Thursday, September 23, 2010

Government Is Like The Marines: Concorde Edition

FLG routinely argues that government is like the Marines. You want something done relatively quickly, with little concern for efficiency, an it's largely a question of applying sufficient resources rather than inventing new technology, then government is your answer. Things that come to mind are disaster relief and, of course as my simile implies, defense.

The moon shot is also an interesting case. Yes, new technologies were developed, but generally speaking people, particularly German scientists, knew how to get to the moon. You build a big rocket. We already knew how to build a rocket. So, generally speaking, it was a matter of applying sufficient resources to get it all done. And we did it. National pride, got some rocks, etc, etc. Pretty soon though, we realized we basically accomplished what we wanted to accomplish. We realized it was too expensive and too risky to justify continuing, but we still wanted to go to space and people relied on the program for jobs. And so we had plans for a shuttle.

But before FLG gets to the shuttle, he'd like to talk about Concorde. He was just watching a special on its development while on the treadmill. Much like the moon shot, the idea of a supersonic passenger jet wasn't so much new technology, we already had supersonic fighter jets, but a matter of scale. A question of applying sufficient resources to the problem. And so, the governments of Britain and France stepped up. It was supposed to cost $200 million, but ended up costing $2 billion to develop, but they got it created. And like the moon shot, it was a point of national pride and also a jobs program. Problem was, the program didn't make economic sense. Boeing designed a competitor, but realized the numbers didn't add up. They'd sunk a bunch of money into it, but knew to cut the losses and ended up making the 747, a much more economically successful airplane.

This isn't to say that the aircraft wasn't ahead of its time. It was. And, like the moon shot, this application of resources, even if it was inefficient, did break new ground. The problem was, unlike the moon shot, the goal of Concorde was to become an ongoing business concern. It wasn't a program with a fixed goal and a relatively short time horizon. National pride and jobs got tied up, and the two governments wasted a ton of money keeping the damn program going.

This brings me to the space shuttle. It's more akin to the Concorde than the moon shot. It was intended to provide on-going space service over a long period of time. There was no fixed goal to accomplish. It never really generated the cost savings that were expected. (The accidents, while tragic, are part of the inherent danger of space travel, and not something I'd blame on the shuttle program itself.) But jobs and national pride were involved, and so the program continued.

FLG is little Johnny Space Geek and even attended Space Camp - Twice. So, he's actually sympathetic to the entire space program. However, he just wanted to illustrate his point about the government being like the Marines. Give them a difficult, but clear and achievable goal that requires lots of resources and they can do it. Task them with providing an economically viable product or service over the long run, don't expect too much.


Withywindle said...

Also keeping in mind that you can develop something hoping the market will develop by the time you finish the project; if you do, you're a business visionary. Let me give you a counter-example of government investment that worked: LaGuardia Airport. It wasn't necessarily crazy for the Brits and French to think there would be a market when the Concorde came on line.

FLG said...

Ah, but Boeing knew.

The Ancient said...

I thought Boeing killed the SST because the Feds pulled the plug -- in some measure due to environmental protests.

As for the Concorde, I remember getting a postcard from an extremely high U.S. transportation official right after his first flight. He thought it awful -- cramped, noisy, etc. (He forgot to mention the French.) I thought, Hell, if I just forwarded this to the Times, we could save a lot of time and money.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.