Washington isn’t workingPosted: October 7, 2013
While scientists are innovating and creating, politicians aren’t doing much of anything.
Glenn Reynolds writes: There are two Americas, all right. There’s one that works — where new and creative things happen, where mistakes are corrected, and where excellence is rewarded. Then there’s Washington, where everything is pretty much the opposite. That has been particularly evident over the past week or so. One America can launch rockets. The other America can’t even launch a website.
In Washington, it’s been stalemate, impasse, and theater — the kind of place where a government shutdown leads park rangers to complain, “We’ve been told to make life as difficult for people as we can. It’s disgusting.” Well, yes. The politics don’t work, the websites don’t work — even for the people who manage to log on — and the government shutdown informs us that most of government is “non-essential.” Instead of correcting mistakes or rewarding excellence, it’s mostly finger-pointing, blame-shifting, and excuse-making.
Meanwhile, in the other America — the one where people have their own money and ideas invested, and where they get the credit for their successes and pay the price for their failures — things are going a lot better. Just a couple of examples:
Orbital Sciences Corporation, a private rocket company founded in 1982 by three recent Harvard Business School graduates, successfully berthed and mated its Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station. When Orbital Sciences was started, the idea of commercial space launches was seen by most as goofy and science-fictional: Everybody knew that rockets were government stuff. But the three founders — David Thompson, Bruce Ferguson and Scott Webster — had an idea and were able to turn it into a successful corporation.
Likewise, PayPal founder Elon Musk has his own company, SpaceX, which has also successfully berthed a spacecraft at the International Space Station. And last week, SpaceX successfully launched a new version of its Falcon 9 rocket, launching a Canadian weather satellite and three additional smaller satellites into a polar orbit. SpaceX has been around for only a few years and has shown amazing progress in going from zero to spaceflight in such a short time, and at a surprisingly modest budget.
The contrast between the 21st century successes of companies such as Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, and our ongoing government showdowns and screw-ups here on Earth, is particularly striking at the moment. But the tension between these two worlds is always there.
In Washington, penalties for failure are few: Has anyone been fired over the Obamacare launch debacle? Problems are always the fault of circumstances, or the Evil Opposition, or are simply swept under the rug. Of course, that means there’s not much learning from mistakes, and “more of the same, only we’ll try harder!” is a common response. As in The Hunger Games, life is always posh in Capital City; suffering is for the poor schlubs out in the provinces.
In the world that works, on the other hand, mistakes are painful: They cost people jobs, they cost investors money, they result in bad publicity that’s harder to explain away. Thus, people learn from them. Unsurprisingly, the world that works is where the money that Washington spends ultimately comes from.
The problem is that the bigger Washington gets, the less room is left for the world that works. As more and more of American life is taken over by the world of politics — in which wealth is not generated, but taken from one’s opponents and distributed to one’s supporters — a smaller share is left for the world that works.
Politicians don’t care about that; like two-year-olds in an ice cream parlor, all they want is more. But the rest of us should think long and hard about how many resources we should allow politicians to control, given their track record lately. Because Washington is clearly a world that doesn’t work.
Glenn Harlan Reynolds is professor of law at the University of Tennessee and the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself. He blogs at InstaPundit.com.
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