BY BOB BARR, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR — 03/07/18 04:00 PM EST
Generations of American inventors and entrepreneurs have touted the value of competition. Walt Disney — the pioneering creator of Disneyland and shrewd businessman — once remarked, “I have been up against tough competition all my life [and] wouldn’t know how to get along without it.”
Today, there are those who push themselves to the head of the class and claim they should be the sole provider of a service simply because they performed a successful assignment and are more adept at claiming government support. Enter Elon Musk and SpaceX — and the game of crony capitalism.
Broadly speaking, the advent of modern crony capitalism can be traced directly to the 20th century explosion of federal government involvement in virtually every economic activity in which society is engaged, and using taxpayer dollars to mold the marketplace to its agenda. This has produced a class of business people adept at manipulating government, and reducing competition in favor of projects in which they are involved, thereby reaping substantial pecuniary gains.
Musk clearly is an extremely savvy technology expert and businessman. And he is among the most successful at convincing government officials and agencies to “invest” in products he builds and markets (or tries to market). While the most visible of Musk’s ventures are his solar-powered products — including the Tesla automobile — for several years he has been actively developing rocket boosters with which to deliver payloads into earth orbit.
Just last month, Musk’s SpaceX venture captured front-page coverage around the world with the successful launch of his “Falcon 9 Heavy” rocket booster. The attention he secured through the rocket launch was magnified by a subsequent video feed, depicting his red Tesla roadster cruising through space after being released from the rocket’s delivery bay.
Musk has used the success of his Falcon Heavy liftoff to accelerate the positioning of SpaceX, as the only private sector company in which the U.S. government should partner in developing the next generation of heavy lift rockets. Despite Musk’s repetitive lip service to “competition” as the foundation for his innovative endeavors involving electric cars and rocketry, his ability to move both projects forward has relied heavily on securing government grants to launch and keep such programs alive. The Falcon Heavy launch, for example, was preceded in just the last two years by earlier Falcon booster failures that cost taxpayers some $200 million.
Musk counts among his many supporters former Speaker Newt Gingrich, who marveled at the Falcon Heavy launch as the spark to move the world into a new era of space exploration. Gingrich focused on the pictures of Musk’s red Tesla being “driven” through the cosmos by a space-suited mannequin, as an inspiration for “every young person in America” to switch from other endeavors to math, science, and space exploration.
Although I agree with Gingrich that the “Starman” photos are cool, they hardly will provide the impetus for a major shift in educational foci and career paths for a new generation of young people. It will take far more than that. It will also take far more than one successful rocket launch to rekindle America’s leadership in rocketry that we deliberately surrendered after the phenomenal success of the Apollo moon program in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Regaining leadership in this technology-driven field will take continued success, vast resources and perseverance. Most important, it will take competition. And competitors to Musk there are — including Jeff Bezos’ “Blue Origin” and the United Launch Alliance conglomerate. The effort will prove more costly and lengthy if the mistake is made to put all our eggs in one basket — no matter how cool the pictures or how convincing the messenger.
If America is to regain its leadership in space science, exploration and manufacturing, it will be because we have not closed the door to competition or because we have been taken in by the legerdemain of a master manipulator.
Bob Barr is a former Republican congressman from Georgia, serving from 1995 to 2003.