We Can’t Grow Forever – so What?

Two interrelated opinion pieces appear in today’s New York Times. The first is an essay by David Brooks about how the economic growth of the 21st century compares unfavorably to that of the heady 20th century. The second is the Editorial Board’s argument that data does not support the idea that automation is responsible for recent economic malaise.

Brooks’ piece resonated with me because I hold the opinion that, regardless of your position on regulations, taxes, the environment, or public policy, a nation simply cannot grow forever. Whether we are talking about population size, economic output, available resources, or territorial holdings, there is simply a fundamental limit to what is available on the Earth. I think we are starting to see these limits reflected in our growth path, as Brooks writes. Extractive industries provide a good case study: I don’t think we’d have deep-water drilling if shallow-water drilling remained lucrative, and I don’t think we’d have the economic case for fracking if the easy-to-reach resources were still as worthwhile to get. Similar principles are going to apply to any resource or population.

The notion of the Earth being finite seems to bother economists. If our population does not continuously grow, then our output doesn’t grow. The United States’ trajectory through the 20th century was predicated on the idea of continual growth, which spells trouble if we try to carry that path forward. This is where the editorial comes in: In order to succeed and provide for our citizens in the 21st century, we need new policies.

The United States’ economic policies over the last several decades have been basically Republican policies. (I want to explicitly draw a distinction between “Republican” policies – across-the-board tax cuts, cutting regulation, and increasing defense spending – and “conservative” policies – market-based solutions, revenue-neutral ideas, and the like – because they are very much not the same.) Somehow, the Republican party has managed to sell themselves to many Americans as the small-business-friendly, growth-promoting, income-increasing party that they are not, instead of the giant-multinational-conglomerate-favoring, uber-wealthy-CEO-catering party that they are. In a world where more and more people are gunning for fewer resources than they could have a half-century ago, those policies may be the exact opposite of what we need. So are we going to get the policy reforms we need under Republican leadership? Certainly not. My generation is going to inherit a world of rapidly rising income inequality (not to mention sea levels).  Because, I think people wanted to buy one thing when they elected Republicans last November, but they got a lemon.

The frustrating thing to me is that I believe the Democrats have it right, in terms of policy philosophy. Maintaining a strong economy in the future world is going to be about efficiency. We’re going to have to find new ways of going about our business so that we can make more with less. We’re going to have to find ways to incentivize building robust products that last a long time, instead of selling consumers on the idea of constant upgrades. We’re going to have to find efficient ways for society to reduce its overall costs while balancing individual needs, like all buying health insurance so we don’t pay more at the ER. We’re going to have to power our homes with home-grown renewable energy, not just because it’s good for the planet but because it’s going to be cheaper and more readily available in the long term. We’re going to have to go back to what we learned in elementary school: reduce, reuse, recycle!

And we’re going to have to figure out how to make economic growth out of that, as our population starts to shrink. That clearly requires policy changes. Blind cuts to regulations so that we can dump pollution in rivers won’t solve this problem; tax cuts that go mostly to wealthy corporate boardmembers won’t solve this problem; more nuanced approaches are needed. The solutions are likely carefully crafted, market-based plans involving a full portfolio of cuts, new regulations, and taxes.

Many of those will be conservative solutions.

(Probably, at this rate, ones put forward by the Democratic Party, like the ACA.)

A ray of sunshine here: At the state and local level, politicians are trying to solve problems. This involves recognizing what the problems are, and trying to implement a plan to address them. It also involves trying a new plan when the first one doesn’t work.

So, let’s watch carefully over the next few years: What works? What doesn’t?

And who put forward which ideas?

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Donald Trump will fail as President, but we must still resist him

Donald Trump will fail as President.

Let me explain that statement a little, by defining what I mean by “fail.” Trump will fail to accomplish most, if not all, of the goals that he has publicly stated he wishes to accomplish. (He may, of course, accomplish goals that he has not publicly stated, like enriching himself by manipulating the office of President or severely curtailing civil liberties. But we can’t really know what those are, so I will leave them aside for now.) The reason is simple: most of his stated goals are flatly impossible.

Take, for example, his pledge to “unleash” the coal industry. He plans to do this by rolling back Obama Administration regulations. However, those regulations aren’t the reason why the coal industry was in trouble in the first place. Coal was in trouble because it’s too expensive. Natural gas is cheaper. Even wind and solar are getting cheaper than coal! The only way to “unleash” coal would be through a massive campaign of government subsidies. Good luck getting Paul Ryan to sign up for that, Mr. Trump!

Or, for another example, look at Trump’s vow to put the US military “on display” by increasing the military budget to buy more ships, tanks, and planes. But the military development and procurement processes these days are decades long – so even if Trump doubled the military budget, it could be ten or twenty years before there’s any visible increase in American military capability!

Trump also says he wants to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. He wants to do this by renegotiating free trade agreements. This won’t work at all, though – the reason why lots of manufacturing jobs dried up in the US is more because of automation than trade and jobs moving overseas. A terrific example is the Carrier plant where Trump claimed to save jobs from moving to Mexico. Part of the large taxpayer-funded incentive package Trump gave to Carrier was assistance investing in their Indiana plant. Guess what Carrier is investing in? Automation! If that automation cuts the need for more jobs than Trump saved, he produced a net loss for American workers.

I could go on, of course. There’s the infamous travel ban that doesn’t target terrorists, but instead targets terrorists’ victims. There’s his pledge to provide healthcare for everyone, which there’s really only two ways to accomplish: give it to everyone (a single-payer system), or require everyone to get it and give them assistance if needed (Obamacare). His promises regarding GDP growth or budget-balancing don’t square with any projections, assuming he cuts taxes the way he promised. His rhetoric and stated goals are populist, but his policy proposals and cabinet appointments are corporatist. A wall along the Mexican border will have to traverse rugged mountains and sovereign Native territory, and there is no way for the US to get Mexico to pay for it.

He’s simply not going to do any of the things he wants, because he cannot. But I think patriotic Americans need to fight against him whenever we can anyway.

The first reason to resist Trump is because, though he may be a snake oil salesman, he’s a good salesman. He knows how to use your own brain against you. His administration appears to be on a concerted campaign to gaslight us – to get us to question the veracity of any information presented to us by anyone other than the administration itself. They invent fake terror plots, fake definitions of words, fake counts of people, fake reasons why the President can’t disclose his business dealings, and fake historical events. This process isn’t benign, and it is insidious. Removing references to Jews from the Holocaust, for example, has long been an anti-Semitic tactic.

So, we must constantly be on our guard. We cannot assume that the administration has our best interest in mind. We cannot even assume that what they say is accurate. We have to carefully screen their statements against facts available from reliable sources, and we have to defuse their gaslighting with knowledge of how they are trying to manipulate us. (Seriously, read that article!) We have to resist. If we don’t, who knows what they will try to sell us on?

The second reason to resist Trump gets back to my definition of failure as failing to accomplish his stated goals. I am quite sure that Trump has unstated goals. If he didn’t want to hide anything, why would he keep insisting against disclosing his tax returns, for example? Unfortunately, there’s no way to know for sure what those unstated goals are. But we can probably get some idea by looking at the stated goals of his closest advisers. Steve Bannon, for example, apparently said that he wants to bring the entire American system “crashing down,” and he has been explicit about his desire to curtail civil liberties, especially for non-whites and non-Christians.

Even if Trump fails to do the things he campaigned on doing, he can do a lot of fundamental damage to civil society in the meantime. The confusion over enforcement of the Muslim travel ban illustrated perfectly how, even if the Administration’s orders are unconstitutional, unethical, and flagrantly immoral, they could ram them through for some time before the courts could catch up. (The legislative branch of government has yet to do so!) Voting restrictions on minorities or the poor, more travel restrictions, profiling by law enforcement, permit and grant awards, and other avenues allow the executive branch of government a great deal of power. Therefore, we must fight back: we must challenge his orders in the courts as rapidly as Trump signs them, we must pressure our representatives to stall Trump’s legislative agenda and restrict executive power where it’s abused, and we must remember to keep our voices heard in all spheres of government. Remember, Trump lost the popular vote, and his electoral college victory hinged on the votes of 0.025% of the population – in an election when less than half of voters actually cast ballots. He has no mandate. His Republican allies’ mandates rest on gerrymandering. With such a weak base of support, there is an opening for us. We must seize it.

For the sake of all those too weak to fight back, all those who would be victimized by Bannon’s place on the National Security Council and Trump’s executive orders, we have a moral, ethical, and patriotic obligation to fight back. Because although Trump will fail, his failure cannot come soon enough for our communities.

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Voting with my Feet

I recently made a major life decision: I left my job. And after the US presidential election last month, I feel that my decision was precisely correct. I want to explain my motivation, because I believe that there are important policy issues in play that many people do not think about. I also believe it’s especially important to raise these issues among scientists and engineers.

First of all, everything in this post reflects my personal opinion.

I used to work at an engineering company that does most of its work as a military contractor. My discipline is spacecraft engineering, and this company occasionally offered work on space systems. It was that spacecraft work that attracted me to the company in the first place. I got to design algorithms for a constellation of NASA hurricane-monitoring satellites, and I got to help out with some experimental satellite programs. However, for the several years I worked there I struggled with the fact that space work was sort of a side project for this company. The main revenue stream came from building weapons. The kind of weapons nobody in their right mind should ever consider using.

I recall hearing many ways to rationalize participation in weapons projects: we are defending our nation; if we don’t build these, someone else will; this is just an interesting engineering problem we’re solving regardless of the applications. I could never make any of the rationalizations work for me. That last one, in particular, I found fundamentally disturbing. If we, as engineers, don’t consider the possible applications and implications of our work, then I think we lack the moral standing to do that work – even if our work was not used as we intended. If our projects kill, then we have blood on our hands. I did not want that to happen to me.

There was a particular class of weapon that inspired an existential dread in me. (Fortunately, though I learned about these systems, I never had to work on one. What I know of them comes from the media, as exemplified by the links below.) It’s called a hypersonic weapon, or sometimes a “prompt global strike” weapon. These are weapons designed specifically to travel as fast as a ballistic missile, though they could carry non-nuclear warheads. The problem with these weapons is that their purpose is to penetrate air defenses like that possessed by only a few specific (and often nuclear-armed) nations – Russia and China, for instance. It doesn’t take much of a stretch to imagine that American development of hypersonic weapons would make such nations think that they are our intended target! Furthermore, their design is to move quickly, maneuver erratically, or otherwise act in a manner that could be confusing to opposing radar operators. Russian missile-warning satellites have a historical track record of mistaking things like scientific sounding rockets or sunlight glinting off clouds for an American nuclear missile attack – against which Russian doctrine dictates a nuclear response. So do we really want to confuse those early-warning systems further? Even if the American weapons are non-nuclear, firing one in the vicinity of Chinese or Russian air defense creates an unacceptably high probability of accidental nuclear war. Russian officials may even have suggested that they would respond to a hypersonic weapon with nukes, on purpose.

The really crazy thing is that former President George W. Bush agreed with me and discontinued an experimental hypersonic vehicle program for exactly the reason I outlined: unacceptable risk of accidentally causing nuclear war. What the US is developing now are actually President Obama’s weapons. Obama thought that his Defense Department would rely on American technological superiority to deter any potential adversary. Instead of our weapons having the most powerful blasts, they would have other fear-inducing qualities. They would strike the quickest and be able to penetrate any defense. In addition, with non-nuclear warheads, these weapons are not limited by nuclear arms treaties and might even be useful to generals fighting a smaller-scale conflict like the one against ISIS. Ironically, though, these non-nuclear weapons could very well set off a nuclear counterattack anyway! Worse, Obama touched off a volatile hypersonic arms race among the biggest military powers of the world. Now several nations are rapidly developing the ability to accidentally trigger a global nuclear holocaust by setting off the US’s, Russia’s, or China’s Cold War-era automated response systems.

Though I didn’t work on those weapons, my former company had an intent focus on military programs. I feared that it was only a matter of time before they ran out of civilian spacecraft work and assigned me to something nefarious. Hypersonic weapons are only one terrifying example. Missiles, drones, cyberweapons – work on all these things and more is common in engineering companies. Given the Pentagon’s push for “disruptive innovation” – really, just think about how scary that phrase is in connection with the military! – I figured the prospects for a guy who wants rockets only to explore space were likely to get worse. Ultimately, I decided that it was up to me to vote with my feet, uphold my moral convictions, and deprive both my former company and the military of my engineering talent. So I got a new job, at a facility that doesn’t do any weaponry. I’ll be working on telecommunications satellites, and weather satellites, and imaging satellites, and space probes. That was how I cleared my conscience. But to do so, I had to move across the country to find an aerospace industry facility that didn’t build weapons. Others with the same moral dilemma may not be so flexible.

Now enter President-elect Donald J. Trump. In a primary interview, he suggested the use of nuclear weapons, in Europe, as a means to fight ISIS. He has reiterated many times how important he thinks it is to be “unpredictable” with his nuclear policy. He wants to abolish the deal that pushed Iran from being months away from developing a nuclear bomb to a decade away. He has publicly stated that the US should pull back from defense commitments in Europe and Asia. He has suggested that he would be okay if Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia all became nuclear powers. He has offhandedly proposed bombing various American enemies, large and small. And he wants to dramatically increase US military spending. With merely a phone call as president-elect, Trump caused an international incident. All this is likely the product of willful ignorance: He is refusing security briefings, and he doesn’t believe the information presented in those he does attend.

A Trump world is a world with more nuclear-armed powers and more instability. I do not have confidence in his ability to refrain from policies that make nukes more risky, or even from ordering a nuclear attack himself. Furthermore, I have little doubt that, given the option to launch a “non-nuclear” hypersonic weapon at some target that peeved him, Trump would pull the trigger. An all-too-possible result: global nuclear war and the end of human life as we know it.

If that happens it will be Trump’s fault, and not mine. I left the weapon-mongering subfield of engineering, and so I will not help him do these things. Not even in a small way. My decision feels secure. But, thanks to his election, the safety of the world isn’t.

I think we all learned something from this election: the price of silence. The media failed to challenge Trump on his most egregious or insensitive claims. Republican party statesmen failed to hold their own convictions as his fortunes rose, and instead held their tongues over each new outrage. Ordinary Americans failed to discuss the issues with their family and friends outside of Facebook’s echo chamber. And then, on Election Day, voter turnout was historically low. We’re seeing repercussions for bigotry and harassment already, and Trump’s decision to pack his cabinet with generals – violating the American principle of civilian leadership of the military that goes all the way back to George Washington – makes me extremely skeptical about future military strategy and weapons development. That’s why I wanted to to write this piece: We, as Americans, all need to think hard about how our tax money is going to be spent on the military, and whether that spending makes us safer or not, regardless of the jobs it secures for our communities. If the military money doesn’t make us safer, or especially if it makes us less safe, then perhaps we can find other ways to sustain jobs with federal funding: say, basic research and infrastructure investment. We need to keep a sharp eye on our federal policies and keep in close touch with our representatives in Congress.

Trump is a man who tolerates no disagreement, and doesn’t hesitate to unleash a horde of GamerGate-style trolls to harass and threaten people who question him. Furthermore, the congress is going to be full of spineless, unprincipled people like Paul Ryan, who condemned Trump’s moral failings…short of withdrawing their endorsement of this man who could keep them in power. They will not be an effective check on Trump. So one thing I am doing in response to Trump’s election is finding ways to live my policies, and letting my behavior in the market speak to American policymakers and companies for me. We signed up with our home energy provider to receive 100% renewable energy. We’re donating to the ACLU, and SPLC, and Brady Campaign, and Planned Parenthood, and Natural Resources Defense Council. We’re getting newspaper subscriptions to the New York Times and Washington Post. We’re buying into programs that offset the heavy carbon emissions of airplane flights. We’re putting a priority on getting fuel-efficient cars. When we do buy fuel, we’re going to try to buy from European companies like Shell that have tied their executives’ bonuses to carbon-reducing efforts (and to avoid ExxonMobil, which waged a decades-long disinformation campaign after its own research scientists became aware of the occurrence and causes of global warming).

And, in that same vein, I left my job at a weapons manufacturing subcontractor.

There is power in voting with one’s wallet and one’s feet. In particular, I think engineers need to consider carefully the applications and implications of the work we do. Especially any engineers given the choice of contributing to the most devastating weapons we can imagine, or weapons that do the most damage against civilians, or devices that are overly provocative to other nations. If our work falls into the wrong hands – say, an “unpredictable” American president who won’t rule out weapons of mass destruction and has advocated targeting civilians – then we share in the responsibility for the consequences. I would like to encourage other engineers out there to devote some thought to how they can also find ways to use their skills to make our world a better place.

Because, in Trump’s new world, we as individuals are going to need to spend a lot of effort to make things better. Hopefully, there will be enough of us to counteract him.

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A Diary in Space

I recently read a fascinating book – a diary of a man who spent about a year on a space station. In his journal, he expresses his excitement about learning to live and work in space. He’s proud of the opportunity to represent his country, and he enjoys sharing his accomplishments with international visitors to the crew. He learns to appreciate the automated systems on the next-generation spacecraft sent for resupply. He grows – and eats – plants in space. He worries about ennui, and at one point enjoys playing a practical joke on ground control with a monster mask. He particularly enjoys exercising on the treadmill and observing earth’s geology. His dream is to perform a spacewalk, and he achieves that goal.

You might think I’m referring to astronaut Mark Kelly’s hashtag-YearInSpace. But I’m not.
The man is Valentin Lebedev, and the book is “Diary of a Cosmonaut.” The mission is Salyut-7. The year is 1982.

I found the book quite interesting to compare to recent events in spaceflight. For one thing, the similarity between Lebedev’s Soviet mission and Kelly’s #YearInSpace was uncanny. I’m not even kidding about the monster mask – it came up to the Salyut station with French cosmonaut-visitor Jean-Loup Chrétien. Lebedev’s translator wrote the phrase “learn to live and work in space” even then, back in the early 1980s.

What sticks in my head, though, are the ways the Salyut-7 mission differ from a contemporary NASA International Space Station Expedition. In 1982, the Soviet Union was not able to communicate with their stations over the full length of the orbit. As a result, the two-cosmonaut crew had a much greater degree of autonomy than NASA affords a modern mission. Lebedev and his commander made their own decision to extend their spacewalk. They often decide which scientific experiments to do. They determine much of their own exercise regimen, and they arrange the interior of their station to their liking. These are behaviors that NASA must learn – re-learn, really – if they truly want to send humans out to “live and work” beyond Earth orbit. Especially at Mars, where real-time communication back and forth with mission control is not feasible.

This is not to say that everything was better on Salyut than on ISS. At one point, the two cosmonauts smell something burning – fire is an immediate existential danger on a spacecraft. They’re out of communications with the control center, so the cosmonauts grab a fire extinguisher and go hunting for the source on their own. They find the source of the smell – a component overheating – and take care of the problem. Then, they decide not to tell ground control. Wouldn’t want to worry them! In another instance, the cosmonauts are rearranging supplies and equipment on their station when they find that a refrigeration unit won’t fit behind a panel. So: they get out a saw, and start cutting the metal panel. (Somebody thought they would need a saw?!) I’m all for astronauts learning to build and repair things in space, but this activity leads the cosmonaut to make the logical complaint. Metal shavings float everywhere, and one goes in his eye. (Fortunately, his companion is able to remove it, ending that cringeworthy episode.)

There’s a lot the modern NASA could learn from these programs of the past: they were steeped in ingenuity and piloted by independent souls who really had the Right Stuff. But there’s also a lot we have learned: to plan thoroughly, to account for then-unknown contingencies, and to sustain a human presence in space for continuous years. What amazes me most, though, is how, over thirty years later, the broad architecture of life on a space station and the research program in space is the same. We need a next step. Centrifugal gravity, closed-loop life support, agriculture in space: We know the kinds of technologies we need to do to truly enable life and work in space. If only NASA would do it.

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The Maucland Confederacy

In honor of its tenth anniversary online, the Cartographers’ Guild ran a project to map a large, collaborative world. Each participant contributed a map of one country, done in whatever style they chose and with whatever lore they chose. Some of us compared notes with our neighbors to negotiate trade routes and such. Here is my contribution, the Maucland Confederacy!

I took inspiration from my native New England for the names, landforms, and cultures on this map. I’m particularly proud of “Poscadia” and “Quinnameg!” The names along the border are my neighbor countries. (While I was on the other side of the globe from the Fromage War, I enjoy good relations with Janantara Elubor and the Kingdom in the Clouds.)

I am quite pleased with this pen-and-watercolor-pencil map. The colors came out richly, the overall theme holds together nicely, I was able to experiment with some more map elements than I have previously, and I completed the whole project end-to-end in a month, which makes it my second-fastest map after Abrantoc!

You can see the development of the project in my Cartographers’ Guild work-in-progress thread here. Be sure to check out some of the other wonderful maps in this forum!

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A brief note about the 2016 presidential election

Hey, Americans. I want you to know that I’m looking for a few things from my national leadership, especially the President.

  1. Infrastructure investment. Doing this is how we will solve a huge number of problems: Want to create jobs? Advance American science and technology? Mitigate global warming? Fix broken bridges? Make the electric grid more robust to cyberattack? Then we have to invest in our highways, power systems, public transit, National Science Foundation, NASA, and data systems. This all takes concerted national effort and a lot of money, but the important thing about it being an investment is that the payoff is greater than the cost!
  2. An end to the attitude of constant warfare that has pervaded American foreign policy since World War II. Most, if not all, of the foreign policy challenges America faces today are of our own making. We need to stop doing that! We could also save a ton of money in the defense arena. I’m convinced that the US Department of Defense budget could be half of what it currently is, and the US would suffer no loss to national security. (In fact, ending some of our more specifically provocative programs like drone strikes, prompt global strike weapons, or the recently unveiled B-21 would probably increase our national security, by de-escalating arms races and conflicts.)
  3. A considered, logical, and data-based approach to solving our pressing problems. Issues like income inequality, racism, campaign finance reform, education, the national debt, immigration, foreign policy – or anything else, really – cannot be solved with a simplistically soundbyte-y ideologies like “build a wall,” “create jobs,” or “bomb them.” They are complex, multifaceted problems, and we know from history, science, or economics which solutions are more likely to work and which are not. We should use that knowledge. To give an example, if we want to reduce the incidence of gun deaths, studies show that the most effective way to do so is to reduce the rate of gun ownership. To give another, global warming is definitely a thing, definitely caused by humans, and definitely going to threaten our lives and livelihoods in the future: we should fix it, and we know how. In some way, a reduced role for ideology may help advance the other two points, too.

It would be nice to see more of these perspectives from the campaign trail. None of the Republicans have any interest in any of my points. Most of them actually seem to take opposite positions; to listen to their debates, I guess America needs less investment, more war, and more ideology. On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton seems to be interested in items 1 and 3, while Bernie Sanders seems to like them all. If only Congress had more adherents to these ideas!

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Some web tweaks to highlight maps

I’ve just completes a couple tweaks to the main web site associated with Quantum Rocketry, with the goal of bringing my cartographic artwork more front and center. Note that:

  • I take commissions! And I would be willing to sell some existing original pieces. (Really! It’s not all spacecraft engineering with me.) Got a fantasy novel, RPG, or just a private world you want depicted in hand-drawn style?
  • I’ve uploaded several more maps for you to purchase as prints on Imagekind, including the latest Gliese 581g, as well as two maps not yet featured here, Abrantoc and Erthal Province Frontier!


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