Government should fail more

Until last week, SpaceX’s Starship launches were an opportunity for my baby daughter to sit with me and practice one of her new words: “Boom!” We watched three rockets lift off, rise to 10 kilometers, and then perform the “belly-flop” maneuver intended to bring them safely back to earth. Three times we watched them fall in an enormous, flaming “Boom!”

I know the baby won’t remember these launches, but I want to be able to tell her we shared them. The Starship vehicle is the first fully reusable rocket—it could lower the cost of going to space to the price of fuel. It’s the difference between needing a new car for every trip to the grocery store and simply refueling between trips. On May 5, we finally watched Starship stick its landing.

By the time my daughter is big enough to build her own model rockets, SpaceX’s achievement will be something she takes for granted. But I’ll keep pulling her onto my lap for launches, because there’s something else I wish she’d learn from these flights — big achievements require being willing to struggle, fail, and correct. It’s a lesson it feels like a lot of politicians have grown up without learning. But we can’t make significant progress as a nation without being willing to make mistakes and admit to them.

When Elon Musk founded SpaceX, his friends tried to dissuade him by making him watch a montage of rocket failures and explosions. He pressed on, but he wasn’t delusional about the venture; he estimated that there was a 90 percent chance the company would fail. He thought the 10 percent chance of success was worth taking.

We all benefit when we’re willing to invest in these moonshots. One winning breakthrough, whether it’s the Starship rocket, DeepMind’s protein folding analysis that could spring forward our understanding of biology, or the mRNA vaccine platform curbing COVID-19, pays dividends that far outweigh the failures. An mRNA vaccine for malaria has already shown promising test results — a potential solution to a disease that kills more than 400,000 people globally per year.

Musk’s riches allow him to comfortably risk his money. But these more adventurous investments should be made by the government, too. I want to see more failures of government policy, as we experiment with more ambitious programs. There should be more iteration and revision of legislation, as politicians listen to citizens and rework their theory to take account of lived experience and the last-mile implementation of policy.

Unfortunately, our political institutions are sclerotic and fearful. While SpaceX attempts to learn from every launch, politicians rarely point to a failed or flawed policy as an opportunity to learn and improve. Even at the state level, the supposed laboratories of democracy, there are few governors attempting policy that is truly experimental — which they admit at the outset may not work and they are willing to roll back if it fails.

Instead, any acknowledgement of imperfection is an attack ad waiting to happen.

In lieu of repealing Obamacare or offering an alternate policy proposal, the GOP blocked small technical fixes to the legislation. Congressional Republicans tried to hold Obama to all the errors or lapses of the first draft, so that the fixable problems could become a way to build resistance to the whole package. It would have been better if the original legislation had been stronger, but many laws need updates and fixes.

Similar reluctance to refine legislation led to the fall of the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance provisions, unleashing a new wave of voting restrictions. Preclearance requires certain states or counties with a history of discriminatory practice to have changes to their voting laws reviewed by the federal government before they can go into effect. Only some of the country is covered by this requirement, and the criteria for inclusion was last updated in 1972. In Shelby County v. Holder‘s 5-4 decision, Supreme Court conservatives struck down the formula for requiring preclearance, arguing that states were subject to additional scrutiny, “based on 40-year-old facts having no logical relationship to the present day.” The majority opinion left preclearance technically in place, but toothless — no jurisdictions qualified without new criteria. As a result, the Voting Rights Act wasn’t repealed so much as allowed to slide into obsolescence for lack of repairs.

It’s nearly impossible for politicians today to take chances and revise as they learn. Partisan obstruction forces meaningful laws to be passed in unwieldy omnibuses, often with contrived budgeting to take advantage of the reconciliation path around Senate filibusters. Instead of seeing policies launched, tested, and repealed, politicians work to pass laws without legislating, delegating to rule-making bodies and regulatory agencies that don’t face the same bottlenecks or scrutiny as Congress. Meanwhile, any misstep or edge case for policy is sure to dominate partisan news coverage — problems are “newsy” while things running smoothly are not. Politicians who watched media breathlessly cover the rare cases of vaccinated people getting COVID know their own setbacks will be covered mercilessly.

The price of success is failure. Even when I favor a policy or party, I don’t expect them to get things right 100 percent of the time. I want to see obstructionist disarmament, so that citizens get to experience the policies they voted for and judge politicians accordingly. I want to see politicians point to both their successes and their failures and be able to learn from both. I’d rather see 10 plausible ideas tried and nine discarded than endless gridlock and excuses.

Implementing policy isn’t as thrilling as watching a rocket launch, but both are moments of uncertain promise. Our politics will be healthier if we admit the risk alongside the benefit.


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