Friday, July 17, 2009

It Was 40 Years Ago Today

I was in a hippie house on Webster Avenue, just off of Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California, watching avidly on a B&W TV. I never imagined that we would stop manned missions to the moon and beyond for such a long time.

Here is a book about it:

The First Men on the Moon: The Story of Apollo 11

Cross Posted at Classical Values


Neil said...

Apollo 11 is the primo example of what government is, and is not, good for.

Government is excellent for doing the "one big thing" that everyone agrees is necessary, and for which the procedure is fairly well-known. Building hydro-electric dams, fighting a war, providing for the poor or the unfortunate, sending men to the moon on top of (essentially) a ballistic missile.

Government is terrible at doing anything that requires trial-and-error, like creating new markets that nobody ever thought of, figuring out how to make alternative energy profitable compared to fossil fuels, developing mass-customized medicine without breaking the bank, or harnessing rocket technology to develop the resources of the inner solar system.

One caveat: For some reason I don't understand and have never seen explained, U.S. military procurement more or less works. It developed the resources of earth-orbital satellites, innovated mightily in aviation, and did most of the heavy lifting on early-stage information technology. Maybe because so much of it is secret that failure and learning from failure isn't such a handicap. But that secrecy carries such a heavy price that the model does not scale well to society at large.

simentt said...


Apart from the 'fighting a war', I object against every one of your 'Government is excellent for' -points.

I believe the jury is still out on 'fighting a war', as the the only technologically half-matched war where governments have been fighting private groups (the current 4th gen Al-Quida -conflict) has not yet been clearly decided.

While the non-governmental organizations are fighting significantly more economically and utilizing their resources significantly better, the government-backed organizations may have the total resources available to saturate and swamp their competition. Ie, government could win on pure scale.

I'm not sure if I count 'pure scale' as 'excellent'.


Neil said...

You made some very interesting points, but I disagree. Please note that I'm not saying that we should ask government to do these things in every case, as there are external costs beyond the direct physical costs. I'm just saying that government is good at doing them.

'Pure scale' is precisely the reason that governments are 'excellent' at certain things. Thank you for helping me clarify that point.

Government can mobilize the resources of an entire state (whether the individuals are willing or not) behind a big, consensus goal. In general, it can do things on a larger scale than private enterprise. Quantity can be a qualitative advantage, in some cases. In my opinion, that's one of the reasons why communitarian policy was reasonably successful (or at the least not utterly disastrous) during the late-stage industrial revolution. Industrial technology tended towards the large-scale one-size-fits-all anyway, so 'big government' worked, more or less.

As for Al Qaeda, changes in policy may allow them to regenerate their capabilities in the future, but Al Qaeda at this time is not capable of threatening large-scale destruction within the continental U.S. An attack here or there, perhaps, but they no longer have the infrastructure to wage a sustained campaign. They committed their infrastructure to Iraq and died there, and the threat of Iranian supremacy in Iraq cut Al Qaeda off from their Sunni benefactor nations. There is still the Iran/Hezbollah complex which does have large-scale capabilities, and future strategic mistakes may allow Al Qaeda or something like it to regenerate, but for now they're small potatoes.

Also, keep in mind that Al Qaeda only existed as a private group because of semi-official state support from the Sunni Persian Gulf states.

simentt said...


I don't think we disagree too much here. First, I'd rather say 'not incapable' instead of 'excellent' - Government can mobilize the resources of an entire state (whether the individuals are willing or not) behind a big, consensus goal.

It seems to me that you're seeing governments as inherently collectivist (which they very well may be, given their necessarily top-down approach in single-focus scenarios). My problem is that they still suck at this, but this may be what they suck less at. To me, this does not mean that they are actually good at it. Of course, I'm not saying that an entrepreneurial approach would be much better for these things, as it is the perceived requirements for large top-down operations that fuel the need for governments to expand.

Second, I see Al-Quida as the grouping of loosely- and un-connected organizations that wage Islamic war on the non-islamic societies. Thus the grand-scale capabilities and mission-aims of the organization(s) are to me less interesting than the actual resources they are utilizing and the resources of their opponents that they are tying down.

In this view, the US is today spending quite a lot of money fighting Al-Quida in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, while Al-Quida is recruiting young Somali-Americans for vacation-jihad trips to Somalia. While 9/11 was a spectacular success for Al-Quida, costing the US significant resources and stability, the US government is still, 8 years later, spending huge amounts of money fighting the same groups and ideology.

In my view on 4th gen warfare, the infrastructure-requirements of Al-Quida are very low - they just need to keep the US (the non-islamic part of the world, actually) spending beyond our means in order to win. While Al-Quida is fairly crushed in Iraq, the cost to the US has been huge. If the US leaves and Iraq then is toppled after a few years - or if Iraq in it's own democratic way comes to support the Al-Quida ideologies, Al-Quida will have won in Iraq. Currently, Al-Quida looks to be winning in Somalia. Pakistan is under heavy pressure. Afghanistan may be too tribal for Al-Quida to have an easy match there, but give them time and opposition and they very well may be.

I see Al-Quida not as a hierarchical almost-state -like organization headed by Osama Bin-Laden, but rather any group of violence-prone malcontents who think that the Al-Quida way is good enough to die for. Thus any bout of 'sudden jihad syndrome' or similar where someone shoots up a school, shopping-mall or hotel somewhere in the world, Al-Quida has won a little bit, and the surrounding state has lost a little bit by proving it can't keep it's citizens safe.

This is after all terrorism, not straight-up actual warfare.

As to state-backing, by all means. The Al-Quida organizations are state backed by the states that more or less discretely sympathize with their goals or methods (the US supported them half-openly in Afghanistan against the Soviets), they are privately funded by private citizens who support their stated goals or at least support their attacks against states they don't like, and they are self-funded by people who save up enough money to go on jihad, and then come back to go to work.

As a Norwegian, I know that even the Norwegian state is providing Norwegian-Somalian communities with social funding that very well may end up in Somalia, funding some organizations who are working to impose their vision of order onto the Somali society. Of course, no-one there has seen Osama personally, but they see Islamism as a better option for society than whatever corrupt democracy could emerge out of Somalia anytime soon.

And who could blame them?


Neil said...


I hate to completely hijack this Apollo 11 post for a discussion about Al-Qaeda, but you've made some more interesting points, so here goes:

We don't seem to disagree on much here, but we do have completely different ideas of what Al Qaeda is about. This is probably a result of our geographically different viewpoints.

As an American, my concern with Al Qaeda was with the core pan-Islamist group that had the goal of setting up a new Caliphate encompassing the Persian Gulf states plus Egypt and North Africa, plus Afghanistan and Pakistan if possible. At one point this goal seemed plausible, and had they achieved it, they would have been capable of enough sheer destruction to be a direct threat to the globalized economy and to the U.S. As far as I can tell, this core group has been utterly defeated (largely in Iraq), and its goal of a new Caliphate is no longer possible. It forms a threat to individual Arab countries, but only as a local phenomenon, not as a pan-Islam movement. Although I would be personally grief-stricken were some Al Qaeda-linked personnel to shoot up a shopping mall in Tulsa, the U.S. would survive it and prosper. If necessary, we'd all start carrying sub-machine guns all day every day, like Israel. In all honesty, we'd probably enjoy it on some level. Al Qaeda can affect us, but they can't permanently weaken the U.S.

Europe is in a different position. Arabic Islam inherently forms a threat to Europe so long as European demographics are so dismal, and so long as fairly open immigration and multi-culturalism are government policy. In your situation, yes, every Islamist (meaning adherence to Islam as a theocratic project) is a major threat. Because Muslim immigrants to Europe have been thoroughly marginalized, they have retained very strong emotional and financial ties to their home countries. Ironically this is probably a direct result of multi-culturalist social policies and statist economic policies, although relative proximity to their home countries probably has some effect as well. If the home country goes Islamist, then the immigrant communities become daggers in the heart of Europe. Therefore, every Al Qaeda-linked group in the world, no matter how small, forms a direct threat to Europe.

It fills me with great sadness to say so, but there it is. Europe's governments are not effective at fighting Islamism, but that's because Europe's society has not so far been willing to admit such a thing might be necessary, not because they lack the capability.

simentt said...


You're right on the level of threat and who is threatened, of course. I am deeply concerned on how this will play out here over the next few years and decades. Humans (us Norwegians too) will act if they are threatened enough, and the current level of immigration is a fairly large threat.

Personally, I'd much rather see the immigrants voluntarily leave (given grants to do so if necessary) than have a hard-left political group win power on the promise to do something for the nation or the people.

Still, the issue I was branching out from was the suitability of governments for waging war, or actually being good at it. My point is that pr person or pr dollar invested, the various insurgents/terrorists/rabble the US (or other governments) are fighting, they are doing worse at advancing their opjectives than their opposition is.

Of course, most of the organizations they are fighting, are fighting to destabilize their societies, while the governmental organizations are fighting to build a society of sorts, and it is of course always easier to destroy than to build.

I'd claim that the scale of governmental organizations is their main quality here - they have the resources (taxes, people) to throw at the problem, but scale does not make them good at it - of course, if winning is necessary, then being able to do it at all is good.

Let's leave this, as we're generally agreeing. Bickering over nothing won't get us back into space in a meaningful way before another 40 years have passed...


Neil said...


We'll get there soon enough, I think.

The West is down, but not out. An energy revolution is almost upon us. And in the Mojave, multiple teams of engineers are developing practical spacecraft.

Surviving the next ten years might be a trick, but after that...