When Curiosity touched down on Mars, joy erupted at NASA's lab in Pasadena, Calif., and national pride swelled. America the Demoralized had briefly vanished. Our research instruments were going where no research instruments had gone before. America was back at its game.
The Mars landing cost a cool $2.5 billion. No doubt, the folks at NASA wanted this voyage to drum up interest in the space program at a time when budgets everywhere are under attack. They've done a good, convincing job of it.
In olden days, the loudest calls for slashing the space program came from the left. With so many human needs being unattended to here on Earth, the argument went, we should not be spending billions on space. Fortunately, those protests went unheeded. We are now harvesting the fruit of decades in which Americans were willing to pay for space exploration, even though their tax rates were a lot higher than they are currently.
Nowadays, the demands for radical budget chopping emerge chiefly from the right, except when it comes to military spending (though a few conservatives are looking there, as well). And so we see The Wall Street Journal's Kimberley Strassel complaining that the "sequester" requiring $500 billion in the defense spending cuts will be a jobs killer. "Military jobs are on the block," she writes, "but the bulk of the pink slips will come from private businesses - from giant defense companies on down to smaller businesses that are the economic mainstays of their communities."
I've always been intrigued by the notion, popular among big-spending Republicans, that when taxpayer dollars are sent to private companies, they magically turn into free-market investments. Anyhow, let's have a Time Out.
The first duty of government is defense. There may be much disagreement as to what the defense requirements are, but few experts not running for office openly argue that defense is supposed to be a make-work program for the nation's jobless.
Now, I don't mind if, at times of high unemployment, government spends more money to help create jobs, but I'm one of them. If boosting employment is the mission, then defense spending should be competing with highway construction and bridge fixing, which are both labor-intensive and dire needs.
"Budget sequestration" is a blunt instrument. It was made necessary by the Republican opposition last year to raising the debt ceiling, without which the United States would have gone into default. The sequester will put into place automatic spending cuts in defense and non-defense programs if Congress can't get its act together, which it hasn't.
If Republicans really hated the idea of automated military spending cuts - and granted, this is no way to plan for our nation's defense - they would have shouted support for the deficit-reduction deal that House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama came close to agreeing on over a year ago. It would have eliminated roughly three dollars of spending for every dollar of new revenues. In more normal times, conservatives would have done cartwheels over that kind of compromise. But their leaders were bullied by ideologues insisting that not a penny of taxes be raised, not ever, not even from closing shameful loopholes.
At the moment, America seems to be excelling more on Mars than on Earth. Given the current budget battles, it may be futile to promote a government program that even many liberals aren't wild about - a program whose missions sometimes end in failure. But here we are, the only country actually up there on that dusty red planet, answering life-on-Mars questions humans have asked for over a century. America is literally reaching for the stars, and really, it feels good.