During today’s discussion of Angle of At…

During today’s discussion of Angle of Attack (which I finished, and like enough that I plan to keep) in my Technology in Society class was based around two of JFK’s speeches about the space program, one of which was from 25 May 1961:

First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

In the discussion, I posited that if Kennedy was really interested in “long-range exploration of space”, he shouldn’t have called for an unsustainable crash program. One of the points I made was that by using the Apollo craft and then not really following it up, we allowed most of the investment in it to be wasted in the long-term. 4 years after Apollo, you could use that spacecraft as a basis and iterate on it. 40 years down the road, you have to go back to the drawing board.

But one classmate misunderstood me and said that I was essentially saying the entire program was worthless. He made the valid point that we learned a lot about practical orbital mechanics and spaceflight. Those lessons are pretty timeless.

He then went on to say that Apollo led the charge to improvements in technology, particularly in the fields of miniaturization and computers, as well as the noble inventions of Velcro and Tang. Essentially, he was saying that American life was improved by the money sunk in to Apollo because it gave us useful technologies we wouldn’t otherwise have had.

However, I instantly thought that this seems like an extraordinarily strong case of the broken window fallacy:

A young hoodlum, say, heaves a brick through the window of a baker’s shop. The shopkeeper runs out furious, but the boy is gone. A crowd gathers, and begins to stare with quiet satisfaction at the gaping hole in the window and the shattered glass over the bread and pies. After a while the crowd feels the need for philosophic reflection. And several of its members are almost certain to remind each other or the baker that, after all, the misfortune has its bright side. It will make business for some glazier. As they begin to think of this they elaborate upon it. How much does a new plate glass window cost? Two hundred and fifty dollars? That will be quite a sum. After all, if windows were never broken, what would happen to the glass business? Then, of course, the thing is endless. The glazier will have $250 more to spend with other merchants, and these in turn will have $250 more to spend with still other merchants, and so ad infinitum. The smashed window will go on providing money and employment in ever-widening circles. The logical conclusion from all this would be, if the crowd drew it, that the little hoodlum who threw the brick, far from being a public menace, was a public benefactor.

Now let us take another look. The crowd is at least right in its first conclusion. This little act of vandalism will in the first instance mean more business for some glazier. The glazier will be no more unhappy to learn of the incident than an undertaker to learn of a death. But the shopkeeper will be out $250 that he was planning to spend for a new suit. Because he has had to replace a window, he will have to go without the suit (or some equivalent need or luxury). Instead of having a window and $250 he now has merely a window. Or, as he was planning to buy the suit that very afternoon, instead of having both a window and a suit he must be content with the window and no suit. If we think of him as a part of the community, the community has lost a new suit that might otherwise have come into being, and is just that much poorer.

Should I thank the goblin that broke my car window and stole my GPS? Obviously not.

So why would we think that a government taking taxes and giving it to a company somehow spurs innovation?

Maybe it’s an example of cum hoc ergo propter hoc: we made Apollo and we also got better computers in the following decade. Thus the two must be linked and it is only logical to say that if we never went to the moon, we wouldn’t have the computers we have today.

I guess, maybe?

Thoughts?