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3. The Apollo Moon Landings. A come-from-behind win in the space race. On time, on budget, and 40 years later still never repeated. A strong head of NASA, James Webb, and a start-up culture made this incredibly audacious effort reality.
4. 1996 Welfare Reform. Put time limits on welfare benefits and encouraged work rather than dependence. Based on a program in Wisconsin, a good example of building off the demonstrated success of our nation's laboratories of democracy—the states. Cut welfare rolls by more than 50 percent in many states.
5. Acid Rain Reduction. This emissions trading market approach to a serious environmental problem yielded a 40:1 benefit to cost ratio. After years of political gridlock, this bi-partisan effort relied on the input of economists to yield a solution both business and environmentalists could live with.
When Government Was Very Bad: Five Big Disasters
1. Hurricane Katrina. The failure of the Corps' to adequately prepare was less visible but just as disastrous as the Keystone Cops response.
2. Big Dig. Boston's Central Artery Road and Tunnel project. Billions of dollars in cost overruns. Years in time overruns. Federal dollars just weren't spent like real dollars, and the oversight from Washington was too little too late.
3. The 1970s War on Inflation. Wage and price controls? Whip Inflation Now buttons? Are you kidding? When an idea is based on mistaken beliefs about the world, failure ensues.
4. NASA's Shuttle Tragedies. The Challenger and Columbia disasters were both eminently avoidable said two presidential commissions. A culture of top-down hierarchy contributed to these high-profile disasters.
5. Democratic Reconstruction in Iraq. No plan B and a dizzying rotation of leaders: Franks, Garner, Bremer, Rumsfeld, et al. Partially remedied by the surge, the initial three years of occupation created a lasting impression of incompetence.
William D. Eggers has written six books on government reform. John O’Leary is a research fellow at the Ash Center of the Harvard Kennedy School. Their new book is If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government (Harvard Business Press).