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I heard it but couldn’t believe it. I had to whip out my phone and start surfing the web for information about it. Surely the quote was taken out of context. He must have been misquoted…but alas, no. I looked at the links Google had returned, selected one and started reading.

Apparently NASA, whose historic mission was to promote and help lead research and development in the field of science, math, and engineering in the US and to develop America’s space capabilities has now been charged with a new mission – to reach out to Muslim (and predominantly Muslim) nations – to help them “feel good” about their contributions to math, science and engineering – to “boldly” go where no one has gone before!

I read it and just about fell off my chair. What kind of nonsense is this? I figured that perhaps the writer of the column must have gotten it wrong. He must have misunderstood. Sadly…no. I heard it from the proverbial “horse’s mouth”:

Yep…you heard it right. Apparently President Obama charged NASA’s administrator, Charles Bolden, with a new mission for NASA. No longer was space exploration (either manned or unmanned) it’s primary goal. No longer was research into aeronautics and astronautics a goal. No…the new goals are:

  1. Help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math,
  2. Expand America’s international relationships, and
  3. Reach out to the Muslim world

Ok…#1 and #2 — that makes sense. When I heard #3 my brain did a quick double take to make sure I understood what I had just heard and read. #1 and #2 fit in with NASA’s historic missions of science, math, and engineering research and development as well as our cooperative efforts in space exploration with other countries. But #3? Now, NASA is supposed to “reach out to the Muslim world”? And not just reach out to the Muslim world (as well as the “dominantly Muslim nations”) but to “help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering.” You know, I’m sorry if they don’t “feel good” about themselves or their past contributions to science, math and engineering…but is that really America’s fault? I mean come on, yes, Islam did make very significant contributions to math, science, and engineering but that ended centuries ago. Since the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258 Islam’s advances in sciences has been on the decline and has continued to do so due to a wide variety of factors. But why does the American taxpayer have to pay for NASA to reach out to the Muslim world in order to make them “feel good” about those contributions? That is not what NASA’s mission ever was or should be.

And why does this administration single out Muslim and “dominantly Muslim” nations as a focus for this effort? Why not reach out to the Indians? Or the Congolese? Or the Zulu? Why the Muslims? As Charles Lane of the Washington Post put it:

But does it follow that the U.S. government should seek cooperation on space projects with the government of a particular country explicitly because its people are mostly Muslim?

Doesn’t this put us in the position of categorizing nations by religion as opposed to other characteristics, such as whether they are democratic? We did not pursue space partnerships with Europe because it was “Christian” or Israel because it was Jewish, did we?

Lane, Charles, “NASA: Mission to Mecca“, Washington Post, July 7, 2010

This is one of the most ridiculous re-visioning of NASA’s mission that I have ever seen. First, President Obama says that we can’t get anywhere beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO) without international help (hmmm….let me see…aren’t we still the only country who has landed a man on the moon and returned him safely to earth – even now…40 years after the accomplishment was made?) and now he wants NASA to become some sort of outreach organization to help Muslims feel good about their past accomplishments. If the Muslims want to feel good about their past accomplishments they can certainly do so without our help. On top of that it seems that this administration policy may well be in violation of the U.S. Constitution. As Charles Lane of the Washington Post continues:

[T]he Constitution expressly forbid[s] the establishment of religion. How can it be consistent with that mandate and the deeply held political and cultural values that it expresses for the U.S. government to “reach out” to another government because the people it rules are mostly of a particular faith?

Lane, Charles, “NASA: Mission to Mecca“, Washington Post, July 7, 2010

This has to be one of the worst ideas to come out of this administration. It is a waste of NASA talent, a waste of American taxpayer money, and it certainly doesn’t make sense…to me as well as to many other people. As Charles Krauthammer said in an interview on Fox News: “This is a new height in fatuousness…this idea to feel good about their past scientific achievements is the worst combination of group therapy, psycho-babble, imperial condescension, and adolescent diplomacy. If I didn’t know that Obama had told this I’d demand the firing of Charles Bolden.” Amen to that Mr. Krauthammer…Amen to that!

I’ve thought about it quite a bit and I’m about to do an about face…but I think it’s time for Congress and the Obama administration to cut GM and Chrysler off from the government dole. It’s not an easy decision as I know that it will affect thousands of people but I think it’s time for the government to say “enough.” Both GM and Chrysler received about $17 billion back in December and now come back to the government and are asking for another $20 billion. Where does it stop? When will they do what is really needed of them — massive restructuring, renegotiation of union contracts, eliminating top management — when?

If the Obama administration gives them this new round of money what does the American taxpayer get in return? While I haven’t finished looking over GM’s restructuring plan (also available here) it’s already being criticized by GM’s bond holders. According to the Wall Street Journal

A group representing General Motors Corp. bondholders fears that the auto maker’s latest restructuring plan fails to address all the challenges facing the company and doesn’t cut costs enough in light of the deteriorating economy, a person familiar with the bond negotiations said Wednesday.

(“Bondholders Say GM’s Plan Fails to Tackle Issues”, The Wall Street Journal, February 19, 2009)

If General Motors and Chrysler can’t come up with plans that will bring them back to profitability within a reasonable time frame then they will simply become another welfare recipient like the banks currently are. As John Stoll of The Wall Street Journal noted, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama argued, after receiving the plans from GM and Chrysler, “The focus of the restructuring process should be to make these companies self-sufficient, not to increase their dependence on taxpayer money.” (Stoll, John, D. “Sen. Shelby Says GM, Chrysler Viability Plans ‘Fall Far Short’”, The Wall Street Journal, February 19, 2009). The best course for these companies may well be bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11…and this may well apply to some of the banks as well.

It’s time that the government do what it needs to do to truly head off this continuing downward spiral. If that means nationalizing the banks in order to sort out the healthy from the weak — mirroring the Swedish model of the past — then that’s what needs to be done. If that means cutting GM and Chrysler off and letting them sort their problems themselves then that’s what needs to be done. We cannot continue to subsidize these failing entities, propping them up. If we do so then we will not have the money available to invest in other startups to take their place or in other industries like green energy.

Personally I like Tom Friedman‘s approach in his opinion piece this morning “Start Up the Risk-Takers”.

You want to spend $20 billion of taxpayer money creating jobs? Fine. Call up the top 20 venture capital firms in America, which are short of cash today because their partners — university endowments and pension funds — are tapped out, and make them this offer: The U.S. Treasury will give you each up to $1 billion to fund the best venture capital ideas that have come your way. If they go bust, we all lose. If any of them turns out to be the next Microsoft or Intel, taxpayers will give you 20 percent of the investors’ upside and keep 80 percent for themselves.

(Friedman, Tom, “Start Up the Risk-Takers”, The New York Times, February 21, 2009)

This is exactly the approach we need. We need to stop keeping dead corporations on a lifeline simply because they claim that their demise will “would cost more than keeping them on life support” (Friedman, Tom, “Start Up the Risk-Takers”, The New York Times, February 21, 2009). The same approach can be applied to the banks…sift through the wreckage, find the ones that are viable, and cut the rest of them loose (either by forcing them to merge with the healthier ones or by simply dissolving them shutting them down). As it is we are headed down our own “lost decade” as Japan did in the ’90s.

As for stemming the tide of foreclosures…it galls me to no end that I am being asked to pay to help people keep homes that they had no business buying in the first place. To that end I would recommend that the Obama administration look at the cases on an individual basis. As with the banks, those homeowners who have a chance to actually survive and pay their mortgages, the government should offer the mortgage holder an incentive to restructure the mortgage so that the homeowner can succeed. For those who haven’t got a chance…they’ll have to lose the house. As cruel as it sounds, the fact is we cannot reward bad behavior by people who had no business buying a house that they had no chance of honestly affording.

Rick Santelli of CNBC said it aptly in his rant on Thursday morning — “The government is promoting bad behavior.” Yes…yes it is. Rick is absolutely correct in his derision of the idea of giving money to people who made bad decisions and bought houses for far in excess of what they could afford. It’s a good rant and I think it’s worthwhile to view it in full

It’s a very populist message and it certainly resonates as we continue to watch our economy crumble, our net worth drop, and face the spectre of unemployment or even foreclosure ourselves. Especially when those facing these problems did nothing wrong, played by the rules, and made reasonable and pragmatic decisions.

However, if we look at the counterpoint as presented by the New York Times columnist David Brooks in his opinion piece this morning titled “Money for Idiots” the government must do something. If we let the foreclosure rate continue at it’s current pace (or go higher) and do nothing than it won’t just be those who made bad decisions and bought houses that were more than they could afford who will suffer. It will be all homeowners — foreclosures drop property values in the surrounding area dramatically as banks look to offload them as quickly as possible. In addition abandoned houses can become havens for criminals or drug users. It affects us all.

In the same way that giving money to the banks when they are the ones who played a large role in creating this mess may seem to be a “bad idea” — if the banks go down the economic hit would be much more severe. And what about the “Big Three”? Detroit has made blunder after blunder and missed many opportunities to innovate and to take the lead in the global competitive marketplace. Why should they get money? Honestly…that’s a harder one to swallow as the demise of Detroit would probably not have as devastating an impact on the economy as we may think. But the economic repercussions (at least on a regional level) would be dramatic and have farther reaching effects given how intertwined the world’s economies are.

No, we must do something to alleviate this and we need to do it in a way that will save the “Losers” and the Idiots who brought us to the edge of this abyss. We are like an economic train…if the last few cars of the train slide off the edge of the cliff, it drags the rest of the train with it. If enough cars fall down then the entire train is lost. There’s a lot of sympathy for the populist sentiment that we should just let these people lose their homes. But what will be the broader and longer term implication if that happens? It’s the same feeling with regards to the bankers and the auto industry executives. The feeling of “You have no one to blame but yourselves” is appropriate and well-deserved but by letting them slide down the hill they will drag the rest of us with them. President Obama is doing the right thing…but he must make sure that the rest of us doing get the short end of the stick or that the “Loser” and Idiots come out ahead. They need to lose as well. And it wouldn’t hurt to “tar and feather America’s 100 leading bankers” as Nicholas Kristof suggests (Kristof, Nicholas, “Escaping the Bust Bowl”, The New York Times, February 11, 2009) but I’d throw in the auto industry executives just for good measure.

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