The most amazing part of Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's speech for entrepreneurs Thursday night was a surprise: his soaring rhetoric and praiseful speech about what one writer-historian recently described in Slate as "the largest and most successful government peaceful stimulus package in American history."
That stimulus package was the Apollo moon program, championed by President John F. Kennedy and later, Lyndon Johnson.
The program, according to the Slate article, cost $25 billion at the time, which would be more like $170 billion in current dollars (because of inflation), and almost all of that money went to American businesses, and drove an entrepreneurial boom in the 1960s. Apollo created 400,000 jobs--including both contractors and government workers--and the employment ripple effect went far beyond that.
Romney's comment was striking in the middle of a campaign in which federal spending and the role of government are among the central issues--especially when opponents keep repeating (and intentionally misconstruing) President Obama's poorly-constructed "you didn't build that" remark. ("Can an entire convention be built around a grammatical error?" asked The Washington Post.)
We just don't do stuff like this any more. To put the moon program in perspective, the entire budget for NASA is now $17.7 billion, and this year's budget basically ended the Mars exploration program. NASA is quickly turning into "a space agency [that] would no longer operate its own spacecraft, but essentially buy tickets for its astronauts" on foreign and privately owned rockets.
In the wake of Armstrong's death, writer-historian Joel Shurkin wrote in Slate that you'd have to "go back to the funding for the transcontinental railroads in the 19th century to find an equal" to the level of peacetime government spending on the moon program.
"For the money, we got the greatest technological achievement in history. ... [It generated] much of the electronic age we live in, the way we build computers and electronics, how we program them, how we organize them. The first fuel cells flew in Apollo. Much of the early work in integrated circuits derived from solving technical problems in flying men to the moon and returning them. With every mission, the computers got smaller and more powerful ...
"The scientific results were staggering. We could hold pieces of the moon in our hands--and I did--and study them. As a result, we know far more about the origin of the solar system and our earth than we knew before.
"The economy boomed as a result of the technological advances and the money the government pumped into it.
Of course, Romney praised the program for the pride he felt in the result as an American, not for its economic impact.
Here's what he had to say:
"To be an American was to assume that all things were possible. When President Kennedy challenged Americans to go to the moon, the question wasn't whether we'd get there, it was only when we'd get there.
"The soles of Neil Armstrong's boots on the moon made permanent impressions on OUR souls and in our national psyche. Ann and I watched those steps together on her parent's sofa. Like all Americans we went to bed that night knowing we lived in the greatest country in the history of the world...
"Tonight that American flag is still there on the moon. And I don't doubt for a second that Neil Armstrong's spirit is still with us: that unique blend of optimism, humility, and the utter confidence that when the world needs someone to do the really big stuff, you need an American.
That's how I was brought up.
Tell me the last time either political party touted a multi-dollar government program that didn't have to do with either defense (say, the internet or the Interstate highways) or an entitlement (Medicare, for example).
It was a striking moment--and a reminder for entrepreneurs about how sometimes government can do things right, and create a whole new world of opportunity for businesses.