What does Blue Origin Mean for the Role of Government?
By pure coincidence, this morning I watched Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin journey to space just having finished Martin Gurri’s, The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium. As Bezos’ capsule floated safely back to earth, I got that pit in the stomach feeling.
Gurri is a “former CIA analyst specializing in the relationship of politics and global media.” Here is the gist of Gurri’s thesis in Revolt of the Public, as best I can distill it:
- Digital communications represent of fifth wave of human communication (following writing, alphabet, printing press, and mass media).
- Given the speed at which digital communications travel and spread, and the inherently decentralized nature of such communications, information has been ‘democratized.” Elites no longer determine what information the public consumes. (Think back to only three national networks, Walter Cronkite, “All The News That’s Fit to Print”.) Further, as the sources information are no longer limited or scarce, information is no longer authoritative. (LBJ: “If I’ve lost Conkite, I’ve lost middle America.”)
- Nearly infinite sources of information have enabled the mass audience (the public} to become “unbundled, disaggregated, fragmented into … vital communities: groups of wildly disparate size gathered organically around a shared interest or theme.” (Gurri, Revolt of the Public, p. 26.)
- As a result of the above, “information technologies of the 21st century have enabled the public … to break the power of the political hierarchies…, draining institutions of trust and legitimacy.” (Gurri, p. 323.)
- With the public organized in networks, and government (aka authority) organized in hierarchies, in constant tension and even conflict, and the loss of institutional legitimacy, we now live in a political environment of negation and nihilism. (Think the Occupy movement, Brexit, Trump.) Break-away movements, the appeal of authoritarianism, the faltering of democracy, fake news, alternate facts, entrenched political hostilities, distrust of government, negation practiced by politicians, etc., flow from this thesis.
How does this relate to Blue Origin? Why the pit in my stomach? Since Sputnik and JFK’s commitment to send men to the moon, space travel was firmly within the purview of government. That made sense given the scale, cost, scope — only governments could afford the price tag and had sufficient reach to orchestrate. Also, and importantly, only government — not private interests — were willing to make such a big bet. (See Was Reagan Right?)
Reflecting on Gurri’s thesis, distrust of government, unsustainable deficits, gridlock — I wonder whether other historically governmental functions are on a path towards privatization (aka, the Republican wet dream): social security, military (kind of have this now), law enforcement, highways, mass transit. We already have a partially privatized prison system. Will the next vaccine roll-out be a for-profit endeavor?
In Was Reagan Right? I argued that “government is uniquely positioned to address certain problems and issues that other entities simply cannot.” I maintain this belief, particularly as we hope to tackle the entrenched issues of income/wealth inequality and structural racism, and the global threat related to climate change. But following Bezos’ adventure, I do hesitate and wonder whether we are actually on a different path….