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It's Time to Revive the Great American Tradition of Skunkworks

By       Message Stephen Pizzo     Permalink
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Skunkworks Definition:  A skunkworks is a group of people who, in order to achieve unusual results, work on a project in a way that is outside the usual rules. A skunkworks is often a small team that assumes or is given responsibility for developing something in a short time with minimal management constraints. Typically, a skunkworks has a small number of members in order to reduce communications overhead. A skunkworks is sometimes used to spearhead a product design that thereafter will be developed according to the usual process. A skunkworks project may be secret. (Source)

Size, of course, is relative to the size of the organization that discovers it needs people thinking outside the box. The Manhattan Project, for example, was a skunkworks.

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At the same time the Manhattan Project Skunkworks was formed Lockheed created its own skunkworks (circa 1943) when the US discovered it was no longer the leading force in fighter aircraft design. The Germans, they learned, were well along developing the first jet fighter. The Lockheed skunkworks came up with America's first jet fighter, the P-80, just 143 days after the skunkworks was formed.

The magic of a skunkworks is that it breaks great minds free from calcified, rule-bound, special interest -afflected, group-think crippled organizations. And if ever there was an organization that fits that description today, it's the USA itself.

Democrats, Republicans, Independents of various stripes have proven themselves either impotent, corrupt or just plain stupid when it comes to dealing with the very real dangers facing the US, the world and the very planet we live on. Viewed from a safe distance Congress and Executive Branch appear to be about as relevant or useful as the United Nations – lots of talk, lots of posturing, lots of bullshit, very little real solutions. The entire governing mechanism seems to have become stuck in what a computer programmer would recognize as an endless loop. It just keeps repeating itself, day in, day out, year in year out, party in, party out. And hitting "reset" every two or four years only seems to boot us all right back into that loop again.

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Meanwhile the problems we hired politicians to fix just keep getting worse. Unless someone comes up with new solutions to these old problems one of these days one of those problems --- loose nukes, global warming, dwindling fresh water supplies, etc, etc, -- is going to get us all killed.

So, why not a national skunkworks? Here's my suggestion.

Take, California, Oregon and Washington state and cut them loose for 25-years. I am not suggesting secession from the Union – just a time out. Give those 3 states a 25-year leave of absence from the Union.  During that time the feds would get out of the way and while this Skunkworks comes up with fresh solutions to the most serious, potentially deadly and intractable problems facing the nation and the world today:
  • How can a nation provide adequate healthcare to all its citizens, blending the strengths of the private sector with the stability and democratic mechanism of government, and do so without bankrupting both.
  • How can we  fuel a 21st century economy  and modern lifestyle without relying on 19th and 20th century, non-renewable and planet-threatening fossil fuels?
  • How can we quickly reduce human-produced greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining a  sustainable modern standard of living and without bankrupting private sector enterprise?
  • How do we  balance the imperatives of mass population shifts (immigration) with the immutable realities of finite resources, private and governmental services, agriculture, jobs and living space?
  • How can we develop fair, sustainable trade with other nations without encouraging environmental devastation in developing nations and exploiting their workers while devastating job opportunities here at home?
  • Explore way we can either revitalize or replace the current two-party political establishment. which now functions only to sustain itself,  increasingly at the expense of the nation itself.
  • Explore how a nation can reasonable secure itself and protect it's citizen, and while enhancing and expanding individual freedom rather than persistently rolling those freedoms back.
I'm sure you could add to that "to-do"list, but those I listed will be tough enough. That's why I set the time at 25-years. It's going to take a lot of tinkering with the innards of government, industry, education, medicine and transportation. And each one of those areas are jealously guarded by "Revolutionary Guards of The Status Quo" who are as crazy, devious and stubborn as any Ayatollahs  you'll ever meet.

I understand that cutting three western states loose for a quarter century is more than “outside the box.” It's more like “outta your mind!?” But think about it. There's something in this idea for everyone.

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For example, conservatives get all misty-eyed when they discuss “choice” in education. They've argue, often persuasively, that the public school system needs a healthy dose of competition from private and charter schools. And they argue that taxpayer money should be used to create that competition by giving parents vouchers to pay for it.

Why? Because, conservatives explain, the entire national education system is held captive by special interests; teacher unions, schoolbook publishers, school district administrators and outmoded teaching methods. And, that the only way to change that is to let parents use federal money to pay for outside that box charter and private schools – schools that would be freed of the entrenched educational bureaucracy, allowed to make their own rules, try new teaching techniques. In other words, Skunkworks schools.

Look, whether you are a conservative or a liberal, you and I both know that our government has ceased to function. Worse than that, it has ceased to function for so long now that its forgotten how to. When it tries to function it either makes things worse or the solutions they impose to fix one problem creates an even bigger mess somewhere else.

So, if we need “choice” in education, why not in government too? Why not a national skunkworks made up of an entire region -- the West coast?

When things are run by an entrenched, self-sustaining bureaucracy there really is only one way to break free, and that's to break free. After all, how can people think outside the box when they are not allowed outside that box?

Even old-line communists understand that. When the leaders of Communist China saw the  writing on the all for communism they created enterprise zones – economic and social skunkworks. Those pioneering regions smoothed  a transition that could have otherwise turned very ugly, easing China's transition from commie to capitalist. And it worked pretty good. Today they're kicking our capitalist asses.

By turning loose the three western states, California, Oregon and Washington, we would create a 21st century Manhattan Project on a massive scale. Within the borders of these states are all the resources -- financial, agricultural, industrial, political, industrial and intellectual -- required to survive and thrive on their own.

Since this is my idea I claim naming rights. I hereby christen this national skunkworks, “Pacifica.”

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Stephen Pizzo has been published everywhere from The New York Times to Mother Jones magazine. His book, Inside Job: The Looting of America's Savings and Loans, was nominated for a (more...)

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