"Waste anything but time." That was the motto of the teams behind NASA's Apollo missions. That spirit has long since evaporated. Today's NASA is pulled by a million missions, from improving education and spinning off more products like Tang to its latest call of duty: telling Muslims how good they are at math.
NASA chief Charles Bolden recently told Al-Jazeera TV that President Obama charged him with three crucial missions: (1) "help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math"; (2) "expand our international relationships"; and (3) "perhaps foremost," Bolden explained, Obama "wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world . . . to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science . . . and math and engineering."
We've gone from "waste anything but time" to "waste everything, especially time" in about a generation.
Liberalism is caught in something of a Catch-22. Under Obama, liberals are determined to reinvigorate the reputation of government, to prove that only the state can get important things done. That is why the Gulf oil spill, for instance, is so vexatious for the White House and its liberal supporters. Why can't the government be more nimble and resourceful?
It was one thing when the feds failed after Hurricane Katrina, liberals reasoned, because Bush didn't like government. This was not only untrue, it overlooked the fact that the permanent government bureaucracy is on liberal autopilot. Regardless, Obama is different. He loves government; he sees it as the most noble of callings. That's why he wants to make student loans much cheaper for kids who go to work for the government, and it's why he wants government jobs to pay so much better than private-sector ones.
According to contemporary liberalism, the government is the control room of society, where problems get solved, where institutions get their marching orders, where the oceans are commanded to stop rising. Each institution must subscribe to the progressive vision: All oars must pull as one. We are all in it together. We can do it all, if we all work together. Yes, we can.
In my book, Liberal Fascism, I called this phenomenon the "liberal Gleichschaltung." Gleichschaltung is a German word (in case you couldn't have guessed) borrowed from electrical engineering. It means "coordination." The German National Socialists (Nazis) used the concept to get every institution to sing from the same hymnal. If a fraternity or business embraced Nazism, it could stay "independent." If it rejected Nazism, it was crushed or bent to the state's ideology. Meanwhile, every branch of government was charged with not merely doing its job but advancing the official state ideology.
Now, contemporary liberalism is not an evil ideology. Its intentions aren't evil or even fruitfully comparable to Hitlerism. But there is a liberal Gleichschaltung all the same. Every institution must be on the same page. Every agency must advance the liberal agenda.
And this is where the Catch-22 catches. The dream of a nimble, focused, problem-solving government is undone by the reality of hyper-mission creep. When every institution is yoked to an overarching philosophy or mission, its actual purpose can become an afterthought. In 2005, volunteer firefighters from all over the country offered to help with Katrina's aftermath. But FEMA sent many of them to Atlanta first to undergo diversity and sexual-harassment training (which most already had).
Such examples are everywhere. What is political correctness other than the gears of the liberal Gleichschaltung? The financial crisis was worsened because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac became tools for liberal social engineering. Let's not even mention public schools.
The White House is determined to be a great friend (i.e., servant) to the unions, so everything from the stimulus to the automaker buyout to the Gulf spill must first pass union muster. Remember those vital, "shovel-ready" weatherization jobs the stimulus was supposed to pay for? The Labor Department delayed them for nearly a year while trying to figure out how to comply with pro-union "prevailing wage" rules for each of more than 3,000 counties.
Liberalism has become a cargo cult to the New Deal, but many of the achievements of the New Deal would be impossible now. Just try to get a Hoover Dam built today.
President Obama likes to say that "if we could put a man on the moon," we can do anything, from socializing medicine to abandoning fossil fuels. That's nonsense on stilts for a host of reasons. But it's also ironic, given that we can't even put a man on the moon anymore. Not when NASA's foremost priority is boosting the self-esteem of children and Muslims.
Jonah Goldberg is a visiting fellow at AEI.