STAFF NEWS & ANALYSIS
NASA to Toyota's Rescue
By Staff News & Analysis - March 31, 2010

US car safety regulators are turning to NASA scientists for help in analysing Toyota's electronic throttles to see if they are behind unintended acceleration, said Ray LaHood (left), the US Transportation Secretary, on Tuesday. In addition to the work by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Mr. LaHood said experts from the National Academy of Sciences would lead a separate study of unintended acceleration across the motor industry. "We are determined to get to the bottom of unintended acceleration," he said in an interview with Reuters. The Transportation Department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is just beginning its review of Toyota electronic throttles, which have come under heightened scrutiny following the recall of more than 8.5m Toyota and Lexus vehicles globally over the past six months. Both US safety regulators and Toyota have faced scrutiny about whether either did enough to investigate driver complaints of possible electronic throttle problems and other safety issues in recent years. The NHTSA review is to be completed by late summer after which the agency would determine whether a formal investigation of Toyota throttles is warranted. Nine NASA scientists would bring expertise in electronics, eletromagnetic interference, software integrity and complex problem solving to the Toyota review, Transportation Department officials said. "We've used them before. We've heard that they may have some influence," Mr. LaHood said of his decision to ask NASA to help. – Reuters

Dominant Social Theme: Getting the best from government.

Free-Market Analysis: NASA will conduct a probe of Toyota. Yet this is an organization that couldn't figure out if an O-Ring was freezing until Richard P. Feynman, a member of the presidential commission investigating the 1986 Challenger space-shuttle crash, proved it on national TV.

In fact, the use of NASA by US car safety regulators reinforces a dominant social theme – an untrue promotion in our opinion – that government resources are both efficient and efficacious. The perception of government as competent is extraordinarily important for government stakeholders and the power elite that stands behind them.

Certainly, there are plenty who would say that government is, ultimately, competent – and even able to correct for free-market failure. And this is actually the nub of the argument. The establishment of government as a force that can act a corrective to the marketplace provides an overall justification for the existence of government – especially a US$3 trillion government – at a time when the Internet and its alternative media have put government on the defensive regarding both its activities and resources.

Is NASA a truly competent entity? We decided to go to the source – NASA employees – and we found some employment comments on a website (Jobvent) dedicated to evaluating workplaces and companies. Here's a selection:

From Ames Research Center, Mountain View CA. — 10/11/2009 … Working at the Center with the lowest moral in NASA. This is brought on by one thing. The incompetence of Center Management. The Center Director for some unknown reason believes that the cure to all moral problems at Ames is ALCOHOL. The most significant change to this facility since this director arrived is that before his arrival the only place to purchase Alcohol on site was at the golf course. NOW we can purchase alcohol in the cafeteria as well as our new coffee shop. … The only organizations that receive any support from center management are those whose management is actually in the GOOD OLD BOYS club with the director or can take the time to go play golf with the director and drink with him.

From Huntsville, AL — 09/05/2007 … Incredible bureaucracy made worse by incompetent civil servant managers. There are a few very well-regarded technically oriented employees, but on the whole this is an organization of paper shufflers. Getting anything done is a major challenge due to the red tape. You have basically zero chance of moving up the ladder, it depends only on who you know and pure luck. … In short, the system hasn't changed since the 1960s, so don't expect to make much of a difference here.

From Pasadena, CA — 05/14/2007 … The most clique-centric, backstabbing lot EVER. Inter-office politics and personal popularity trumps competence and valid input every time … Having nearly 20 years of accomplishments and experience in my field gets me no respect at all. … Don't expect recognition for your efforts while they can still kick you around. Pay is good, but not worth the middle-school clique mentality, rampant stupidity and incessant backstabbing. Just not worth the BS at all. … And to think that I actually wanted to work there once…

From Houston, TX — 02/28/2007 … The NASA paradigm hasn't shifted … If you speak up and voice an opinion, you get dismissed by supervisors who in reality, should listen and then attempt to resolve the issue. … If you're smart, a hard worker, and believe in working to improve your agency/workplace/environment, etc. this is not the place to be.

No … government agencies are not extraordinarily competent – as a rule – from our point of view. The myth that they are persists because government itself has a tremendous stake in being perceived as efficient. Generally speaking, government cannot do things as well as the private sector because there is no competition to make government services the best they can be. Since there is no commercial penalty for failure, and because additional monies are always forthcoming, government services (the ones that are supposed to "help" consumers, anyway) soon stray into irrelevance. NASA is no different. The free-market thinking Mises Institute summarizes it pretty well as follows:

When discussing NASA and its impact upon our society, one must deal with myths that have been spawned by the agency and its supporters over the last four decades, the first being that NASA, supposedly driven by technology, has created new technologies that have been easily transferred to civilian use. Thus, the argument goes, had not NASA existed, we most likely would not have had the modern computer system, microchips, transistors, and the like, or at least their development would have lagged far behind where they are today.

The reality of modern space travel – in our case, the shuttles – is quite different. As Gregg Easterbrook noted in his recent commentary in Time, the shuttle vehicles, more than 20 years old and operating off of a 30-year-old design, are technologically inferior to nearly any computer driven consumer product, including children's video games. We have no evidence that the space program has created on its own any of the new technologies that make our material lives better; instead, the program has utilized existing technologies.

The technological inferiority of NASA manned space gear is not unlike the situation that faces Federal Aviation Administration air traffic controllers every day, who must rely on obsolete equipment in order to safely guide passenger airliners through takeoff and landing. While Americans have been trained to think for decades that government is ahead of the technology curve, the nature of state operations guarantees that government sectors that depend upon high technologies are always going to lag behind private sector operations. – The Trouble With NASA William L. Anderson, April 2003, Volume 21, Number 4, The Free Market

According to the excerpted article, above, "Nine NASA scientists would bring expertise in electronics, electromagnetic interference, software integrity and complex problem solving to the Toyota review, Transportation Department officials said." To us this was an unfortunate – inapt – number as it reminded us of famous fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien's nine Nazgûl Ring-wraiths. "The Nazgûl were once Great Kings of Men, until Sauron gave them nine Rings of Power. These proved to be their undoing," according to a Wiki on the subject. The Lord of the Rings comparison is appropriate in one way however, as government service these days – especially in the West – is a bit like acquiring a ring of power entitling you to hefty paycheck and a broad-based retirement package.

NOTED: New "Immigration Reform" National ID Scheme … This is getting to be like a bad movie. You know the ones where the villain, dead and buried more times than you can count, somehow mysteriously reappears in a place you don't expect him? Well, here comes … a new fight over a biometric national ID card – and if you don't have the card, you can't work. Right now, freedom-stealing statists Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), banding together with other statists from both parties, are scheming to sneak a massive power grab into a new "immigration reform" bill. This bill is a statist's dream — "amnesty" for illegal immigrants and a biometric ID card for virtually everyone else. That's right. Instead of controlling the border and enforcing the rule of law, these statists want to control you … A National ID scheme – complete with biometric tracking technology – is embedded in the new "Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill" being pushed by Senators Graham and Schumer, as well as other Big Government members from both parties. – Campaign for Liberty e-mail. (Ed. Note: For more on immigration reform, see Monday's Bell, Obama Sets Sights on Merging Mexico and US?)

After Thoughts

Ultimately, working for government is initially an employment function, not a moral dilemma. There are, however, qualitative differences. Inevitably, those who stay in government for a long time are likely not being exposed to the cutting-edge challenges of whatever field they've specialized in. What should be even more obvious to anyone aware of free-market economics is that government's main task is not to provide resources or intellectual firepower. Ultimately, government is a methodology of control. The meme that government has at its disposal extraordinary intellectual firepower is probably just that – a promotion.

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