Wednesday, May 26, 2010

It's the Energy Source, Stupid

For my entire life, the energy of human innovation has been focused on the individual: we have seen the advent of the computer, the cellular phone, and then the infinite improvements, iterations, and combinations of those technologies. When you read a "BLANK of the Future" article, whether that blank is filled in by "Car", or "House", or "Hammer", you can bet it has something to do with the microchip or wireless communication.

In fact, the only other trend that has had a major impact on the things we use has been incremental improvements in materials, allowing us to build things stronger and lighter. (Note, I'm sure someone could find a technology to prove me wrong on this, and I'm purposefully ignoring healthcare innovation because--well, because I want to.)

Now, as I've written before, what we have not innovated on is what I'll call 'collective technologies': things that affect a lot of people, but that individuals rarely 'own'. (Think railroads and other forms of mass transportation, or other infrastructure.) These have been improved in recent years, but there hasn't been anything like a major breakthrough: just incremental gains, caused mostly by improvements in materials and the introduction of the microchip into older technologies.

When I read things like this, then, about the need to establish an economic reason for further space exploration, I'm in complete agreement. But the author is stealing a base: there is simply no way, with the technology we have, that we are going to see space mining or any other sort of economic activity pay off until we have an energy source that makes space transit much, much more efficient.

Think of it this way: the ascension of oil as the dominant energy source (and coal to a lesser extent) made possible every single transportation improvement over the last 150 or so years. Before that we had very inefficient, unreliable wind, water and steam power. Fossil fuels represented an order of magnitude improvement, and it took about a century (until Apollo, arguably) for us to push the limits of where that energy source could take us. Since then, no major breakthroughs on collective technologies. Why? We're waiting for the next energy source that can offer an order-of-magnitude gain on the current standard.

And just so we can skip to the point, that ain't going to be fuel cells, and it ain't going to be wind or geothermal. Maybe solar can step up, if we create much, much, MUCH more efficient panels. Otherwise, it has to be fusion, or something the vast majority of us haven't heard of. But if you want to get humanity off this rock and into a solar-system wide economy, don't worry about what NASA is doing, invest in energy research.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

How the Supreme Court Threatens National Cohesion

Every time a new nominee is put forth for the Supreme Court, there is a lot of opining about what it means for the country, whether the nominee will tilt the balance of the court, and, as in this post by Ross Douthat, whether there should be term limits or other mechanisms to make these nominations a little less momentous.

In the course of discussing term limits, Douthat quotes blogger Matt Yglesias as saying, "The most important consideration for the future of American law is not whether Justice Kagan turns out to be more like Breyer or more like Stevens, it’s whether the seventy-four year-old Antonin Scalia can stay in good health until there’s a Republican in the White House." This hits at the heart of the problem with the court, but it is not one I think can be solved by term limits.

The problem is this: the only reason that the decisions of the Supreme Court have not caused major problems in this country so far is that justices have had the courtesy to leave or get ill at a time when the current President would replace them with someone who would carry on their ideological torch. This has happened somewhat accidentally at first, with Republican presidents nominating justices that would turn out to be liberal. But since Jimmy Carter, we've had somewhat consistent back-and-forth between Democratic and Republican presidents, who have (with the exception of Souter), always nominated someone more or less on their 'team'. There are decisions that are unpopular with one side or the other, but the Court seems within the mainstream of American politics, more or less.

But what happens if, as an example, John Roberts and Samuel Alito are in a fatal car accident next week? Suddenly, the two Bush justices, who were supposed to be reliably conservative votes for decades, are wiped out, and Obama is going to pick their replacements. The Republicans can filibuster a hard-left liberal, but they have to let someone through. Now the court is six liberal votes (four of whom Obama picked, and will serve for a long time in all likelihood), two conservative votes (and one of them 74 years old) and Kennedy, whose 'swing vote' power is now meaningless. Even if the Republicans defeat Obama in 2012 and hold the presidency for the next 20 years, they might not get a chance to do more than replace Ginsburg and Breyer. And who knows, one or both of them may retire soon to ensure Obama replaces them, too.

A court of that composition would certainly never consider adjustments to Roe v. Wade, would likely strike down restrictions on gay marriage, may well curtail gun ownership rights, and would be inclined to extend and expand racial preferences. No matter how you feel about these issues, it is impossible to deny that not giving conservatives any recourse on a number of issues that matter greatly to them would strain the political system immensely. I once drafted a novel with the premise that assassinations on the Supreme Court precipitated the breakup of the United States. Hopefully that never comes to pass, but it is undeniable that the Supreme Court is not only our least democratic branch of government, it is the most unstable and unpredictable. It is thus a likely source of future instability in the country.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Too Complex to Fail? Debt and Modern Government

You are, I've often been told, supposed to write about things you understand. Which is why I should not be writing about the ongoing financial crisis: I can't understand what's happening. From an outsider's perspective, it certainly seems like the numbers don't add up. Our national debt is building at an unfathomable rate. Greece just required a bailout of over a hundred billion dollars, and most experts seem skeptical that it was enough. The nations of the developed world all have massive amounts of public and private debt. (Check out this page on 'external debt' if you want your mind blown.)

I have generally taken it as a given that the bankers who lend money know what they are doing, and despite an amount of debt that frankly seems impossible to pay back, there must be enough corresponding assets that it would all work out. After all, we generally compare debt to annual GDP output, but there are many past years of wealth built up that could pay off debt in a crisis.

However, these two posts by David Goldman have forced me to start thinking that our elected officials, rather than confront the crisis of debt, have made a deal with the devil to keep government going the same way it always has without making anyone too uncomfortable. What we should be doing, in a common-sense world, is dramatically cutting spending and raising taxes to pay for our profligate ways. But that would raise unemployment, make the recession worse, and get all the politicians thrown out of office. So they are instead letting bankers make a lot of money by borrowing from one branch of government and using the money to buy debt from another branch of government. This sounds an awful lot like money laundering: an illegitimate enterprise gives money to someone else for a legitimate use, then they pay back the criminals in clean money. Only in this case they are trying to hide the fact not that they made the money illegally, but that they made the money out of nothing: there's no wealth behind it, nothing but the guarantee of a country rapidly losing control of its finances.

At the risk of piling on too many metaphors, the whole thing feels like a NASCAR race where the cars keep going faster and faster. Eventually they're speeding so fast that it is obvious to everyone that the race has become unsafe. They need to slow down. But the cars are packed so close together, if anyone so much as taps the brakes, there will be a massive pileup. So everyone keeps accelerating, knowing they're just putting off the crash, hoping for some miracle to save them. We have so much debt, so much money moving around so fast, I don't think anyone really understands exactly what's going on. But I keep bracing myself for the moment when some big lender or country finally flinches, and taps on the brakes.