A billionaire flew his car into space this week, which now is “driving” out towards the asteroid belt with a dummy in a spacesuit at the wheel. I’m not often giddy when reading the news these days, but there was no other word for how I felt watching videos of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch this week. It’s not just because it tugged at every string in my nerdy, science-fiction-loving heart. There’s so much inspiring symbolism and practical lessons to be gained from that event.
This may surprise many youngsters out there, but there was a time when Democrats had no problem with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, including giving him direct control over some of our most critical national security assets. That long-ago era was 2011, when the space shuttle was retired, and the government of the United States of America no longer had the domestic capability to transport our own astronauts into orbit. Instead, we had to pay Soviet Russia to let our guys hitch rides to the ISS. To any kid who grew up with America kicking commie butts in space since at least 1969, this is nothing short of a national embarrassment.
But while this neglect was dangerous and inexcusable, President Obama’s lack of interest in space policy may ironically be his most important legacy. For decades, our space program had consisted of periodically sending a few government employees into low earth orbit at ridiculously high costs to taxpayers, enormous risks and diminishing returns. All of NASA’s best stuff was now being done by robots, which is cool and all, but way less inspiring to kindergarteners than space-suited hero types walking on the surface of other worlds. Mr. Obama uncharacteristically did not seek to improve this situation with vast, spendy new government programs and bureaucrats, but rather opened the doors to private companies to get into the space shuttling business. The result? Competition and innovation, resulting in billions of dollars saved and Americans (some right here in Nevada!) building and launching spaceships again.
National security demands that the US government be involved in the space business. But by opening up the delivery of space services to the private sector, the Obama administration gave a reason for innovative companies to invest in building a space travel infrastructure, which will in turn provide an incentive to those private companies to explore other markets and missions, such as mining, tourism, manufacturing and even super audacious advertisement schemes for car companies. Long after Obamacare is a barely remembered “what were they thinking?” footnote in economics textbooks, the last administration’s paradigm shift away from the government monopoly on spaceships will be paying dividends for all mankind.
There’s a big pile of dirt near my house that makes me almost as giddy as Elon Musk’s “Starman,” and for a lot of the same reasons.
On Dec. 1, that pile of dirt was an unbroken patch of sagebrush. A formal groundbreaking ceremony took place a few weeks ago. By this fall, it will be my kids’ school, Doral Academy of Northern Nevada. Doral, a charter school in its first year here in Reno, due in part to inexplicable foot dragging by a Reno City Council for whom education is far too low of a priority, is holding classes this year in a church while the new building is under construction.
Doral focuses on science, engineering, math and technology, integrating the arts into the teaching of traditionally less exciting academic subjects. The teachers have the flexibility and autonomy to experiment, innovate and tailor instruction to the needs of individual children, in a way that the large, moribund bureaucracy of the WCSD never allowed. My kids are both happy and thriving – a far cry from when my daughter, who was already reading chapter books in kindergarten, was bored literally to tears because the rigidity of a one-size-fits-all curriculum hobbled educators and students alike.
The Washoe County School District is like NASA – an organization with a worthy mission and a lot of dedicated, talented people working in the rank-and-file, but stymied by administrative bloat and indecision, lack of accountability and absurdly inflated costs.
When we voted in 2016 to raise taxes for school construction, we were told that a new public elementary school would cost $23 million to build. Months after passage, suddenly that number became $34 million. The first one will take nearly two years to build on donated land – almost twice as long as the Empire State Building, for crying out loud! The newest high school is projected to take four years (the Hoover Dam took five), and the remaining building schedule is just as inexplicably turgid.
When done right, charter schools can deliver higher quality public education at less cost. If we let them, they will improve traditional public schools too, not just by providing an escape valve for increasing student populations, but by proving that we don’t need to put up with bloated building expenses and disempowered classroom teachers.
Delivery of a quality education for every child ought to always be a core mission of local governments. But that doesn’t mean we need to limit ourselves to inefficient government monopolies when exploring how best to successfully achieve that mission.
Freedom isn’t magic, and innovation and experimentation come with their own setbacks and failures. Tesla continues to hemorrhage money and is far behind its automobile production goals, and the “Starman” will overshoot its planned Mars rendezvous. Not every charter school will be amazing, and even the best will have their own growing pains.
There are plenty of areas of public life where the government will – and should – always play a major role. Education and protection and projection of our national interests in outer space are just two examples. But government involvement need not necessitate government monopolies, and policymakers will be wise to recognize the benefit of freeing private innovators and entrepreneurs in meeting the public needs.
Orrin Johnson has been writing and commenting on Nevada and national politics since 2007. He started with an independent blog, First Principles, and was a regular columnist for the Reno Gazette-Journal from 2015-2016. By day, he is a deputy district attorney for Carson City. His opinions here are his own. Follow him on Twitter @orrinjohnson, or contact him at email@example.com.