[FoRK] Losing my religion

Jeff Bone jbone at place.org
Sat Feb 13 13:36:12 PST 2010

Comrade Damien says:

> Have to make sure we dont put a company that can go bankrupt in
> charge of a ELE sized chunk of rock in earth orbit.

I'll grant you this:  it's *sort of* a legitimate concern.  The ELE part / risk management is a legit concern;  whether the original actor(s) can go bankrupt or not isn't really the concern itself, you just need to ensure that you've got a safety net for that and other possible business risks, so that if there is a business fail the mission can roll over to some appropriate party without compounding existential risk.  But practically speaking, there are no single private entities that could even begin to think about doing this in the next 10-20 years independently.  Such a thing is more likely to be taken on by a consortium.

And guess what?  Governments fail, too.  Even big ones.  We've lost 1 superpower in the last two decades, gained another, and are on the verge of losing another one (the US) and gaining another one (India.)  What would you rather have in charge of this?  A bunch of profit-motivated independent companies with fractional-share ownership in the outcome, or a single point of failure in some national government?

I sure as shit know *my* answer to that.  You think I've got a misplaced and overblown distrust of governments, but I think any answer to the above other than "a bunch of private companies working together" betrays a misplaced animosity towards the private sector.  I don't like single points of failure.  I don't like monopolies.

> Right. Because corporations have a longer term vision than those in public
> service. This is an incontrovertible truth, and everyone knows it.

Look, if you're going to bother to argue, at least build a stronger strawman.  I *already* stipulated --- in the *very post* you are responding to, indeed within the next few lines of what you're quoting --- that the private sector (often, though there are increasing examples to the contrary) suffers from the problem of short-termism.  And the characteristic time horizon for operating businesses (rather than early-stage ones) is characteristically *even shorter* than the election cycle.  

To wit, third paragraph down from the quote you are responding to I said:

> Can politicians inspire greatness?  Absolutely;  no less than any other individual, and perhaps even more.  But the system itself is not reliable;  it  is not set up properly to maintain focus and resources on long-term goals.  The left often bemoans the problems created by the short-term profit obsessions of Wall Street and the private sector that, supposedly, undermine the ability to achieve long-term goals, to act responsibly and sustainably...  How odd then that they don't recognize the same cyclic pathology --- arguably worse, even more inevitable and severe --- in our system of government itself, exactly analogous, with only a slightly lower frequency.

Get that?  Read it again for comprehension.

Specifically, the (US) public sector operates at about 7.92744799594e-09 Hz whereas the private sector operates at about 1.26839167935e-07 Hz.  That's obviously a big difference but it guarantees that projects that require, say, 10+ years are problematic in either instance.  On the other hand, the private sector has three things going for (at least) that the public sector does not:  you get more parallel exploration of the opportunity space (i.e., competition) and indeed, less centralized failure modes, and you've got ample existence proofs of private-sector planning ability that has that decade-like horizon:  *any* startup *starts* with the assumption of 5-10 years to liquidity.  If the private sector couldn't operate on plans of that timescale, no new companies would ever get started.

Per this:

> Yep. All those dilapidated budgets, empty buildings and decade old computers
> are just too competetive. [sic]

It's not true competition;  that's just the point.  It's a massive, illusory and pathological distortion of the overall landscape, with chilling effects that have nothing to do with the actual potential of the existing quasi-monopoly and everything to do with the structural deficiencies it is caused by and has caused in itself.  That was *the whole point.*  Are you capable of understanding *anything* I say, or does the "Bone said it -> disagree" filter just impede that?  Do you actually have some kind of argument?  If you do, I wish you'd (and / or e.g. Aaron, etc.) would make it rather than just kvetching and being disagreeable for no apparent reason.

What's your thesis, Damien?  Private space stuff can never work?  I don't get what you're attempting to say.

As for this bullshit:

> highly productive ecological niches such as throwing billionaires into minute-long zero-g experiences on the border of the atmosphere. The vision is breathtaking.

Consider where our vaunted program started out:  throwing tin cans with radios into low, decaying orbits.  Then animals.  Breathtaking vision indeed.

You've got to start somewhere.  At least these guys have some idea of how to make this happen incrementally, in a bootstrapped fashion, playing for itself as they go.  That's probably a MUCH more reliable path --- however reliable it might be --- than relying on the fickle winds of public funding and political commitment.  And FWIW, the manned part of this is really not the low-hanging fruit;  the private, commercial, and independent but unmanned possibilities are really the short-term opportunity.  The tourism stuff is just PR and incremental early revenue.

But if you actually look at the business plans for even the tourism stuff --- and I'm not talking about the vomit comet nonsense of e.g. "Virgin Galactic" but the decade-out private station "space hotel" stuff --- that quickly gets into merely-wealthy reach as private cost-per-pound to orbit drops.  This stuff all scales just like anything else:  non-linearly.  They aren't unreasonable extrapolations.


Let me offer one other anecdote about the brokenness of the system.  This is, of course, anecdotal to the point of being questionable folklore, but it's illustrative if not actually true.  Astronauts needed to be able to write in space.  What did we do?  Spent millions inventing the pressurized cartridge ink pen.  What did the Russians do?

They gave them pencils.

Now, you might thing that's an argument for the superiority of communism over capitalism;  it's not.  It's an argument against the web-of-dependencies that has been our aerospace industry for decades, in which the structure itself is designed not to produce optimal solutions but to optimize the job security of massive bureaucracies while throwing money at favored contractors, far in excess of value delivered.

I've said this before, I'll say it again:  the problem isn't purely public vs. private;  it's not socialism or whatever vs. undiluted capitalism.  It's what happens when you try to hybridize the two or coexist and collaborate in some way in some endeavor.  The resulting chimera is a god-awful monster.  I can't think of any exceptions;  maybe one of you can.



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