The Manhattan Project, The Apollo Space Program, and Healthcare.gov

Today the Obama Administration announced that 106,185 people have “selected” health insurance since the Affordable Care Act took effect on October 1, about 20 percent of the Administration’s stated goal for October.  The much-maligned Healthcare.gov website performed even worse than expected — fewer than 27,000 people used it to sign up for coverage.

In an odd way, the Affordable Care Act seems to be knocking down some of the political barriers between Americans.  Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, tea partiers and progressives alike are scratching their heads about where things went wrong.  I don’t diminish the technological challenges of developing a website for the Affordable Care Act — I couldn’t do it — but commercial entities manage to develop websites that are nimble, easy to use, and capable of handling far more volume than has been handled by Healthcare.gov.  Why couldn’t the government do so?

Some people are suggesting that maybe the Affordable Care Act is showing that government simply is not well suited to managing massive and sprawling projects.  That notion, I think, is completely belied by history.

During the 1940s, the United States somehow managed to successfully fight a two-front overseas war, raise and equip the largest army in the nation’s history, and turn a depressed economy into an awesome engine that produced staggering amounts of planes, tanks, jeeps, battleships, and other implements of war.  It topped off the World War II years by single-handedly, and in great secrecy, unlocking the destructive force of atomic power and figuring out how to use that power in weapons capable of leveling entire cities.

Two decades later, in response to a challenge from a new President, the United States built a space program from the ground up, conquered countless engineering problems involved in protecting humans unscathed from the unforgiving environment of space, and devised the rocket systems, docking systems, computers, space capsules, and space suits necessary to send men to the Moon, allow them to romp on the lunar surface, and return them safely to planet Earth.

The Manhattan Project and the Apollo space program were far more complicated and challenging than building a functioning website that would allow people to shop for health insurance coverage and sign up when they have found a plan they like.  Are people who wonder whether our government is capable of handling large-scale tasks really saying that intrinsic limitations in the capabilities of our government mean we couldn’t successfully complete the Manhattan Project or the Apollo program these days?

I just don’t buy it.  The history of America shows that government can perform admirably on big jobs, and I don’t think Americans or their capabilities have changed for the worse since the 1940s or the 1960s.  The problem isn’t the government or its structure, the problem is who was running the show and managing the effort.  Could the President’s falling approval ratings be a reflection of the fact that more and more people are coming to that conclusion?

Naked In The Ivy League

For decades, thousands of male and female students at some of America’s most prestigious institutions, in the Ivy League and among the Seven Sisters, were routinely required to strip down and have their nude photos taken.  Why?

Journalist Ron Rosenbaum tells the fascinating story in a long, but riveting, New York Times piece that is almost 20 years old, but new to me.  Rosenbaum himself was a student at Yale who had to undergo the bizarre ritual during the 1960s.  He appeared at a Yale gymnasium, was required to completely disrobe, had metal pins attached to his vertebrae with adhesive, and then was photographed.  Everybody had to have their “posture photos” taken, and students whose posture was deemed unacceptable had to take a remedial posture class where they presumably walked around rooms balancing books on their heads.  Similar photos were taken at schools like Vassar and Wellesley, and urban legends circulated among the Ivy Leaguers about purportedly stolen posture photo collections of young coeds being available on the black market.

But the real story runs deeper than posture and pranks and has a disturbing element.  In reality, the photographs were also part of an anthropological study undertaken to explore theories that contended that study of the human physique, through measurement and analysis of ratios, could reveal intelligence, moral worth, and other characteristics.  It was a branch of eugenics that apparently was scientifically accepted for a time, with its own scientific-sounding names for character components — “ectomorphs” for thin and nervous people, “endomorphs” for the tubby, and “mesomorphs” for the Charles Atlases among us.  Under the theory, each person purportedly had some mixture of the three components that was genetically determined and described by a three-digit code, and those components controlled your character.  The “science” was married to concepts of posture and propriety, accepted by many educational institutions as a progressive, scientific step forward, and the result was thousands of mystified, often humiliated students at elite schools being required to troop before cameras and have their nude photos taken, to be studied by practitioners of a pseudoscience.

The concept that your body shape determines the content of your character seems ludicrous now, as bizarre and unscientific as Nazi “master race” theories, phrenology, or medieval notions that good health required periodic bleedings.  The concept no doubt would have seemed ludicrous to many of the unfortunate students who were forced to shed their clothing — but of course they weren’t told.  They did it because the institution told them to do so and because everyone else did it.  No one questioned authority, and for decades no one at any of those lofty institutions asked whether there was any true scientific basis for the practice or raised any moral or ethical qualms about the “posture photos.”

The students weren’t the only ones exposed by the “posture photos” and their true back story; the schools and the scientific community were as well.  We should all think of “posture photos” the next time an institution tells us to shut up and follow along on a course that seems absurd, that the science is settled and can’t be questioned, and that because everyone else has done it we should, too.