State of the Union

President Obama's Moonshot Presidency

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In President Obama's final State of the Union, he promised that Joe Biden would cure cancer.

No really. That was the president's Big Bold Idea: a new national effort that he framed as a "new moonshot"—with Vice President Biden "in charge of mission control"—the goal of which will be to cure cancer "once and for all." (Granted, Biden probably wouldn't be the one in the lab coat testing cures, but he'd be directing the program and its resources.)

It's a dubious idea—and its indicative of both the problems with Obama's final State of the Union and the larger failures of his presidency.

Curing cancer would be wonderful indeed, but in few ways is it comparable to America's first trip to the moon. Getting to the moon was a massive undertaking, but it was a fundamentally understandable engineering problem: how to get out of earth's gravity well, get into orbit around the moon, put down a lunar lander with a couple of people in it, and then make a return trip with the crew unharmed. It was hard, and required massive human and financial resources, as well as considerable experimentation and innovation, and yet basically straightforward in terms of the challenge it presented.

A similar challenge today would be making a manned trip to Mars. It would be very expensive and time intensive for any government to accomplish, would require a fair amount of engineering experimentation and innovation, and would be somewhat risky for the astronauts making the trip. But we have a pretty good sense of what would be involved, and we can be reasonably certain that we could make it happen given some time and resources.

Curing cancer would be…different. For one thing, cancer isn't monolithic. There are hundreds of types of cancer, and those different cancers affect each individual in different ways. For another thing, we don't even know what the end product would look like, what sort of biological process or technology it might involve. It's as if we're trying to get to the moon, but there are dozens of moons, and we don't know where they are, or what a rocket is.

This is the problem with "moonshot" proposals: Very few things are like going to the moon (except perhaps going to other relatively close places within the solar system), and the methods and lessons of the moon program aren't terribly applicable to other sorts of scientific challenges.

What that means is that means that moonshot proposals almost always turn out to be empty declarations that if we just believe and try and devote ourselves with enough intensity and passion, we can make something happen.

That's a nice thought, but it's more of a hope than a plan. In many ways, though, that's the gist of a lot of what Obama said in his State of the Union address last night—that if only we believe and dedicate ourselves to a cause, we can make it happen.

That sort of determined hopefulness can be comforting, but Obama's own presidency is a study in its limits. It is telling that Obama's final State of the Union returned to many of the themes that defined his first presidential run, in particular the polarization of America's politics, and lamented that the old problems remain—or, in some ways, have grown worse. Fixing America's politics was a kind of moonshot idea, and after seven years, it's clear that Obama has failed. The real problem is that there's no obvious way to fix it, no clear idea of what a fix might look like. But a recognition that some problem is intractable or unsolvable doesn't make for a very stirring State of the Union speech, and so we get visions of moonshots instead. 

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87 responses to “President Obama's Moonshot Presidency

  1. Obama could have cured cancer, if not for those obstructionists.

    1. Obama could have cured cancer, if not for those obstructionistsmeddling kids.

    2. One thong at a time,-
      First, we defeat the Emperor Of All Maladies; then we go to Mars and bump off Ming The Merciless

  2. Ugh, utterly shameless appealing to the masses. Can someone sic a regulator on these people please? Gawd!

    1. Oh, there’ll be regulators all right.

  3. Curing cancer would be?different. For one thing, cancer isn’t monolithic. There are hundreds of types of cancer, and those different cancers affect each individual in different ways. For another thing, we don’t even know what the end product would look like, what sort of biological process or technology it might involve. It’s as if we’re trying to get to the moon, but there are dozens of moons, and we don’t know where they are, or what a rocket is.

    It’s the labor theory of value applied to government: if we just try hard enough we’ll get a proportionate amount of success.

    1. We’ll get it done, and just so we maximize employment during the effort, we’ll use nothing but shovels and bare hands.

      1. Shovels?

        Sorry but that simply isn’t enough employment maximizing.

        Teaspoons will be required.

    2. They want their version of the Kennedy administration, and all that Camelot shit.

  4. No, this effort could easily meet its objective.

    Oh, I don’t mean curing cancer. That’s not the objective. The objective is finding yet another way to grow the State. I’m sure it will succeed handsomely. There will probably be some peripheral benefits too: maybe they can come to a scientific consensus that owning an SUV and a gun causes cancer.

  5. [CDC Headquarters]

    “OK, ladies and gentlemen, the word just came down from Biden himself – we have to cure cancer. So let’s get to it! I expect a cure on my desk next Monday.”

    1. Physicist meets with one of his colleagues to describe his plan to gather information from inside the Event Horizon of a black hole. “I have this kitten”, he says, “tied to a rope. I’ll lower the kitten into the hole with a camera and then the kitten will record what’s happening inside.”

      “You idiot”, replies his colleague. “A kitten can’t operate a camera.”

      “But I also have this *whip*!”

      1. Nerd humor is so perverted.

    2. I recall an old cartoon: a bunch of guys in lab coats are standing around a nut and bolt, with their boss saying “OK, men, let’s research the hell out of it!”

  6. . . . the methods and lessons of the moon program aren’t terribly applicable to other sorts of scientific challenges.

    Well, one lesson is *very* applicable to other sorts of scientific challenges. That lesson is there’s a hyooooog difference between *scientific* and *engineering* challenges. The moonshot was the latter, not the former – as you pointed out just one paragraph earlier.

    With engineering challenges, if its possible for us to do it *right now* (IOW no new tech needs to be *researched*) then throwing enough money at the thing will get it done and usually pretty close to on schedule.

    1. There is, of course, another difference — the engineering needed for landing a man on the moon just happened to derive from, and develop parallel with, the engineering needed for landing really nasty explosive devices on other countries. These parallel programs reinforced one another, although the government was (and still is) very careful not to mention that.

      So unless Biden is also heading a secret biological warfare project that involves inflicting cancer on our enemies, the moonshot analogy is doubly false.

      1. They don’t need to do that Dos, they already have the cancer ray that they used on Chavez.

  7. Curing cancer would be?different.

    For starters, it requires a Cancer Czar.

    1. A *Tsarina,* you sexist lout. A Tsarina of color.

  8. Hmm ?. What if one of those Syrian refugees knows how to cure cancer?

    1. Better chance with the Israelis who’ve started testing an interesting treatment that has been able to kill tumors within 48 hours of a single application.

      1. Do you mean “tumors”?

        *** wink wink nudge nudge ***

    2. It seems like convincing the cancer cells to blow themselves up and take out the cancer cells around them would be helpful, and that part of the world does have unique expertise in that regard.

  9. The real problem is that there’s no obvious way to fix it, no clear idea of what a fix might look like.

    Or that there might not actually be a problem.

    The ‘problems’ of government are not fixed not because there’s no fix but because the people tasked with fixing them have no incentive to actually fix them.

    It would do Obama no good whatsoever for Congress to get off its arse and ‘do its job’. That would only reduce the power of his office. It does Congress no good because that would put them in the position of having to take responsibility for the schemes they put into motion.

    There’s not even enough of a problem for the average person – because to fix those problems would mean they would have to pay attention to what the government actually does (rather than forwarding Facebook memes based on what the government *says* it does), in addition to learning basic economics and math and boring shit like that.

    Kardashian’s are on!

  10. You underestimate Obama. Look at the health exchanges. The exchange designers were told, “failure is not an option”, and … oh wait.

    1. When actually building things, failure is the default.

  11. Joe Biden couldn’t even cure camel toe, let alone a few hundred cancers.

    1. Bah. Joe knows the cure to camel toe is to just get in there and dig around a little.

    2. Jesus fucking Buddha in his pudgy penis hole with a Pepsi-cola straw! Curing camel toe is anti-science!

    3. I’d sooner trust Dr. Jan Itor.

      1. 😎

        “It’s pronounced ‘Eye-Tor’.”

  12. The malevolent cell-striking tool of cancer is simply too great a distraction when your goddamn political operations are obsessed with removing hardscrabble cash from the pockets of the weary in order to blatantly socialize them whilst building armies of motherfucking collateral-damage drones.

    POTUS prattle doesn’t heal cancer- but it certainly magically confiscates a large FUCKING portion of my income every goddamn year even as the motherfucking place he runs produces practically NOTHING in return for his theft.

  13. Have to say there are 20 trillion incentives for the govt to have workers live longer.

    1. Wouldn’t they want them dead at 67?

  14. “(Granted, Biden probably wouldn’t be the one in the lab coat testing cures, but he’d be directing the program and its resources.)”

    Biden: YOU! Cancer research harder!

  15. Sounds like this was the Curry SOTU as Obama is going for the three point jumper with his plans. Either he gets net or he gets rim.

    So far it’s been some rim job, huh?

    1. Point noted but the fucking problem is rim jobs are delightful, albeit occasionally messy, affairs usually engaged in by plucky hedonists interacting with a spunky starfish attached to glee with his/her eyeballs rolled backwards.

      Practically goddamn NOTHING about our government and its invasive tentacles are fucking delightful like the delicate fluttering of a pretty tongue around the squiggly lines of our pooper.

  16. You know who else did a moonshot?

    1. According to the stories, every teenager in the 70s.

  17. “(Granted, Biden probably wouldn’t be the one in the lab coat testing cures, but he’d be directing the program and its resources.)”

    I assumed he’d be the guinea pig. What else is he good for?

  18. Y’know, I work for a company that actually performs/manages clinical trials for cancer treatments. I don’t think that Ol’ Joe has the education, experience, or aptitude to get in the front door for an interview.

    If he wants to try, I recommend he start by reading 21 CFR Parts 50, 54, 56, and 312. Then hop over to ICH 6 for the globally harmonized version of the regs. That might be enough to get him taken on as an unpaid intern in the marketing department. He wont be curing cancer, but he will be doing something he may be actually qualified for.

    1. With all due respect dear, hasn’t saving cancer been marketed to the tunes of untold millions already? Another face another advert. It’s all the goddamn same whether free, paid, or prattled by shitty egoists.

      At the end of a long day the threat of something far fucking worse than any form of terrorism has to be stopped in its mutating tracks. And no fucking amount of face puke from the government will make me feel the slightest percent more optimistic about cancer being eradicated as these smarmy nematodes officiously blow billions out of their shitters into the endless appetites of parasitic bureaucracies.

  19. He’s the Emperor of All Maladies!

    1. Don’t insult Grandfather Nurgle by comparing Obama to him.

  20. The obsession with “moon shots” or big, high profile programs is an example of magical thinking. There is a Japanese saying that it is easier to draw a demon that it is to draw a dog. The reason is that demons are imaginary and the artist has no worries about conforming to reality. Dogs in contrast are real and to draw one the artist must understand and accurately portray reality as it actually is.

    Things like “the moon shot to cure cancer” is an example of politicians choosing to draw an imaginary demon rather than a real dog. Creating a moon shot for cancer is easy. You just throw money at the problem and make it however you imagine it to be. It doesn’t have to conform to reality to be done. It just has to conform to reality to be successful, but that won’t happen until later.

    1. I see no mention in the article and don’t recall hearing anywhere else where all this money is coming from. Isnt this a job for Congress? Wouldn’t this require some political benefit for Congress and the Emperor? The only benefit I see now is the momentary distraction it causes.

      I will be surprised if this doesnt evaporate in a month.

      1. It’ll evaporate by tomorrow. Remember Bush’s talk about landing people on Mars? That hung around (in the news and nowhere else) for a few days and that was that.

    2. That’s actually a cool fucking saying. I nominate it for cultural appropriation.

  21. Cure For Cancer, Moonshot – both big government programs that suck up tons of dollars and produce results of dubious value to science but massive value to government. The point of going to the moon wasn’t for scientific research, it was to prove to those nasty Rooskies that America was superior to Communism. And to prove to any Americans who might have any doubts on the matter after seeing what those poor backward pig-ignorant Rooskies handicapped by that god-awful system of Communism were managing to accomplish that was better than anything we were managing to accomplish.

    So what is the real aim of this new Biden-led Race For The Cure? Seems like if you really wanted a cure you wouldn’t put a government bureaucrat in charge, you’d put somebody with a proven track record of Getting Things Done in charge. Somebody like Bill Belichik. He could come up with a good game plan for attacking the problem and would, I’m sure, shortly declare victory over cancer. (And when it turns out his team cheated on the test results he’ll at least come up with a plausible lie explaining the cheating.) Seems to me this is just PR for Big Government, rallying the team around a Big Idea to prove government is still capable of rallying the team around a Big Idea. “Yes We Can! Yes We Can! Yes We Can! U S A! U S A! U S A!” What the hell we’re cheering for doesn’t matter, as long as we’re all together in one big crowd cheering enthusiastically for the same team. And Obama’s the head cheerleader.

    1. You think if this initiative actually pans out and develops some serious anti-cancer results the take-away is going to be that we can beat cancer? No, the take-away is going to be that government can beat cancer, that government programs can accomplish what the free market cannot. Few people are going to look closer at it and notice the primary difference between government and free market is that government has guns and the free market is free, and they’re not going to pay any attention to those of us who are attempting to draw attention to that fact. This cancer initiative is simply a way to prove that socialism and central planning works better than capitalism and the free market. So shut the hell up and do as you’re told by those who know better than you what’s for your own good.

      1. Slavery gets shit done.

  22. maybe they can get that ponytail guy who wears the labcoat at Obamacare press conferences to do it.

    1. or joe from lowell

  23. Libertarians are a funny lot. Bailey makes post after post that there is no limit to human capability, particularly when we utilize our imagination and couple it with technology. In fact, that was the basis of the President’s speech. He said it directly in regard to climate change, and alluded to it on cancer. But because it was Obama, libertarians like Peter are here to say there are nothing but limitations to what humans can do.

    Obama said it best last night on climate change… You can believe science is wrong, you can believe it’s a conspiracy, you can believe there is nothing we can do about it (that surely is directed at libertarians). No one is listening to you anymore, and the effort is toward solutions.

    After all, it’s the end of doom, isn’t it?

    1. Or you can offer solutions that are nothing but a ticket to poverty. Progressivism really is a cult.

    2. Fantastic levels of faith are required when effort consistently outperforms solutions.

    3. Stalin managed to kill 50 million communists under communism – how any communists did Ronnie Raygun manage to kill with his free market shit? Boom, you just got pwnd, bitches.

      There really are no limits to what a good government program can do.

    4. It’s almost like libertarians distinguish between private cooperation and coercive bureaucracies. So funny.

    5. But because it was Obama, libertarians like Peter are here to say there are nothing but limitations to what humans can do.

      Cheese it, guys, they’re on to us. Grab your sheets and get the hell out of here. We knew we couldn’t fool them forever with the fake history we manufactured attempting to pretend the Libertarian Party was formed some time prior to 2009 and that it isn’t just a front for the KKK.

      1. Perhaps Peter is merely pointing out that, regardless of the limits (or lack thereof) on human capability, there are very definite limits on government capability.

    6. “No one is listening to you anymore”

      Yes, because no one fucking cares about abstract shit like that the global economy is melting down and we keep trundling toward WW3.

  24. So is he going to reform the FDA? The costs for the trial/approval process are off the charts and need to be reigned in. No, I think he means throwing shitloads of money at it, creating a glut of biotech PhDs that can’t find jobs because there aren’t enough pharma R&D jobs because of the fucking FDA process.

    1. There are a lot of Pharma R&D jobs. We’ve been interviewing for months to tryand replace one who left last fall. The problem is a lack of qualified candidates.

      FDA process actually creates more jobs, although those are dedicated to making sure we follow the FDA process….

      1. Please contact me, robgood@bestweb.net . I’m an unemployed biochem Ph.D.

  25. ” The highest expression of human dignity and human nature is to try to overcome the limitations imposed on us by our genes, our evolution, and our environment. Future generations will look back at the beginning of the 21st century with astonishment that some very well meaning and intelligent people actually wanted to stop biomedical research just to protect their cramped and limited vision of human nature. They will look back, I predict, and thank us for making their world of longer, healthier lives possible.”

    -Ronald Bailey

    “What that means is that means that moonshot proposals almost always turn out to be empty declarations that if we just believe and try and devote ourselves with enough intensity and passion, we can make something happen.

    That’s a nice thought, but it’s more of a hope than a plan.”

    -Peter Suderman.

    I think the two of them need to talk and hash this out.

    1. “I think the two of them need to talk and hash this out.”

      Why should all writers for a specific rag pen shit in idealistic conformity like dummy ideological sycophants?

      This place isn’t the fucking NYT or Breitbart.

      Take your pick, Ace. This the surreal beauty of open society.

      1. AG-

        Ace has already picked. But you knew that.

    2. Whoosh.

      This is point-missing on an epic scale.

    3. Ron is talking about the actions of scientists and engineers. Peter is talking about the words of politicians.

      1. And what space exploration was in the 60s was government investing in the work of scientists and engineers in order to succeed…and we did. It’s like investing in science and technology to fight climate change, and medicine to fight cancer.

        1. How did government investment in space and technology work out after the Apollo missions? We got the space shuttle, a waste of time and effort that should have been aborted in the planning stages, and now we’re dependent on the Russians for getting us to and from the ISS, never mind the moon. All asshats like you can do is crow about “not enough funding” as though unending piles of money should be shoved at a bloated, now-useless organization living on long-past glories.

          You get one success and you ride that fucking pony like there’s no tomorrow. And your mendacity knows no bounds. The money thrown at failure after failure isn’t so much the problem as the laws you wish to impose on people. We landed on the moon without having to impose the religious dogma of overeducated overentitled morons like you on the entire country.

          And, of course, NASA achieved its success in the 1960s by employing a brutally meritocratic regime, of the sort that not only would never be tolerated but is actually outright illegal today. Wernher von Braun would never make it anywhere near a position of authority in government today, never mind in charge of a major program.

          1. Alrighty then!

            1. This is why I just tell you to fuck off. I give you something worth responding to, and you run off in a huff like a fucking child.

              1. Fair enough. Usually you curse at me.

                Not sure where to begin with you if you think space e proration has been more about failures than successes. It’s quite a myopic view. You must think that every explorer needed to be successful for exploration to be a success. Maybe this articl will give you some perspective.

                http://ngm.nationalgeographic……bloch-text

                But good to see you admit that success we had initially with government investment in space. It’s exactly what the President was referring to.

                1. It’s exactly what the President was referring to.

                  It’s great President Obama can take credit for the achievements of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, but it’s not really relevant to anything, now is it?

      2. And Peter is the type Ronald was referring to as “well meaning, but with cramped and limited vision.”

        1. I love how at the heart of every leftist is the burning need to impose their “vision” on other people. You are nothing if not predictable.

    4. If you understood that human achievement should not come at the price of theft enforced by state violence you wouldn’t be a statist mouthpiece to begin with.

  26. Fixing American politics is simple. Restrict government authority to the retaliatory use of force.

    1. Government needs to be able to initiate the use of force, otherwise we can’t arrest a murderer or invade France.

      What has to be recogized is that the only difference between “the people” and “the govement” is that the government has a legal monpoly on initiating force, and that we should limit its scope and power accordingly.

      1. Making arrests is retaliatory force. The criminal initiated force. Invading France was retaliatory force because Germany declared war against us first. The government has a monopoly on retaliatory force excluding self defense. No person or entity has the right to initiate force period.

    2. The Second Amendment says “shall not be infringed” yet there are numerous infringements and many of them are generations old. The only thing in the long run that can constrain government is the people, and they have proven generally unwilling to do so, at times even being enthusiastically opposed to the idea.

  27. Is this something Biden’s supposed to accomplish in his remaining yr. in office?

  28. It’s as if we’re trying to get to the moon, but there are dozens of moons, and we don’t know where they are, or what a rocket is.

    In other words the New York Times.

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