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?