenhagen summit were accidentally recorded. All the big guns were there: Barack Obama, German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and a Chinese negotiator, He Yafei. From a story in last week's issue of Der Spiegel, here's part of the conversation:

"The IPCC report comes to 2 degrees," said Merkel. "And it also says that we have to reduce (carbon dioxide emissions) by 50 percent."

She wanted to make it clear to Chinese delegation leader He Yafei and Indian Prime Minister Singh that they also had to do their part to achieve the 2-degree target. "Let us suppose there is a 100 percent reduction — (e.g.) no CO2 in the developed countries anymore," even then you would have to "reduce carbon emissions in the developing countries" in order to reach the 2-degree goal, the visibly irritated chancellor said. "That is the truth."

When the Indian leader absolutely refused to accept any concrete targets in the Copenhagen Protocol, Merkel dropped the diplomatic etiquette. "But then you do not want legally binding!" she yelled at the leader of a nation with over a billion people. Singh literally shouted back: "That's not fair!" His Chinese colleague, Deputy Foreign Minister He Yafei, added calmly and in polished English: "The current formulation would not be agreed."

And here, via Google Translate, is the rest of the conversation in this week's issue:

Then Sarkozy reacted sharply and accused China lack of will for climate protection. "In aller Freundschaft" and "with all due respect to China," the West has committed to cut greenhouse gases 80 percent. "And in return, China, which will soon be the largest economy in the world says to the world: engagement apply to you, but not for us." Then Sarkozy, added: "That is not acceptable!" This is about the essentials. "We must respond to this hypocrisy."....[He Yafei responded]: "I heard President Sarkozy to talk about hypocrisy. I avoid such concepts."

I'll bet American politicians wish they could just airily dismiss criticism by saying they "avoid such concepts."

In any case, this recording suggests that the initial reports were more or less right: the Chinese and the Indians were just flatly not willing to make any commitments. As a result, according to the story from last week, Merkel has pretty much given up on climate change:

The collapse of the Copenhagen summit has permanently shaken up Merkel. She [...] left Denmark feeling frustrated. She had rarely experienced such a humiliation. She won't let that happen to her again, she has told herself ever since. Irregularities committed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also annoyed the chancellor. Although these errors have not altered the urgent and key messages, she has angrily said among her close advisers that the IPCC's poor communication has made it more difficult to promote climate protection.

Yeesh. Things are really grim on the climate front all over. (Via David Roberts on Twitter.)