[FoRK] Losing my religion

Jeff Bone jbone at place.org
Sat Feb 13 09:49:21 PST 2010

Ken asks:

> In this regard, at least, I think we get pretty much from our politicians what we want. And deserve.

Easy to demonstrate otherwise, I think, just with the example of NASA.  Let's stipulate that either we want manned space exploration as a government-funded activity or we don't;  let's further stipulate that we don't want to waste money.  We don't get it, really;  for 3.5 decades we've been getting promises off it repeatedly broken, though at great cost.  So either we want it and we're not getting it, or we don't want it and we're not getting it --- but wasting tremendous amounts of money in absolute terms to *not* deliver it!  I lose, you lose, everybody loses *regardless* of what outcome they were hoping for.

This is like a case study of Arrow's Paradox in action, and shows precisely how social choice functions fail to scale.  Thanks for allowing the opportunity to point that out.

> I have been sorely vexed by one question regarding the suggestion that the private sector could have done better:  Then why didn't/haven't they?  The only answer I have been able to come up with is that there's no business case for it.

Of course there is, and it's been articulated well and often by various folks, notably Robert Zubrin and crowd.  (Cf. The Case for Mars, etc.)  A commercially-sponsored trip-to-Mars would be the biggest show on Earth.  Think about how much advertisers / sponsors spend on e.g. NASCAR.  Think about how much --- now approximating a half-billion at the top end --- we pay to make really big movies like Avatar.  Zubrin estimated that a Mars-direct mission could be mounted at a cost of < order-10 billion (in late-90s dollars, IIRC;  would need adjustment, however...)  That's actually in the realm of what private interests can fund, certainly given the payoff economics involved:  ads, sponsorship, direct subscription, special-access content and subscriptions, merchandising, etc.

(BTW, even the Big Showy Trip To Mars isn't the biggest opportunity out there.  Drag a middling-sized S-type or M-type asteroid back to earth orbit from the belt:  payoff in the > $1T range, and likely to grow even higher.  Etc.  Cf. Mining the Sky by John S. Lewis.)

Why haven't private interests pursued this sort of thing before?  Already answered this one.  The zombie-like corpse of NASA sits atop to body of the relevant industries, pinning it down.  It is the mere *presence* of NASA that dominates, directs, and ultimately muddles the incentives of the entire space industry, and has for years.  Its presence distorts the entire landscape;  its failures create fear and FUD, its budgets create pools of easy money, the pursuit of which often delivers no relevant derivative or durable good.

> Is it our representatives who have the attention spans of a gnat? Or is it us and they are merely responding to it?

Well, that too.  But the system insures that our reps have the attention spans of gnats;  that, at least, is fixable. ;-)


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