What Still Works?

 

338745main_13-lgApollo 13, Ron Howard’s glorious 1995 epic, tells the heroic true story of America’s doomed third manned mission to the moon. On April 14, 1970, some 56 hours into the flight, a crippling explosion rocked the spacecraft’s service module, forcing NASA to abort the moon landing and concentrate on bringing the crew safely back to earth. The movie grippingly captures the first tense moments after the jolt of the explosion, as the astronauts and mission control engineers in Houston grapple with a cacophony of alarms and flashing warning lights, and try to make sense of torrents of contradictory incoming data amidst the din of crosstalk and reports of mounting system failures.

After several interminable minutes, Gene Krantz (Ed Harris), NASA’s legendary flight director, steps in to impose order on the barely controlled chaos inside Mission Control. He tells his engineers to quiet down, lights a cigarette, takes a long, deep draw, and says:

“Can we review our status here… Let’s look at these things from a… from a standpoint of status. What have we got on that spacecraft that’s good?

This systematic approach yields a gloomy picture, as the gravity of the astronauts’ predicament begins to sink in. But taking that first firm step – organizing the information to isolate what still works – produces the beginnings of a solution that ultimately averts disaster and brings the crew home.

It strikes me that, as a country, we are in a comparable position today. True, we have not had a single “Houston, we have a problem” moment. The failures have been gradual and cumulative, not catastrophic, but now the lights are flashing and the alarms are impossible to ignore. Our inertial navigation system has been failing for years, the craft is badly off course and headed into the Sun. Our computer data is corrupted, the controls are unresponsive, thrusters are firing randomly and oxygen is venting out into space. It’s almost as though the craft has been hijacked by some malevolent alien intelligence.

We have one advantage over the crew of Apollo 13 – we know inside and out what has gone wrong, and what systems have failed. The conservative blogosphere is good at diagnosing the problems. Ricochet has been cataloging them for years and Son of Spengler has just given us an excellent analysis of our recent institutional failures. We know what doesn’t work.

The question is, what have we got on this spacecraft that’s good? What are the specific onboard systems that are still functioning and that we can use to save the mission?

Here is my short list, in no particular order.

1. Capital markets. The lifeblood of capitalism still flows and Wall Street is its beating heart. Despite the cronyism and overregulation, the world still comes here to raise capital on the best available terms. Our capital markets are the most liquid and best regulated in the world, all things considered, and the underlying legal infrastructure is regular, predictable and relatively free from corruption. And there is as yet no good alternative to the dollar.

2. Texas. It is my understanding that Texas works.

3. Silicon Valley. Despite the hype, and despite the increasingly cozy relationship between high tech and politics, we still seem to know how to innovate.

4. Hollywood. Say what you will, but Rob’s friends in L.A. know what they’re doing. Apollo 13 is an example.

5. Basic science. The U.S. is still where it’s at when it comes to basic, hard-science research.

6. The military (partial credit). I understand that it’s just another government bureaucracy, subject to the same dysfunctions, inanities, and perverse incentives as all the rest. In fact, because it is more rigidly hierarchical, it may be more dysfunctional in some ways. And yes, the Pentagon proves every day that monopsony is a miserable model for acquiring hardware. But the military may be our last formal institution dedicated to safeguarding and preserving the traditional values of a nation state. It contains pockets of true excellence. And, when given a discrete mission suited its purpose, it knows how to get it done.

What am I missing? What did I get wrong? How do we work the problem?

There are 38 comments.

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  1. Great Ghost of Gödel Inactive

    It’s a scary measure of where I am, culturally and politically, that I couldn’t disagree with you more over 1, 3, and 4, as a computer scientist married to an actress in LA.

    • #1
    • August 11, 2015, at 12:38 PM PDT
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  2. carcat74 Member

    Those of us in flyover country, rural areas of blue states (many voices being drowned out by their liberal urban enemies), people who have been marginalized by b.o.’s ‘vision’ of his ‘Amerrika’—a nightmare, I say. Those people could include those who lost their health plan/doctor/coverage due to ocare, who became part-time workers for the same reason, who can’t find any job—same reason, who can’t get the necessary drugs for themselves or a loved one—same reason. Those people who have to travel many extra miles and hours to get health care, people who suffered or had loved ones suffer or die because of ocare. I bet many of these people would work to help bring our United States back. Don’t forget our veterans, either. They may not be physically capable, but my goodness, the untapped possibilities of our veterans. Brain power and experience could work wonders, I think. Big visions are wonderful, but start with the people!

    • #2
    • August 11, 2015, at 1:59 PM PDT
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  3. iWe Reagan
    iWe

    I disagree about Capital Markets, in general. And Basic Science at this point is leadership by default. Government funding has been a brain drain for the best minds: think of the opportunity costs of making people write endless and senseless grant proposals!

    What works:

    Rapid and amazing distribution of knowledge of all kinds. Ideas shared are doubled. Our world is incredibly efficient at sharing information. Think of gotomeeting, youtube videos telling us how to do just about anything that has been done before…

    Traditional America. It is under assault, but the hard working, Protestant work-ethic, can-do attitude still underpins this great nation, and is ready to be unleashed.

    • #3
    • August 11, 2015, at 2:39 PM PDT
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  4. Frozen Chosen Inactive

    Vehemently disagree with Hollywood working. They put out crappy movie after crappy movie; their products are almost exclusively remakes and sequels; they have far more bombs than hits. They are a key component in the continuing degradation of our culture.

    • #4
    • August 11, 2015, at 3:11 PM PDT
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  5. Douglas Inactive

    Great Ghost of Gödel: as a computer scientist married to an actress in LA.

    Congrats, that got a “Wait, wha?” from me. Talk about and interesting but unusual pairing.

    • #5
    • August 11, 2015, at 4:07 PM PDT
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  6. PsychLynne Inactive

    People will likely disagree, but I will stand by it:
    We have the best healthcare in the world. Not always the best system but I would take it over most.

    • #6
    • August 11, 2015, at 4:07 PM PDT
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  7. Douglas Inactive

    Frozen Chosen:Vehemently disagree with Hollywood working. They put out crappy movie after crappy movie; their products are almost exclusively remakes and sequels; they have far more bombs than hits. They are a key component in the continuing degradation of our culture.

    Further, Rob Long himself says Hollywood isn’t working. Thus the rise of Netflix, etc.

    Also, things like Wall Street only “work” increasingly because of the built-in, government endorsed corruption that they operate in. Goldman Sachs is more or less a branch of the government. No, we don’t really agree on “what works”. Sorry.

    • #7
    • August 11, 2015, at 4:09 PM PDT
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  8. Gary McVey Contributor

    In May, I compared Ricochet itself to Apollo 13; I think Ricochet, and America, will make it back to solid ground alive.

    Why, I don’t know. So I can’t say “Trust me on this”.

    • #8
    • August 11, 2015, at 4:12 PM PDT
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  9. Douglas Inactive

    PsychLynne:People will likely disagree, but I will stand by it: We have the best healthcare in the world.Not always the best system but I would take it over most.

    I don’t disagree with you at all. I’d rather be in an American hospital than any other. There’s a good reason why cancer patients from all over the world come here. All of the whining about American medicine basically comes down to one thing: people complaining that it isn’t free.

    • #9
    • August 11, 2015, at 4:21 PM PDT
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  10. Great Ghost of Gödel Inactive

    Douglas:

    Great Ghost of Gödel: as a computer scientist married to an actress in LA.

    Congrats, that got a “Wait, wha?” from me. Talk about and interesting but unusual pairing.

    Very, very few people are more surprised than I am.

    • #10
    • August 11, 2015, at 4:24 PM PDT
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  11. Percival Thatcher

    Great Ghost of Gödel:It’s a scary measure of where I am, culturally and politically, that I couldn’t disagree with you more over 1, 3, and 4, as a computer scientist married to an actress in LA.

    I don’t think 1 and 3 are as bad as all that, but you’ve got me on 4. I’m an SF/comics book nerd to my marrow, but shaky camerawork isn’t cinematography and CGI isn’t storytelling.

    • #11
    • August 11, 2015, at 4:35 PM PDT
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  12. CuriousKevmo Member

    I don’t have a comment on the thread, just thought I’d take this excuse to brag that I saw Apollo 13 at a private premier in Mr. Lucas’ private theatre at the Sky Walker Ranch. It was extremely cool.

    • #12
    • August 11, 2015, at 4:53 PM PDT
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  13. SParker Member

    You missed the order of magnitude improvement in communications. (Just ignore the fact that I don’t specify what I’m measuring: I used the phrase “order of magnitude,” damn it.) It’s just a whole hell of a lot better than it was 25 years ago. There was a reason the phone system in the Soviet Union was gawd-awful and telecommunications incompetence wasn’t it.

    The property rights and the legal institutions set up to protect them are under pretty vicious assault. But that’s been true for a long time now. And improved communications seems to be a mitigating factor. The underground economy is going to be awesome, worse come to worst.

    • #13
    • August 11, 2015, at 4:56 PM PDT
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  14. Misthiocracy secretly Member

    Most private non-governmental instututions.

    • #14
    • August 11, 2015, at 5:20 PM PDT
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  15. FightinInPhilly Thatcher

    American farms are still the envy of the world.

    Fracking.

    Two oceans on either side, plus neighbors to the north that are quite friendly and neighbors in the south we can deal with. (immigration issues aside, Mexican tanks aint never gonna role over the border. Ask Ukraine or South Korea if they feel the same.)

    The 2nd amendment works like hell.

    So does the 1st, despite the Twitterati’s best efforts.

    Kindle- almost any book in the world in my hand in a minute.

    Flyover country. Look out the window of the plane, and tell me you don’t think “man…that’s a lot of country. ” We’ve still got room to grow.

    NYC. It’s a mess. But it’s a fabulous, and has been since Peter Stuyvesant tried to impose order. And it’s tucked away on a little island.

    More space in national parks then the total landmass of many European countries.

    US Ports.

    Nuclear technology. Just waiting to be harnessed when we decide it’s really time.

    So in conclusion, aside from having the food, the guns, the energy, the trade, entertainment, and services to do whatever the hell we want… we’re screwed.

    • #15
    • August 11, 2015, at 5:29 PM PDT
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  16. I Walton Member

    Mancur Olsen’s, “the Rise and Decline of nations” explains a lot about the process of national sclerosis. Olsen looks at the symbiotic relationship between organized interests and government, but the government has additional problems all its own. It cannot self correct, indeed its worst mistakes give rise to new interests that defend the mistakes, so we just build new stuff on top of old dysfunctional stuff. When a business makes a mistake it gets immediate feedback in meaningful metrics, sales, prices, returns, stock prices. Those who don’t learn, unless they are big enough to invoke k street protection, die. Government doesn’t have this, indeed this global information system works backwards within an agency and even if some agency gets something right there is no mechanism for spreading it around, quite the contrary. I’d add a corollary to Greshams’s law, as well, “bad politicians and bureaucrats drive out good ones because key positions that offer rewards to corruption are worth more to the corrupt.” In short it will never work at the national level. The military has the advantage that it is the only part of the Federal government that is accountable for it’s decisions. It’s like pilots and crews in countries that are otherwise dysfunctional, get it wrong and you die.

    • #16
    • August 11, 2015, at 5:51 PM PDT
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  17. Indaba Inactive

    I was thinking about writing a post on the topic of Capital markets, but the American market in particular. 76% of the Canadian GDP is reliant on exports to the USA. It s why us here in Canada are so interested in how it is going in the USA.

    Your business stats do have a problem. You are not hatching as many little companies. But here in Canada, we are growing ompanies that Americns keep buying but are leaving here in Canada. I don’t want to tell you why but here is a clue…one of the podcasts mentioned US coporate tax rates. Well, here in Canada we have a conservative government and they were at 11% the last time I looked, going to 9%. Yours were in the 30% and higher range I think I heard on the podcast?

    But I heard from a Canadian mother her son has gone to Microsoft In Seattle to work, so your have another foreign engineer taking a job in America.

    • #17
    • August 11, 2015, at 6:08 PM PDT
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  18. John Walker Contributor

    Oblomov: Apollo 13, Ron Howard’s glorious 1995 epic, tells the heroic true story of America’s doomed third manned mission to the moon.

    Space nerd quibble: Apollo 13 was the third manned mission intended to land on the Moon. It was the fifth manned mission to the Moon:

    1. Apollo 8 (lunar orbit)
    2. Apollo 10 (lunar orbit, rehearsal for landing)
    3. Apollo 11 (lunar landing)
    4. Apollo 12 (lunar landing)
    5. Apollo 13 (planned lunar landing, lunar swing-by return after incident en route)
    • #18
    • August 11, 2015, at 6:18 PM PDT
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  19. Douglas Inactive

    John

    1. Apollo 8 (lunar orbit)
    2. Apollo 10 (lunar orbit, rehearsal for landing)

    So THAT’S where Microsoft got the idea…

    • #19
    • August 11, 2015, at 6:32 PM PDT
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  20. Swanning in the Beltway Member

    Our river network continues to be a huge trade multiplier. Even if manufacturing employment has plummeted our production has grown and will continue to do so with cheap energy, advanced robotics and 3-D printing. The future of warfare will be unmanned which we have a serious advantage.

    • #20
    • August 11, 2015, at 6:45 PM PDT
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  21. Tim H. Member

    While I don’t have any insights to add at the moment, let me thank you for bringing up one of my very favorite movies. I’ve taken to watching the launch status check and launch scene when I’m getting ready to go running.

    Also, I like your idea of looking at the country the same way Gene Kranz did with the spacecraft—what works? Very insightful.

    • #21
    • August 11, 2015, at 7:13 PM PDT
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  22. RushBabe49 Thatcher

    The American People. Not the city-dwelling hipsters, but the middle-earning, hard-working, church-going, children-raising, Harley-riding, football-watching Americans who really make this country work.

    • #22
    • August 11, 2015, at 7:41 PM PDT
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  23. Percival Thatcher

    Douglas:

    John

    1. Apollo 8 (lunar orbit)
    2. Apollo 10 (lunar orbit, rehearsal for landing)

    So THAT’S where Microsoft got the idea…

    Apollo 9 was when they first took the Lunar Module up for a spin.

    • #23
    • August 11, 2015, at 7:45 PM PDT
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  24. John Walker Contributor

    Percival:

    Douglas:

    John

    1. Apollo 8 (lunar orbit)
    2. Apollo 10 (lunar orbit, rehearsal for landing)

    So THAT’S where Microsoft got the idea…

    Apollo 9 was when they first took the Lunar Module up for a spin.

    Indeed. When Apollo 8 was proposed as the first mission to the Moon, James McDivitt was offered the position of commander. He declined, because he considered the first flight of the lunar module on Apollo 9 more important to the eventual goal of a lunar landing. Test pilots consider the first flight of a new craft as very important, and McDivitt wanted to command the first flight of the lunar module, even if it meant he wouldn’t go to the Moon.

    • #24
    • August 11, 2015, at 7:52 PM PDT
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  25. ChefSly - Super Kit Member

    Tangent:

    I think one of the best parts of Apollo 13 (due to acting) was the longing on Lovell’s (Tom Hanks) face going around the Moon (Since he had already done it, being the Command Module Pilot on Apollo 8)

    A small detail that wasn’t necessary for the film, but a great touch.

    • #25
    • August 11, 2015, at 8:07 PM PDT
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  26. Tim H. Member

    Haise—”Mt. Marion’s coming up. Hey, Jim, you’re going to miss it.”
    Lovell—(pauses) “I’ve seen it.”

    Poignant.

    • #26
    • August 11, 2015, at 8:35 PM PDT
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  27. Frozen Chosen Inactive

    RushBabe49:The American People. Not the city-dwelling hipsters, but the middle-earning, hard-working, church-going, children-raising, Harley-riding, football-watching Americans who really make this country work.

    What about suburb dwelling hipster wannabes?

    • #27
    • August 11, 2015, at 9:36 PM PDT
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  28. Vald the Misspeller Inactive

    John Walker:

    Oblomov: Apollo 13, Ron Howard’s glorious 1995 epic, tells the heroic true story of America’s doomed third manned mission to the moon.

    Space nerd quibble: Apollo 13 was the third manned mission intended to land on the Moon. It was the fifth manned mission to the Moon:

    1. Apollo 8 (lunar orbit)
    1. Apollo 10 (lunar orbit, rehearsal for landing)
    1. Apollo 11 (lunar landing)
    1. Apollo 12 (lunar landing)
    1. Apollo 13 (planned lunar landing, lunar swing-by return after incident en route)

    Most people don’t remember – probably because they never knew about it in the first place – that Apollo 12 had it’s own unscheduled adventure. This was the “SEC to aux” affair, when less than a minute after launch the vehicle was struck by lightning. Twice! Thanks to controller John Aaron who rightly adjudged which obscure toggle to tweak, and to LEM pilot Alan Bean who remembered where to find it among the hundreds of switches on the Command Module’s control panels, the mission was rescued from an otherwise likely abort.

    • #28
    • August 11, 2015, at 10:18 PM PDT
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  29. I Walton Member

    We look at the space program or post war efforts as examples of successful government. These are youthful things with new blood taken from the real world and with powerful people paying attention. They erode over time by the Olsen process, from Civil Service rules, from age and the nature of government and the inevitable development of institutional cultures that are cautious, defensive and self serving. The best people gradually leave or retire. Even things that do not and cannot work, like Keynesian economics stimulus seemed to work in the post war world because we enjoyed monopolies on just about everything, the world needed our dollars so we had to spend like mad to provide the foreign exchange they needed for trade and reserves. We learned the wrong lessons, which is standard I suppose, and now we have to unlearn them and should have started by the mid sixties.

    • #29
    • August 12, 2015, at 4:02 AM PDT
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  30. Jaynie I Inactive

    Fantastic article and great comments – optimism rising perhaps? Either way, it is a refreshing break to turn my attention towards what does work.

    • #30
    • August 12, 2015, at 6:23 AM PDT
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