NASA Is Insane

Whenever we unleash our inner Curmudgeon, as we’re about to do, it upsets most of our regular readers. We don’t care. Sometimes, things have to be said. Politics is about more these days than left vs. right; those factions are obsolete and worthless. The true conflict is between the Enlightenment and the Dark Ages. Skip the rest of this if our politics are too insensitive for you.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), whose technological achievements once enthralled the entire civilized world, is descending into insanity. There’s no doubt about it, as you will soon see. This article, Nasa-funded study: industrial civilisation headed for ‘irreversible collapse’?, appears in London’s Guardian. We’re told:

A new study sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

Unequal wealth distribution? That leftist dogma has been around so long that our once-spritely response to it is now rather quaint, but we’ll repeat it anyway. If perfect equality were enforced, then the kid whose job is running around Disney World in a Mickey Mouse costume should have the same piece of the pie as Walt Disney, who created the whole thing. Want another analogy? Perfect equality would be like living in Basic Training, forever, with no hope of advancement — well, except for the enforcers of the system, who would live like lords as a reward for maintaining their intelligent design for society.

Let’s see what else the Guardian tells us:

The research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human And Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharrei of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The study based on the HANDY model has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.

We looked, but we can’t find that article, so let’s read on in the Guardian:

Currently, high levels of economic stratification are linked directly to overconsumption of resources, with “Elites” based largely in industrialised countries responsible for both:

[The newspaper quotes from the study:] “… accumulated surplus is not evenly distributed throughout society, but rather has been controlled by an elite. The mass of the population, while producing the wealth, is only allocated a small portion of it by elites, usually at or just above subsistence levels.”

Where have we seen that kind of thinking before? Ah yes, it’s the Marxist labor theory of value. It’s good to see that NASA is on the cutting edge of social science. The news article describes different scenarios in the study, and then it says:

Elite wealth monopolies mean that they are buffered from the most “detrimental effects of the environmental collapse until much later than the Commoners”, allowing them to “continue ‘business as usual’ despite the impending catastrophe.” The same mechanism, they argue, could explain how “historical collapses were allowed to occur by elites who appear to be oblivious to the catastrophic trajectory (most clearly apparent in the Roman and Mayan cases).”

Wow — it looks like the only solution is to raise everyone’s taxes far higher, so the benevolent government can save us from the impending catastrophe. No, dear reader, your Curmudgeon isn’t delusional. The news article quotes the research paper:

Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion.

Yes — social planners are so much wiser than free markets! We must put them in charge of the economy at once! They will show us the way to paradise.

We’re delighted that NASA is spending its funds on studies like this, rather than foolish things like exploring the moon and other planets. Verily, a glorious future awaits us all!

Update: See NASA Statement on the Income Inequality Paper.

Copyright © 2014. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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45 responses to “NASA Is Insane

  1. Compare this reaction to that of AiG to the BICEP2 results.

  2. I honestly don’t understand what all the fuss is about US politics. From the outside, it looks very much like the voter only really gets to choose between two of the same thing, albeit dressed in different colours, and bar a few minor differences in national and foreign policy. In contrast, the much broader political spectra of many other liberal democracies is startling.

  3. SC, I agree with you that the guy dressed as Mickey Mouse shouldn’t get as much as Walt Disney, but on the other hand, the gap between the wealthiest and poorest in society is larger than it has ever been in history by several orders of magnitude. We’re talking exponential greed here, and it is grossly unfair.

    Divvying everything up evenly is not really the fair thing to do as you point out, but neither is allowing so few people to control so much of the wealth of the planet. There must be some middle ground.

  4. Charles Deetz ;)

    LIke other CS posts, I’m not going to click thru to get to the bottom of it, but will say I agree with the study’s point that resources (including money) are being used and allocated in what will be an unsustainable manner in the future. Water, for example, is in much shorter supply in the USA than many realize. As a global issue requiring real research, perhaps maybe NASA is an appropriate organization to do this, a lot like global warming.

    I just don’t get where this becomes NASA plotting and justifying a marxist takeover of the country. Yes, re-management of our resources and money is an obvious solution to the problem, but it can be done a lot of different ways. It sounds like their conclusion just says that … ‘hey we should try to manage these resources for the good of the world.’ Not that the kid in the Mickey Mouse costume has to be paid the same as the CEO of Disney.

    The sad thing, for me, is that our society has several issues facing us that should require us to cooperate and give some of our personal liberty/wealth/resources for the greater good, but it will never happen. Someone will always whine about it. Not to mention a complete unwillingness to compromise. President Carter had the right idea to just tell everyone to set their thermostats to 68 and wear a sweater. It didn’t work then, and today that a politician would say that is absolutely laughable.

  5. I agree it’s an odd subject for a NASA sponsored study. However, the study makes a point – if the decision-makers are insulated from the repercussions of their decisions, they are more likely to make bad ones. Of course, that’s just common sense.

    The inequality issue is serious, though. No rational person would argue that everyone should have the exact same level of income, but by the same token, no one who knows anything about economics would argue that having a tiny fraction of the population own most of the wealth is a healthy thing either. Income and wealth distribution should look something like a bell curve, with the bulk of the population making up a healthy middle class. A healthy middle class means fewer in poverty (requiring much less government assistance) than today, while still creating opportunities for those with talent to move up the wealth ladder.

    The core of the problem is how to rebuild a prosperous middle class.

    The only issue I have with the extremely high income earners is that they get far too many tax breaks. I believe every level of government should be required to balance their budgets every year, and have no sympathy for those who say that increased taxes for the very rich cannot be considered among the various means of achieving that goal.

  6. I just don’t get where this becomes NASA plotting and justifying a marxist takeover of the country. Yes, re-management of our resources and money is an obvious solution to the problem, but it can be done a lot of different ways. It sounds like their conclusion just says that … ‘hey we should try to manage these resources for the good of the world.’ Not that the kid in the Mickey Mouse costume has to be paid the same as the CEO of Disney.

    The whole business about the guy in the Mickey Mouse costume, the CEO of Disney, and the accusation that the scientists are demanding complete economic equality is a straw man. There’s what seems to me a good, dispassionate account of the report at Live Science (http://www.livescience.com/44171-society-civilization-collapse-study.html?cmpid=556800), and it cites the authors as follows:

    “Collapse can be avoided and population can reach equilibrium if the per-capita rate of depletion of nature is reduced to a sustainable level, and if resources are distributed in a reasonably equitable fashion,” they wrote.

    Note: “reasonably equitable”, not “perfectly equal”.

  7. realthog says:

    Note: “reasonably equitable”, not “perfectly equal”.

    That’s lovely. Who decides what’s “reasonable”? What objective criteria will they use? Who will be the intelligent designers of the economy? How are they chosen? The government has no power (at least as the Constitution is written) to make such decisions. How will the designers enforce their vision? What will be the effects on entrepreneurial activity? What will become of those who disagree — i.e., those who want more division, and those who want less?

  8. Our Curmudgeon prefaces this piece with a Health Warning:

    Whenever we unleash our inner Curmudgeon, as we’re about to do, it upsets most of our regular readers.

    S’okay, we understand. Anyone capable of your superhuman feat in daily facing such prodigious quantities of creationist bull-puckey is not only entitled to vent–but should regularly do so as a vital purgative. We’ll still love you.

    As for the substance of your post, your winning question for me is

    Who will be the intelligent designers of the economy?

    I’m in pretty full accord with your view that past human efforts at such ‘intelligent design’ have indeed brought down unspeakable horrors (I have spent a fair bit of time in Eastern Europe and witnessed first-hand the devastation wrought by communism and the on-going efforts to repair its profound damage).

    And I share much of your view of the interesting analogy between the ‘invisible hands’ of evolution and the free market. But arguments from analogy, as we see so often from other quarters, need to be used with some caution. In this present instance, one could point out that, impressive as evolutionary forces demonstrably are, they are not perfect–else (as others have pointed out) why should 99.99% of all species that have arisen on earth gone extinct? Similarly, a wholly unfettered market does not only deliver prosperity, but cyclical boom and bust and–what I think is the intent of the article you quote here–dangerous to catastrophic levels of social instability (France in 1789, Russia 1917, &c &c.)

    We don’t leave it to evolution to protect us from smallpox, but developed the vaccine to do so–and who cares if that’s ‘intelligent design’? Similarly, I don’t think we can leave it to the market alone to ensure our survival as a species; that would be as foolish IMHO as thinking (as did classical communists) that we can wholly replace it with some ‘designed’ system of production and distribution of wealth.

  9. That’s lovely. Who decides what’s “reasonable”? What objective criteria will they use? Who will be the intelligent designers of the economy? How are they chosen? The government has no power (at least as the Constitution is written) to make such decisions. How will the designers enforce their vision? What will be the effects on entrepreneurial activity? What will become of those who disagree — i.e., those who want more division, and those who want less?

    So you’re saying that, if the conclusions of the paper are correct, there are some difficult problems to be solved? That seems to me to be the conclusion of the authors, too.

  10. Did Snowden leak this story?

  11. Richard Olson

    I haven’t been so mad since Cosmos started up again and that cosmic background radiation finding was published Monday.

    NASA may know what they’re doing when it comes to space exploration, but just who the hell do these “scientists” think they are, applying their “space science” to examining historical events, comparing current conditions to them, and publishing an empirical analysis? Especially when those results contradict Christian libertarian economic doctrine. Heresy!

    How well are ocean fisheries doing? Despite some rules written that only apply to some people, the state of the ocean’s fish and everything else in it is about as “free market” as it gets. Beijing air? Planetary deforestation? Ditto. The entire list is long.

    What happens in 3 or 4 decades when air conditioning is desperately wanted 270 days a year, but the price of fuel for generating electricity makes refrigerating food a barely affordable (best case) necessity for most. (Thanks, USA policy brain trust [and especially my friends in the GOP], for erecting every possible roadblock to renewable energy sources, and replacing an inefficient electricity grid with something 21st century instead of 19th, so as to prop up prices for the carbon resource extraction/refining sector until those supplies are finally exhausted. And for the extra CO2 emissions and rising planetary temperatures as a result, too. See: air conditioning demand)

    Water? You wanna see “free markets” in action, just wait until life/death water issues begin to impact your life. You don’t have to wait long. It doesn’t even have to be local your-own-county, or even state, weather. California drought is going to drive up food prices this year, just as sure as increasing numbers of calamitous weather events in the States drives up your own home insurance costs, no matter where you live. And these are only two of the many things about to spiral completely out of whack.

    Cooperative society is the only way for the many to get through this without total catastrophe, a la’ Europe for 6 centuries following Rome’s fall. Elite’s will probably be mostly OK, at least the one’s with sufficiently deep pockets. But continue the previous 30 years of economic policy — or exacerbate it with even more austerity and looser regulatory control? Well, collapse may be avoided. I suppose. There could be a miracle.

    http://www.-The-one-rich-guy?detail=email#

  12. Richard Olson

    ‘Christian’ in para 2 up there is supposed to be a strikethrough. Don’t know what went wrong.

  13. DickVanstone

    Wow — it looks like the only solution is to raise everyone’s taxes far higher, so the benevolent government can save us from the impending catastrophe.

    No, the flat tax is another way to stick it to the poor.

    The only reasonable solution is to have those who use the system for the most gain pay more into that system that has helped them flourish. You know, a progressive tax rate.

    I also think it should be mandatory for everyone over the age of 18 to vote. We also need destroy the two-party system that is destroying America. Dividing a nation is easy when you only need one wedge.

    viva la revolucion

  14. Curm here is in his Bill O’Reilly mode, in which you express your emotions (not facts) by replacing every single thing the other guy says with an extremist straw man bearing little resemblance to the original, then beating the straw man.

    Unequal wealth distribution? That leftist dogma

    Uh, “unequal wealth distribution” is an observed fact, not a dogma. It’s also a fact that undemocratic, Third World countries have more unequal wealth distribution than we do. If you think it’s a good thing and you like it, you’re free to move to Nicaragua or a South American narcostate, or the United Arab Emirates. Or you could move to Russia and be an oligarch. (Yes, I do note the irony of that.) If you want to increase it here, that is a form of social engineering. Your desire to increase unequal wealth distribution makes you the intelligent designer of the economy.

    If perfect equality were enforced, then the kid whose job is running around Disney World in a Mickey Mouse costume should have the same piece of the pie as Walt Disney, who created the whole thing.

    Strangely, the authors you’re attacking did not say “the kid whose job is running around Disney World in a Mickey Mouse costume should have the same piece of the pie as Walt Disney”, but admittedly, your dumber version is easier to knock down. They are not the same statements; they just produce in you the same emotion: anxiety. Having assuaged your sense of anxiety by beating a straw-man, you are now free to go back to sleep.

    Where have we seen that kind of thinking before? Ah yes, it’s the Marxist labor theory of value.

    Actually, it’s not the Marxist labor theory of value. In fact, they made no statement of value at all, but rather the observed fact that wealth is unequally distributed. Do you dispute this? Are you arguing no, wealth is equally distributed?

    Rather, you call it the “Marxist labor theory of value” because it produces in you the same emotional reaction: anxiety, fear. Since it produces in you the same emotion, it must be the same thing. I fear being fired from my job; I fear rabid dogs; therefore, my boss is a dog.

    “Wow — it looks like the only solution is to raise everyone’s taxes far higher, so the benevolent government can save us from the impending catastrophe.”

    Again, not what the authors actually wrote. Rather, they stated that elites must feel the pain of society when things are crashing, or else they will not change course. But again, your version describes your feelings, not what they actually wrote.

    “Yes — social planners are so much wiser than free markets! We must put them in charge of the economy at once!”

    Social planners already are in charge of the economy. They’re called free market fundamentalists. The belief in the “genius of the unregulated market” is also utopianism.

  15. There is no problem. When inequity becomes sufficiently large, the poor eat the rich* and redistribute the wealth, no problem.

    * or maybe just stage a revolution.

  16. Great show, Diogenes! You’ve done exactly what you accuse me of doing. For example:

    Uh, “unequal wealth distribution” is an observed fact, not a dogma.

    Yes, I know it’s a fact. Jay Leno is richer than I am. What I intended to say was that complaining about it is a feature of the left.

    Your desire to increase unequal wealth distribution makes you the intelligent designer of the economy.

    But I expressed no such desire. I’m content to let free markets be free. Jay Leno has nothing to fear from me — either politically or competitively.

    Social planners already are in charge of the economy. They’re called free market fundamentalists.

    If freedom is a “plan,” them I’m guilty. In the same mode, I suppose natural selection is a plan.

  17. Charles Deetz ;)

    You might say it is a prisoner’s dilemma. If we cooperate, we survive nicely. But fear and inaction brings a less desirable outcome.

  18. Ceteris Paribus

    No real need to make that little research paper into a booster stage O-ring failure investigation over at NASA. For one thing, on Page 23 of the paper, under the heading “Acknowledgements”, the authors note: “This work was partially funded through NASA/GSFC grant NNX12AD03A.[bold added]”

    No need to inquire how much “partially” means in dollars and cents either, since the big money spent at NASA will always go to one or another of the contractors who lobby congress for their much more prestigious products.

    For example, if you had asked why NASA needed a space shuttle program, the answer would be “So we can build the International Space Station.”

    And then if you asked NASA why they needed a space station, the answer would be “So the space shuttles will have a place to go to”.

    Carl Sagan was correct when he said that if the US really needed to invent an artifical powdered orange drink (Tang), it could have done that without awarding contracts to build the manned space program.

  19. Ceteris Paribus says: “Carl Sagan was correct when he said that if the US really needed to invent an artifical powdered orange drink (Tang), it could have done that without awarding contracts to build the manned space program.”

    The Moon landings were an heroic accomplishment, but they pushed our existing technology to the limit. A few years ago NASA started a little program called “Advanced Propulsion Systems,” or something like that. It was a call for papers to suggest new avenues of research to develop a propulsion system to replace our rockets — which everyone knows are far too slow and clumsy to really explore and develop the boundless resources of the solar system. The mineral wealth in the asteroids is beyond calculation, and if we could get there economically, all our “limited resources” problems would vanish. But the Advanced Propulsion Systems project was dropped. NASA is living on dreams, and at the rate it’s going … well, it’s going nowhere.

  20. DickVanstone

    I’m content to let free markets be free.

    Well, you should not be content. We do not live in a free market society. It is engineered by those who wish to imprison your fellow countrymen and women who govern themselves differently. They take away their freedom because they did something to themselves or with another consenting adult.

    Slave Labor

    Free market…HAH!

  21. A more legitimate concern for NASA is how to divert that comet or asteroid that has our number on it, and to spot it in time to do something about it. Economic collapse and social upheaval are survivable. Getting whacked by a big comet or asteroid? Not so much.

    Since the study of paleontology, which is based on evolutionary theory, led to the conclusion that Earth has suffered at least five major extinction events, and we know that at least one of those events (K-T, 65 MYA) was very likely caused by cosmic impact, it is critically important that our legislators understand and accept evolution and the geologic time scale. That’s why I feel that the peddlers of creationism (DI, AiG, ICR, et al) are a more dangerous threat to civilization than “greedy capitalists”.

    As for unsustainable rates of resource depletion and the concomitant fouling of our environment, IMO the biggest problem causing this is not greed, but unchecked population growth, which is also responsible for the abject poverty in the third world. Honest government in those countries would go a long way toward alleviating those problems.

    Individuals in this country (and many others) can take redistribution of wealth into their own hands by not purchasing unneeded luxuries and entertainment, and investing the money saved in mutual funds. True — not everyone has income; the jobless rate is high. But education can help that.
    That’s why I feel that public education is so important — it’s the Great Equalizer. But instead of pulling the rich down to the level of the poor, it gives the poor the opportunity to become rich themselves (or at least comfortable).

  22. SC: “Yes — social planners are so much wiser than free markets!”

    Well that’s what the “theory” of Intelligent Design implies. 🙂

  23. Pope Retiredsciguy notes

    As for unsustainable rates of resource depletion and the concomitant fouling of our environment, IMO the biggest problem causing this is not greed, but unchecked population growth, which is also responsible for the abject poverty in the third world. Honest government in those countries would go a long way toward alleviating those problems.

    Yes, but…

    Why is there “unchecked population growth”? In fact, average family size in Europe and the USA in the 18th and 19th centuries was about the same as in the 21st century third world nations (and roughly similar rates of infant mortality also prevailed therein), and for the same reason: larger numbers of children were essential for the family economy by providing labour (from a young age) to generate family income (from low-earning agricultural or factory work) to provide for elderly and infirm members of the family. In the West, large scale social change to significantly smaller family size is due in no small measure to creation of basic social security and welfare provision (and yes, I can hear our Curmy screaming in rage at this assertion).

    I am not advocating big state solutions (I have no faith in them), but I also think it naive to suppose that market forces or ‘trickle down’ alone can create, globally, the necessary changes necessary for the survival of our species, which is by no means guaranteed. But I freely admit that, though I grew up in the States, the whole of my adult years have been lived in Europe and I am deeply tainted by the taint of lo-fat ‘socialism’ (and it really does need the scare quotes) prevailing here 🙂

  24. I don’t know of any “liberal” economist that proposes anything as absurd as the positions Crumudge is presenting as liberal positions in this article. I suggest rather than presenting such absurd positions as representative of the “liberal” viewpoint you actually read some of Paul Krugman and Dean Baker and the like and take the time to really try to understand what they are telling you. If you still find their actual positions to be absurd then present them accurately and criticize them appropriately, like you do DI or AIG positions. My guess is you won’t find their actual positions to be anything like what you have presented and far more sensical than the Republican party’s positions on the economy.

  25. First, NASA has a statement out about this: http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=42847

    Second, when this first made noise a couple of days ago, I found a pdf of the actual paper and read it. Sadly, the link I used (http://www.atmos.umd.edu/~ekalnay/pubs/handy-paper-for-submission-2.pdf) is now 404, and I didn’t think to grab a copy. The paper is heavily theoretical and the authors use countless “this is only a model” disclaimers and modifiers. They readily acknowledge that their current model is heavily oversimplified. And I admit I don’t have the math required to follow or critique their formulae. However… all that being said, it appears they may be on to something. The standard liberal answer of “redistribute wealth by means of an all-powerful government” is certainly wrong, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be asking the question “is our current civilization-model in danger of collapse? and if so, what can we do about it?”

  26. Ceteris Paribus

    SC mentions: “[o]ur rockets — which everyone knows are far too slow and clumsy to really explore and develop the boundless resources of the solar system.

    Unfortunately, the kinematics of physics dictate that slow is the only way to go. I will defer to one of the several sci guys or docs that post here to fill in the fine details, but here is a thumbnail sketch of the limits imposed by the humble equation KE = 1/2 mv^2. [Kinetic Energy = one-half the mass, times the square of the change in velocity]

    Basically, if you want to have a new rocket which travels twice as fast as your original rocket, then it will take four times as much energy. Make it three times as fast, and it will take nine times the original energy.

    And since disk brakes don’t work in space, the only way to slow down to collect an asteroid without a catastrophic collision is to use four times as much energy for retro-rockets.

    And if the return trip is to be done twice as quickly as the old clunky rocket, then the return will also take four times as much energy.

    It gets worse in two ways as the design velocity of the rockets goes up. First, increasing velocity will require more acceleration time and more deceleration time to get to the final velocities. Which means even if you could double the top velocity, you can’t even cut the trip time by one-half.

    Second, the on-board fuel has mass, and the more fuel you add to get to higher velocities, the more fuel you need to burn to move just the mass of fuel. Which limits the mass of the actual final payload, which was the reason for making the trip in the first place.

    Suppose one

  27. Ceteris Paribus

    @ wolfwalker
    A March 19 draft version of the Safa Motesharrei / HANDY / NASA paper can be found here:

    Click to access motesharrei-rivas-kalnay.pdf

    (and thanks SC for catching my HTML goofs in the post above)

  28. Ceteris Paribus says: “Basically, if you want to have a new rocket which travels twice as fast as your original rocket …”

    The concept of the Advanced Propulsion Systems program was to move beyond rocket technology.

  29. SC might be interested in this paper:

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-7660.1994.tb00538.x/pdf

    Page 857: “the discussion seems to have focused (as it did later in parliament) on the
    broader question of state interference in society and individual freedoms;”
    ie Invisible Hand or Intelligent Governmental Design?
    The paper provides a very balanced view; not even SC will be able to accuse it of leftist tendencies. Still I wonder, after he has read the paper that is, if SC also completely relies on the Invisible Hand for dealing with child labour? Ie does he oppose

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Child_Labor_Amendment

    arguing that the Invisible Hand manages these things so much better than IGD? At least he now truly has a chance to be consistent and upset lots of regular readers. Will he live up to this challenge?

  30. Curm: “Enforced income equality”, which no one proposing, is not the same issue as the growing disparity between rich & poor, which even many wealthy people recognise as a serious social problem. Think about it.

  31. Cardinal Megalonyx asserts, “In the West, large scale social change to significantly smaller family size is due in no small measure to creation of basic social security and welfare provision…”

    Perhaps. However, I don’t think people started practicing birth control because of Social Security. More likely, the orthodox explanation is closer to the truth — we changed from an agricultural to an industrial society, which made having a large family an economic liability rather than an asset, and a robust system of free public education gave rise to the middle class.

    In turn, a strong middle class made social security and welfare possible — the large middle class created a robust economy, which was able to pay for the welfare programs. It wasn’t the other way around. Social security and welfare did not build a strong economy.

    I admit I’m out of my element here. Economics is not science.

  32. Derek Freyberg

    @Curmudgeon @ 9:48 p.m.
    I know nothing about Advanced Propulsion Systems, but Ceteribus Paribus correctly quotes the equation for kinetic energy. You want to travel twice as fast, you have to spend 4 times as much energy to get there. Now rockets may not be the best way to spend that energy (they may be wasteful and require much more than the basic 4x), but any alternative will still have to spend that extra 3x – or more – to double speed. Now if we’re talking serious distances and long times, perhaps some of that energy can be gained from external sources (solar sails, etc.), but if you’d like asteroid iron in your lifetime I think CP has it right.

  33. SC: “The concept of the Advanced Propulsion Systems program was to move beyond rocket technology.”

    True, but that only helps by not having to carry so much fuel. It doesn’t change the basic physics of KE = 1/2 mv^2 that Ceteris Paribus correctly pointed out — to go twice as fast, you need four times the energy, and to stop, you will need four times the energy for braking.

    If I’m not mistaken, most of the advanced propulsion ideas centered around lower levels of power, but delivered over a much longer time, thus yielding higher speeds. This works best for longer unmanned trips, say, to the outer solar system or beyond. One g acceleration over one year of time gets you to c. The only problem is that in order to continue accelerating at one g as you approach c, you will need to increase power (the rate of energy delivery) exponentially, because your mass will increase as you approach c. To attain c, you would need an infinite amount of energy.

  34. RSG gets it right. There’s an old saying “Trees don’t grow to the sky.” It is used mostly as a reality check for investors, but it goes for populations as well. As long as women are empowered with how much to grow their family I suspect population size should ebb over time.
    I don’t want to invest the intellectual capital to digest the NASA sponsored paper, though it does seem to be beyond the scope of NASA.
    Again RSG gets it right, NASA should have a large focus on small bodies. As we humans prepare for our next war SMACK!…there goes the neighborhood. Asteroids also could be mined. Some are metalic and have rare metals such as platinum.
    If I wanted to criticize NASA there is a lot more than this obscure paper. While the United States is still a leader in space exploration, the Space Shuttle program was a complete disaster and ushered in a long era of stagnation. If we want a robust and fruitful manned space program, either spend the money or don’t do it. Unmanned missions have been very fruitful, a lot cheaper, and can go further afield.

  35. Pope Retiredsciguy writes

    I don’t think people started practicing birth control because of Social Security.

    I didn’t mean direct causality; I meant provision of social security was a necessary precondition for a society based on smaller family units—which in fact is pretty much what you also say in the balance of your reply (e.g. industrialisation is in turn a necessary precondition for development of social security provision via increased wealth, and the system of public education that is necessary to maintain an advanced economy). I don’t think we’re miles apart on our analysis here.

    But I still want to quibble over a few points. In your earlier post:

    As for unsustainable rates of resource depletion and the concomitant fouling of our environment, IMO the biggest problem causing this is not greed, but unchecked population growth, which is also responsible for the abject poverty in the third world.

    My problem with the above is, it’s rather like getting stuck in a rush hour traffic jam and railing against all the other folks out in their cars while overlooking ones own contribution to the grid-lock. Actually, for us in the West, it’s more like being in a huge Hummer and moaning about all the little cars blocking our way.

    A few rough statistics (and yes, they need some caveats and qualifications beyond what I can fit into this post, so used here somewhat crudely: source here is Scientific American, Use It and Lose It: The Outsize Effect of U.S. Consumption on the Environment ): the USA represents 5% of the global population, but annually consumes about 30% of global resources. A single average American annually depletes the equivalent of the resources consumed by 35 Indians, or 53 Chinese. Neither you or I would be persuaded by a simplistic argument from these stats that the ‘real problem’ is the number of Americans, and the ‘real solution’ is to have fewer of them, but it is a logical extension of your own claim about ‘unchecked population growth’ as the source of third world poverty.

    [Sidenote: US population tripled in the 9 years from 1900 to 1989 (in part, from immigration), but in that same span US consumption of global resources increased by a factor of 17. By itself, that’s not necessarily a bad thing (certainly not for Americans!), but it is part of the context of where we are now and needs to be considered—again, too big a topic (and off topic) for a post on this blog.]

    A further quibble (no more than that) with the analysis in your follow-up post:

    More likely, the orthodox explanation is closer to the truth — we changed from an agricultural to an industrial society, which made having a large family an economic liability rather than an asset, and a robust system of free public education gave rise to the middle class.
    In turn, a strong middle class made social security and welfare possible — the large middle class created a robust economy, which was able to pay for the welfare programs. It wasn’t the other way around. Social security and welfare did not build a strong economy.

    I agree with your basic outline, but want to highlight that the change “from an agricultural to an industrial society” did not immediately render “having a large family an economic liability rather than an asset” (though it did have that beneficial effect in the longer term). There is (inevitably) considerable controversy about the numbers, but the initial effect of the early Industrial Revolution in Europe was to depress earnings and increase poverty, and at a time (early 19th century) when democratic franchise was severely limited (in the UK, about 8% of the population—the landowners—could vote for members of Parliament) and the only welfare/social security provision was via the Church-administered Parish system (think: Oliver Twist). The increased poverty and social dislocation drove organised social and political agitation (the Corresponding Societies, the Chartists, and—yes, they must be included—the early Marxists) that eventually led to democratic reforms. IOW, industrialisation alone does not automatically create a better society; historically, in fact, it was the damage wrought by such industrialisation that was the impetus to hard fought improvements (and largely through the machinery of the state).

    Jeepers, now I’ve really wandered waaaay off topic of this blog. But one more quibble, and that’s your claim that you are

    out of my element here

    You’re really not yet getting the hang of the papal infallibility thing, are you? When Cardinals Gary, Tomato Addict and myself voted you into the Supreme Pontiffship, we were confident you’d be a Fun Pope who’d get a genuine kick out of wielding such power! Contrary to the title of the SA article linked above, your motto should be, Papal Power: Abuse it or Lose it! 🙂

  36. mnb0 asks if I oppose laws that ban child labor.

    I assume, mnb0, that you see some kind of connection between that and my free market position. Why didn’t you ask if I favor the impressment of merchant sailors and the practice of indentured servitude?

    Look — I favor individual rights. Life, liberty, and property. Freedom to buy and sell, freedom to contract, and to do business, are inevitably part of that. Some people will be more successful than others. That’s okay. I don’t mind living in a country with successful entrepreneurs. I prefer it. I think that’s better than living in a country that outlaws them and drives them away. I’m thinking about the economic freedom that can result in Silicon Valley, but you imagine that I favor the Satanic mills wherein Oliver Twist toiled. I suggest that you have been conditioned to make that connection, and it might be worth the effort to re-think the situation.

  37. The paper is freely available here: http://www.sesync.org/sites/default/files/resources/motesharrei-rivas-kalnay.pdf

    I do not think that it is worthy of the Curmudgeon for him to parade it, or actually in this case just the funding of the studies that led to it, as an example of insanity, without having read it.

  38. Paul Braterman says: “I do not think that it is worthy of the Curmudgeon for him to parade it, or actually in this case just the funding of the studies that led to it, as an example of insanity, without having read it.”

    Thanks for the link. I have read it. I’m not impressed. Of the three types of societies they run through their model (Egalitarian Society, Equitable Society, and Unequal Society), only the third type represents actual societies — and they acknowledge this on page 20. It seems to me that any society, faced with drought, famine, etc., is headed for collapse, so the presence of inequality seems irrelevant. It’s a constant, because factors like intelligence, talent, etc. are always distributed unequally. It’s true that hereditary elites can perpetuate inequality, even in the absence of genuine ability, but that’s still irrelevant. If a society runs out of resources, it’s going to fail.

    Scarcity of resources (the other factor they model) is also a constant, and thus also irrelevant. It’s not as if the “elites” are sitting on mountains of bread while everyone else is starving. When there’s a catastrophic scarcity, they’re all going to suffer.

    Tellingly, they don’t provide examples of societies that have attempted for compel equality, although such exist — some of them have recently collapsed, and some exist right now. They are not models anyone would want to emulate.

    In conclusion, I see no value to the study.

  39. @The Curmudgeon “That’s okay. I don’t mind living in a country with successful entrepreneurs. I prefer it. I think that’s better than living in a country that outlaws them and drives them away”

    but you are already living in a country that is doing that. “The American Dream” to me was always that if you worked hard and applied yourself you would go ahead, but that is dying. 2 different studies have shown that an American born in either the lowest 40%,or 50% (the two studies used different points) you have left with less chance of getting into the top 60% or 50% than any country in Europe. You are now ranked 49 in the world in the the ability of the bottom 40% being able to better themselves and dropping fast.
    University students would come all America earn their degrees and try to stay in America, because it was the land of opportunity. Now in increasing numbers they are earning their degrees and leaving again because they an see better opportunities back home.

  40. To be more specific about the worthlessness of the study, on page 4 it says:

    This model (called HANDY, for Human and Nature DYnamics) advances beyond existing biological dynamic population models by simultaneously modeling two separate important features which seem to appear across societies that have collapsed: (1) the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity [citations] and (2) the economic strati cation of society into Elites and Masses (or “Commoners”) [citations].

    Those two features are common to ALL societies (except a few tortured examples like North Korea, which no one recommends), so what does this study say, really? They might as well have modeled factors like the presence of men, women, and children, and then made recommendations that more (or less) of one or the other would be beneficial.

  41. I, too, would put faith in a free market if there were indeed such a thing. There certainly is not in the US.

    First, there is the vast Code of Federal Regulations, without which you would not have requirements for airbags, clean food and water, safe air travel, etc.

    Second, there is the corporate welfare that our government has decided to dole out to maintain/encourage certain industries.

    Back 120 years ago, when the market was much freer, the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Carnegies, et al. accumulated so much wealth and power that a Republican administration, Teddy Roosevelt’s, felt it necessary to break up the trusts that they had formed.

  42. I, too, would put faith in a free market if there were indeed such a thing. There certainly is not in the US.

    The free market isn’t at the moment doing such a wondrous job of averting climate change, though, is it?

  43. The free market isn’t at the moment doing such a wondrous job of averting climate change, though, is it?

    That’s my point – there isn’t one, and having done business around the world, I am not aware of any.

  44. Diogenes says:

    Strangely, the authors you’re attacking did not say “the kid whose job is running around Disney World in a Mickey Mouse costume should have the same piece of the pie as Walt Disney”, but admittedly, your dumber version is easier to knock down.

    Yes, I entirely agree that it’s absurd. But that’s the point! I’ve taken their recommendation (equality of income) — or rather, their complaint about income inequality — and carried it to the extreme. And having done that — it’s absurd. This is known as reductio ad absurdum, and it’s a recognized logical rebuttal. Your response is: “Don’t do that.” But I’ve done it.

  45. “A false argument similar to reductio ad absurdum often seen in polemical debate is the straw man logical fallacy. A straw man argument attempts to refute a given proposition by showing that a slightly different or inaccurate form of the proposition (the “straw man”) has an absurd, unpleasant, or ridiculous consequence, relying on the audience not to notice that the argument does not actually apply to the original proposition.”

    I think that you are skating close to the edge.