It’s not just the 1960s policies of the Great Society that are making a comeback—it’s also the clichés. The most annoying cliché of the 1960s, endlessly popular with lazy editorial writers, went—“Any country that can land a man on the moon can solve [fill in the blank] problem.” (My favorite variation was from M. Stanton Evans: “Any country that can land a man on the moon can abolish the income tax.”)
The hubris of the Great Society was the view that we now had it in our grasp to solve our deepest social problems with enough willpower and government money. In 1966, LBJ’s chief general in the War on Poverty, Sargent Shriver, told the House Ways and Means Committee that the Johnson administration expected poverty in America would be completely eliminated within 10 years. Why should social science be more difficult than rocket science?
The 1960s “war on poverty” finds its analogue today in what might be called the “war on carbon,” and the endless clichés that government spending for, and heavy regulation of, the energy sector will deliver millions of “green jobs” probably ought to be called “the Great Energy Society.” (For the latest expression of this trope, see this article from the appropriately named Trip Van Noppen in the San Francisco Chronicle.)
And sure enough, the old “send a man to the moon” cliché has made a comeback. Al Gore has invoked it, saying we can “re-power” American with non-carbon energy in 10 years, just like the Apollo project put a man on the moon inside a decade.
No one ever seems to ask a simple question about moon landing analogies: Why did we quit going to the moon? Because, to use the environmentalists’ favorite term, it was unsustainable. Proving that something is technically achievable, whether moon rockets or hydrogen cars, doesn’t mean that it is affordable or economical. We quit going to the moon because it wasn’t cheap, and probably not the best use of scientific and engineering talent, either. (I could say a lot more about this point, as my family’s business made a number of key parts for the Gemini and Apollo rockets, such as the stage separation and parachute release relays—rather important stuff actually, but with little crossover application to other markets.)
To question the goodness of our coming Great Energy Society is to mark oneself out as a naysayer or worse. We all know what happened to the Great Society boasts of the 1960s. It is easy to predict that the Great Energy Society is going to be as much of a counterproductive bust as its 1960s forebear.