Anti-government morons

It’s come to this: the anti-government morons are decrying “big government” using the Internet, which would not exist without big government.

Granted, not everyone knows or cares about the history of the Internet. Rest assured it was not spawned as an invention of private industry, or manufactured in someone’s basement. That was sort of tried in the 1980s and failed. Yes, the indispensable Internet that if you are like me you are virtually addicted to (and which also keeps me employed) is a product of the systematic application of your tax dollars chasing what any sound financial analyst back in the 1960s would have called a wild goose chase. As an investment of tax dollars its return is incalculable, but it has connected us as never before, made getting information incredibly simple, and has even help foment revolution in countries like Egypt. It will probably be seen in retrospect as the most brilliant use of government tax money ever and a key enabler of democracy across the globe.

Anyone remember Compuserve? Or AOL? They were private Internet-like networks for subscribers only back in the 1980s and 1990s. Compuserve was bought out by AOL in 2003 and added to their list of “hot” acquisitions like Netscape (cough cough). AOL is no longer in the business of dishing out content only to paid subscribers and sees itself as a “digital media company”. Content equals money so they are eager to get anyone on the Internet to look at their sites, not just subscribers. In part they do that by not associating their sites with, which is unsexy, and build sites like this one. AOL still frequently loses money and every six months or so it seems to undergo reorganization.

The Internet you enjoy today is a basically a product of the Department of Defense. Back in the 1960s, the Defense Department needed a digital way to connect the department with research arms at educational institutions. It threw research money at the problem through its Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), which takes on great, hard to fulfill quests. Working with a company called BBN under a government contract, the first router was manufactured. It provided a common means to move data electronically over a network through this weird idea of packets. Being able to send packets of data reliably between places on the network in turn spawned the first email systems that also went over its network. In the early 1990s, Tim Berners Lee at a multi-national research institution in Switzerland (which most recently found the God Particle) thought email was too cumbersome for his tastes, and created Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which became the web. It was government that created the Internet and arguably it could only have happened because of government. Private industry was not interested in some decades-long research project to build an open network that they might not control. Where was the profit in that?

Arguably the Internet could not have happened without the space program. Huge amounts of government research money were thrown at developing electronic computers, needing to be ever smaller and faster, to facilitate the needs of the space program. The space program also developed a whole host of other valuable products we use today and don’t think about, like Teflon, byproducts of government funded research that were turned over to the commercial sector.

Public investments created our interstate commerce system, a system we now take for granted but which made it so much easier to move both goods and people across the country. This investment stimulated commerce, built suburbs, and made it easier and faster to see our great country. Public investments created and sustained public schools and universities, which allowed minds with lots of potential to reach actualization and be put to work for the enrichment and betterment of all.

For a couple of dollars per person per year, the National Weather Service provides non-biased, accurate and timely weather forecasts available to anyone. One of our most valuable federal agencies is also one of our least known or appreciated: the National Institute of Standards and Technology, formerly the National Bureau of Standards. Not only does it say how to define an inch or a pound, it also defines standards for more complex things, like data security. Defining it once by engaging the best minds on these subjects keeps everyone from reinventing the wheel. Standards save huge amounts of money and promote competition, but we take them for granted. By promoting open standards and interoperability, NIST and other standards organizations allow the private sector to thrive and we consumers pay lower prices and get more broadly useful products.

Does the government waste money? Most certainly. We waste billions in Medicare fraud every year, and arguably wasted hundreds of billions in recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can understand why some would infer from these examples that that the government simply cannot manage any large problems. However, the government is tasked to manage large problems all the time because lawmakers think those tasks are important. Many times, the tasks are unique and have never been done before, and are inherently risky. For any risky endeavor, there is a likelihood of failure, thus it’s not surprising that government’s record is so spotty. However, by approving these programs, lawmakers are essentially saying they should move forward in spite of the risks.

Oversight is supposed to be the solution, but it works haphazardly. Congress has the responsibility but it seems poor at it. There are other mechanisms in place to audit federal agencies: the Government Accountability Office, inspector generals at every agency, reporting to the Office of Management and Budget and much more. What does not happen often is that a program is held accountable for achieving results, with the penalty that the program goes away if results are not achieved. Some programs have sunset provisions, but these are the exception. (You might want to review my thoughts on how to make a truly accountable government.)

Yes, I can understand that people don’t like to pay taxes. Yes, I can understand that they don’t think the government should be doing lots of things that it does, and want to eliminate huge chunks of the government and pocket the money instead. Doing so may eliminate a lot of waste and fraud by ending a bad program, but it doesn’t eliminate the underlying problems. Eliminate the EPA and pollution is not going to go away. It will get worse. Eliminate the FDA and you run the risk of having unsafe drugs. Eliminate Medicaid, food stamps and welfare and you run the risk of revolution. Eliminate transportation funding and expect more people to die from bridge collapses or find their cars falling into sinkholes.

The real question is whether the costs to society are greater or less because of government, because the costs will get paid either way. They will happen either through taxes or through costs like lowered life expectancies, greater crime, poorly educated children, fouled water and air, unsafe food and a crappy transportation structure. The private sector cannot rush into save us from these problems. They might, if they see some profit in it, but any solution won’t be in your best interest, but in theirs.

The really successful governments these days are those that meld the best of the private and public sectors. Look at Germany, with a progressive government and a huge welfare state that still lives within its means, is thrifty and is innovative in producing products the world needs. Thanks to its government, it is leading the way in getting energy from renewable resources. It did not happen in the absence of government, but because of government. It also happened because Germans believe in their government and support it, unlike large portions of Americans, who are trained to be suspicious of government.

Our imperfect government is a result of an imperfect democracy driven largely by unelected special interests. When it does not truly serve the public good, it becomes ineffective and corrupt. When it works with the public good in mind, as it did for the Internet, it can drive the future and make us world leaders, rather than laggards.

Whether you agree with me or not, that you are reading this at all is due to the fact that you, the taxpayer, invested in a risky venture that networked us together. Without this investment, the United States would now almost certainly be a second world country, because what would we produce otherwise that the world would want? It values our ability to innovate, and our innovation is predicated in part on massive research, far beyond the ability of the private sector alone to attempt. This kind of research can only be done by the public sector and our educational institutions. If we don’t make these investments, other countries will before we will, and we will be a far poorer nation because of it.

The price of limited government

Thirty seven days and counting. British Petroleum is now attempting to inject heavy mud a mile beneath the surface of the Gulf of Mexico to plug its gushing Deep Horizon oil well. BP claims that only 5000 barrels a day are leaking from the well. 60,000 barrels is a more realistic estimate, and it may turn out to be even more than that. By putting so many dangerous oil dispersants on the surface of the oil, BP is mitigating the public impact of the spill. Although some oil is leaching into Louisiana marshes and onto Alabama beaches, the dispersant is drastically reducing this problem. The vast majority of this oil is somewhere below the surface, wreaking who knows what havoc on the Gulf’s marine life.

It is clear at this point that even if this spill were capped tonight, it will be the largest oil spill in history. It may turn out to be less visible than the 1988 spill in the Puget Sound, thanks to all the dispersants being used to hide the problem. It is likely though that this catastrophe will be felt for many years, if not decades. It may be the seminal event that ends deep water oil exploration in America for good. Based on recent polls, it might also serve as a catalyst for moving toward a clean energy future. There is nothing like an egregious example to focus the nation’s attention on a problem.

Meanwhile, the public is losing patience with the Obama Administration’s handling of the problem. In actuality, the federal government is doing quite a bit. Unfortunately, what it is doing is trying to mitigate the effects of the spill that has already happened but which it is powerless to solve itself. For example, it is helping coordinate the laying of millions of feet of booms that may help keep the oil from coming up on beaches and marshes. I work for the U.S. Geological Survey. Our director has been camped out on the Gulf Coast working eighteen hour days helping to marshal the USGS response to the problem. (Yes, we do have plenty of scientists who can help with the problem. After all, assessing the likelihood of new areas of oil is part of our mission.) Many other agencies are doing the same thing. Unfortunately, while we can put a man on the moon and cure many diseases, there are still some things even the great and mighty federal government cannot yet do. One of those things is fix a spewing oil well a mile below sea level.

Why? Because Congress has never told the government it should be directly in this business. It probably will be in the future. We do have some research submarines that can descend to those depths, but not many and as best I can tell none equipped with the specialized equipment needed to solve a problem like this. Even our navy’s submarines rarely go more than 2000 feet below sea level. Why? Well, it’s very hard for a submarine to go that deep. The water pressure on hulls becomes enormous. It is hard to put any man down there for any length of time, and even if you did have the right vessel it cannot go up and down quickly without subjecting its crew to the effect of the bends. The oil companies though do have some robotic equipment that can handle those depths. It’s just that nobody ever required them to develop and test machines that could fix problems like this. All those safety measures were supposed to prevent this accident from ever occurring. It does appear that the personnel at the Minerals Management Service were unduly under the influence of the oil industry. Some federal employees of MMS illegally accepted gifts, trips and even prostitutes. These employees were identified some time ago and many were actually fired. The oil companies determined these bribes were much less costly than the alternatives. It is very clear that there was an incestuous and unhealthy relationship between regulators and those being regulated.

Granted, the president can and probably should be more on top of the situation. He should be and probably is knocking some heads. But the sad reality of the situation is that while the government can bring resources to bear on the problem, it really can’t fix this problem. In the worst scenario we will have to wait sixty more days for BP to complete a relief well to staunch the flow from the well. In the meantime we have to hope that the desperate measure of injecting heavy mud and then concrete will cap the well.

It should be noted that previous administrations, principally Republican, were far more attuned to giving the oil companies whatever they desired than regulating them. As with the financial crisis, this is largely a problem that the Obama Administration inherited. Granted it has been in office sixteen months, but with cries from Republicans to “drill baby drill” and with a major economic crisis, working on deep sea drilling safety was on no one’s major list of problems. The public however is simply impatient. It wants things done, and it wants them fixed now even if the federal government cannot fix them. The public is fickle about these things. Many of these same people just six weeks ago were calling for limited government. Unfortunately, this is an example of what can happen when you have limited and corrupt government. If Tea Party members succeed in controlling Congress and the White House, limited government would likely not include regulating the oil industry at all. If they decided it was a governmental matter at all, they would push it down to the states.

This unfortunate incident simply reinforces that you cannot have your cake and eat it too. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, who before the incident was all about limited government, is taking the federal government to task for not solving this problem. The smell of overwhelming hypocrisy from that area of the country is nearly as overwhelming as the smell of surface petroleum. It is easy to be in favor of limited government until, of course, you need the government not to be limited.

If the government’s mission is now to include this as well, then expect that government will grow and cost more. Taking steps like splitting up the Minerals Management Service into three agencies is long overdue. This is something unsexy that the government can do to address future problems, but it does nothing to solve the immediate crisis. I can say this: it won’t be cheap but if we truly want to enlarge the size of government to ensure accidents like this are unlikely to happen in the future, the government will find a way. It may take a decade and cost billions of dollars, and it may raise the cost of gasoline a dime a gallon, but government can make it happen. It just will not happen overnight.