The Wrong Stuff

Ever wonder why empires don't last forever? After all, by definition an empire holds all the cards. They dominate trade, education, science, literature, quality of life and so on. So, why do they all inevitably whither? Because, nothing fails quite like success.

Here are two examples from the world's current Imperial office holder -- the U.S. of A.

It's a bird. It's a plane. No, it's a turkey.

And there it was yesterday, all dressed and no place to go. America's only manned space vehicle, the space shuttle, steaming off liquid oxygen like a giant upright turd in the Florida sun.

The space shuttle is the actualization of the old joke, "An elephant is a mouse designed by a committee."

The reason I choose the space shuttle as proof the US is on the down-slope of the empire bell curve is because, of all the ways we could have explored space, we chose to invest all our marbles in bolting an 18-wheeler to rockets.

Sending a Mack truck into orbit required some very complicated and expensive engineering contortions. Satellites sent up on the shuttle cost $25 million a ton. Compare that with the cost of sending the same payload up on simpler Russian or Chinese rockets, $3-6 million a ton.

It costs upwards of $10,000 per pound to launch anything, including the crew, into orbit on the shuttle, a cost that is more than triple that charged by the workhorse expendable launch vehicles of NASA's heyday, the Apollo era.

What happened to NASA's own "right stuff"?

"Once we won the Space Race in 1969, NASA morphed from a can-do, risk-taking, think out-of-the-box organization, to Just Another Tax-Fed Federal Bureaucracy, that, instead of playing to "win", was instead playing "not to lose." (Thomas Andrew Olson, Libertarian Institute)
The space shuttle is a mind-bogglingly expensive example of this process. It's too damn big, too damn expensive, too damn dangerous and too damn unreliable. It was designed 40 years ago. If it were a car it would be spending its days being lovingly polished in the garage by some old geezer trying to recapture his youth. Instead, the folks now running NASA decided to put a garage in orbit, call it a space station, and send the shuttle there to polish their own image.

There are a lot of cheaper ways to put people in space. The Russians, who can barely run their own country, do it regularly. Thanks to the Russians' simple and reliable Soyuz capsules we didn't end up with three skeletons floating around the space station after the shuttle crash two years ago.

With any luck a bolt of lightening will reduce the next shuttle to a pile of tile on its way to the launch pad. That would leave just two shuttles. We could put one in the Smithsonian and sell the other to Disney World.

Then turn NASA over to Bert Rutan and Richard Branson. They seem to be the current possessors of the right stuff. Imagine what they could do with just a fraction of NASA's $16 billion annual budget. We'd be orbiting Earth sipping diet cola and munching peanuts in cramped coach seating within five years. (But please remember to return your seat backs to the full upright position for re-entry. Items in overhead compartments may have shifted in weightless conditions.)

Bad Medicine

What good is an empire if it can't provide affordable medical care for its own citizens? Good question, and one that confronts Americans now.

President Bush and Big Medicine would have you believe that the skyrocketing cost of medical care is the fault of lawyers who sue. But a study released yesterday disputes that, noting that malpractice suits have a miniscule impact on medical costs.
SAN FRANCISCO (MarketWatch) -- Americans pay more for health care per person than citizens anywhere else in the world, doling out half again as much in medical expenses each year as the second-highest-cost country, according to a new study.
According to Dr. Gerard Anderson, lead author of a report just issued by John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, "We pay for drugs and hospital stays and doctor visits 2 to 2.5 times as much as other countries pay."

And why, you ask? Malpractice suits? Nope. According to the study, lawsuits add less than 1% to health care overhead. Another 8% in increases come from so-called "defensive" medicine -- doing lots of unnecessary tests to avoid being sued.

The remaining 91% of increases are price, not cost increases. Americans are being financially disemboweled by the pharmaceutical/health care industries. The average American paid $5,267 on health care in 2002, compared with an average $1,821 in other industrialized nations.

The Bush administration and GOP-controlled Congress have actually sanctified such price gouging. They insisted that the new Medicare drug benefit program contain a explicit prohibition against allowing Medicare to negotiate prices with drug makers. (So much for their oft-stated mantra that we should "let the magic of the marketplace" control prices.)

I thought the "fun" part of being an empirical power was exploiting the citizens of other countries. When an imperial power joins forces with multi-national companies to exploit its own citizens it causes those subjects to begin wondering if it's not time for some changes at home.

After all, time is getting short -- for me. I'm a Baby Boomer. I'm not getting any younger, or for that matter, any healthier. Oh, and, BTW, there are lots of us, and we are decidedly not your father's old codgers. We are not sitting in rocking chairs, sharing photos of our grandkids, going to square-dance classes and just hoping AARP is keeping a close eye on our Social Security benefits.

We are the hands-on generation, a generation of aging, former hippie, draft card-burning, anti-war protestors. We are already not a bit happy about getting old and we're not about to go quietly.

We have not forgotten how to make the evening news when we have a bone up our collective ass about something. If you thought we were a cranky bunch when we were young and healthy just wait until we are unhappy with federal policies AND suffering from hemorrhoids, arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome.

So my advice to Washington is to get on with creating a single-payer national health insurance system. You have less than 10 years. And that's assuming I don't get sick before then.

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