Robot Jobs, a Series

From Inc., a new company Harvest Automation is building a robot that does one job very well: moving planting pots. Aside from the improved economics of planting in pots and having robots manage the “fields”, there’s this comment from the unskilled laborers that used to move thousands of pots by hand:

Currently, growers have a shortage of workers, so they plan to keep [all current employees] on and give them higher-value tasks. And the workers [Harvest Automation is] training tell us they would much rather supervise robots than move pots around by hand.

The robots are coming. There really can be no dispute about this. Even in China, where labor costs are lower than the United States, the roll-out of robots continues (even if not on the original schedule). Millions of jobs are going to disappear.

Whether this is a good thing or not is besides the point. I, personally, don’t mourn the loss of dull, repetitive work like moving plant pots. I think these unskilled laborers will be much happier and healthier in their new role. But that’s just me; maybe you disagree. Doesn’t matter. The robots are coming. The only question is how we are going to respond. And since the beginning of the industrial revolution in England, there have been generally three response: sabotage (King Ludd), stepping up the human effort of competition (John Henry), and working with the new technology (John C.).

Of course the Luddites failed to stop progress and John Henry died trying to keep up with that steam-shovel, but who’s John C? He’s my grandfather. He was no Henry Ford or John D. Rockefeller, taking the technology of automation out to the limit, but he was an engineer and he owned a farm. Comparing the average worker to some industrial titan wouldn’t be fair, but everyone can do what my grandfather did. He approached the technology of his era with an open mind, and used it to make his own job better, and make himself more effective at doing it.

The robots are coming. Maybe they aren’t coming for your job this year or next, but keep an eye out for them. If you see them coming, I have only this advice – embrace them quickly and learn to use them before your customers do. Then figure out how to add value on top. As an early adopter you’ll be creating more value than any of your competitors, and when your customers finally do wise up to how the robots work you’ll already have a plan for still making a living.

Stuart Scott, RIP

Sports punditry is the quintessential human experience, and Stu brought it all to the TV screen every time the camera cut to him, even when it cut away from him to show highlights while he narrated last night’s sports achievements, punctuating them with trademark quips and exclamations. For many years I ate my breakfast and read the news while Stuart Scott lived the perfect human life.

First, there is sports, which, aside from ticket sales, [blog sponsorship name here]’s beer sales, t-shirt sales, and other vending sales [blog sponsorships welcome here], media coverage, security details, maintenance details, parking, and scalping at the site of the sporting event, is meaningless.

Then there is sports punditry, a cloud of ceaseless talking about sports, both on the radio within the local markets and nationally broadcast, and also on the television, broadcast nationally via satellite, first at ESPN, which was Stuart Scott’s home, then growing into innumerable channels, day and night, which media also generate advertising sales, which create staff, who need brick-and-mortar workplaces, maintenance, and vending themselves, a love of all which creates a cycle of love for sports, reciprocating to the paragraph immediately above this one.

Shall we nod in agreement to each other to gently saunter by the political ramifications brought by stadium builds, infrastructure contracting, and monied interests shaking hands nefariously with elected officials, even so far down as to tiny high school athletics, without further discussion? Yes, athletes are worth more than their agents have yet imagined.

In an interview about his particular style of punditry, Stuart Scott remarked that he did not employ his famous quips and exclamations always, at most once per broadcast, revealing a studied professional acumen toward his craft, a respect for his audience, his consumer. His approach was very basic: practice, energy, and love.

“Love for the game” is a phrase attached to sports idols, those who demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice everything to win the game, not only sacrificing the self, but sacrificing with great cheer. Stuart Scott led the way in loving love for the game so that we, his fans, loved him loving love for the game. And so it grew. ESPN is now an empire in no small part because of him.

After all, human existence is in large part living out fantasies and illusions, celebrating growth which will, like Stuart Scott, fade, awaiting the next technological advance, the next cultural progress, exerting effort to lay claim to some sort of meaningfulness in family, work, society, at least a little bit. Unfortunately, the next meaningfulness will be made known after it survives the next big smelting. As Patton quipped famously, “Compared to war, all other human endeavors shrink to insignificance.”

I’m biding time between wars, both hidden, personal wars, and the great outbreaks of human significance, which are sheer and utter destruction, the ashes from which yield something beautiful, flawed and invaluable. Stuart Scott didn’t pretend for one moment that he had anything to contribute, and I, for one, am glad that he did not threaten to become significant. He gave me something to think about in my boredom.

Stuart Scott (d. January 4, 2015), I hope, as you trotted off the field toward that Great Post-Game Press Conference In The Sky, you were greeted by rabidly fanatic angels shaking pompons, shouting your name within a clever, perfunctory rhyme. RIP.

Low-cost access to space is a game-changer

In my previous post on SpaceX and its rocket ambitions, I argued that low-cost access to space would be revolutionary in the same manner that ocean navigation or rail roads were revolutionary, giving the global economy a broader scope of activity and greater access to resources. I intended to leave it at that, but recent new is just too topical to pass up.

A few days ago Elon Musk announced that SpaceX will start building satellites in house, and their first project is to build a constellation of satellites orbiting at 750 miles altitude (which is fairly low, for a satellite) to provide broadband internet access to the entire globe, and also serve as an internet backbone. Many satellites just communicate with ground stations, bouncing messages back and forth between the Earth. If I understand Musk’s comments correctly, it seems like these satellites will communicate with each other in orbit too, passing signals among themselves as an internet relay competing with the undersea fiber optic network. The benefits of such a system over the current fiber networks are: global coverage, that signals travel faster through space than through fiber, and satellites are less likely to get hit by fishing trawlers or attacked by sharks.

A reasonable skeptic would ask at this juncture though whether anyone has tried this before, and what their success was like. The answers to those questions are “Quite a few”, and “Total failure”. The Iridium constellation cost over $5 billion and went through bankruptcy. Today the satellites are still in orbit but provide mostly just expensive cellular phone and paging services. The Teledisc constellation (which sounds very similar to the proposed SpaceX plan) failed before even getting off the ground, despite funding from Bill Gates and a Saudi prince. Globalstar went bankrupt shortly after launching its constellation, and the successor entity continues to downsize and cut costs. SkyBridge LLC failed so completely it doesn’t even warrant a Wikipedia entry, and its spectrum allocation was sold to WorldVu which hopes to launch satellites in 2019. (Hope springs eternal)

So given that every previous attempt has gone bankrupt, why should we get excited about this one? Well, the answer returns to the economics. The physics of bouncing signals between satellites is well understood – everyone loves their GPS network and DISH Television has may fans. It’s the economics of providing the very large constellation necessary to power high-bandwidth, low-latency data coverage to the entire globe that’s been the problem to date. Specifically, the launch costs of reaching orbit are ridiculous. As I mentioned previously, the Space Shuttle cost between $1-2 billion per launch, and the expendable rockets offered by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Arianespace cost hundreds of millions per launch too. Each of the above failed ventures represents billions of dollars in launch costs.

SpaceX meanwhile has brought launch costs down significantly, even before achieving reusability. The Falcon 9 costs $61 million per launch, and the Falcon Heavy when it goes operational later this year will be only (“only” is a relative term in space flight) $85 million per flight for the most capable rocket launched from the United States since the Saturn V was retired. The next biggest rocket, the Delta IV Heavy from Boeing, costs 900% more per pound – $375 million for half the cargo. If SpaceX does achieve reusability later this year, costs should drop by another 50% immediately, and eventually as much as 90%. Furthermore, it’s very likely that conservative commercial and military satellite customers will not want to take a chance on a “used” rocket immediately, and will continue to pay full price for a couple years to get new ones, letting SpaceX fully pay off their rocket on the first launch and then launch their own satellites on the following flights for just the cost of fuel and operations. Combined with the constantly falling costs of electronics (Thanks Moore’s Law!), SpaceX’s venture should have a much lower cost basis than any previous attempt.

This new satellite venture is just the first taste of what low-cost access to space will bring. In the years to come, especially as SpaceX solidifies what its pricing will be post-reusability, you should expect more announcements of companies and projects that finally deliver the thriving space economy that in the 50s and 60s was expected to be just around the corner. Now I think it finally is.

Mr. Azazel Goes to Washington

We consider morality to be a primitive and natural condition, and government to be the protector of our original virtue. As for ultimate questions of power, we Americans delegate these to our elected representatives, whom we then despise and vilify for doing what they must do; while, free from such temptations, we go about the business of becoming good men and women.

-Martin Gurri, America and the “Machiavellian moment”

From an alternate timeline, an alternate Sam Wilson implores us not to abandon the great myths that hold our body politic together by a few delicate threads. I myself have made a similar argument; I think one crucial reason our military is so respectful and subordinate to its civilian masters is because the members of that military all buy into the great American democratic religion. Those who think they can corrode the legitimacy of democracy without big, horrible side-effects have got another thing coming.

And so Sam begs us:

My advice to anyone who finds this? Rediscover myth. Rediscover glamour. Rediscover the joy of the shared lie. Trust even when you have nothing but the fleeting flicker of hope. Love the hardest when you are unloved. Tell stories. Believe against the evidence of your senses.

The problem, of course, is that “the shared lie” often has consequences, precisely because reality doesn’t conform to the nice “roundness” of stories.

From The Motherless Oven

We see the problems in the inaugural post of the newest Sweet Talker, Jordan. Inspired by Henry Kissinger’s classic Diplomacy, Jordan walks us through the classic dichotomy between moral values and Realpolitick. He argues that America can afford to act as though it is above the latter because of its current monopoly-like position in terms of global military might, but that this cannot last forever. And clutching so tightly to rigid moral ideals is neither practical nor healthy:

With moralized political discourse, opportunities for compromise are unilateral closed. After all, if, for instance, you believe abortion to literally be murder, why would you negotiate with murderers or their supporters? If you believe in human rights, why would you ever allow your nation to trade favors with a nation that ignores them?

Jordan’s post brought to my mind a pair of old posts by my father; one on the very same dichotomy, quoted at the top of this post. The other on the President as Azazel; or more familiarly, as scapegoat.

Welcome to the American presidential elections process. It has very little to do with electing a president. It’s mostly about making demands on the world. I, for example, want to live in a Jeffersonian paradise, in which the choice between being good and being free never comes up. It’s a great place to be. But how do I get there?

Simple. I vote for President Buzz. He makes the choices. At first, I will be grateful for this. I can live in my private Eden, while Buzz, poor man, dwells in a public hell. But eventually, I’ll have to ask myself: what’s he doing down there? He bullies other countries, and fight wars that sometimes go wrong, and conducts himself with far less moral purity than my ideal — which, by the way, is me cavorting in my Eden.

Off with Buzz. In with Chaz. The world should never pose tragic riddles to Americans. That’s my non-negotiable demand of the new Chaz administration. Be pure. Be perfect.

But keep me safe. Preserve my Eden.

My reading of these four posts is that the American democratic religion worked, to the extent that it has worked, because of a sort of willful ignorance of the inherent contradictions. As it is put in the “Machiavellian moment” post:

Americans, it would seem, exist in a “Jeffersonian moment,” in which the contradictions standing in the way of freedom are leaped over, and the moral tensions between power and virtue are never acknowledged or felt. Somewhere in Hell, I imagine, Machiavelli is shaking his head in wonder and puzzlement.

Americans have not traditionally been particularly interested in politics, aside for a specific class of people devoted to it. This lack of interest allowed them to pursue moral purity while pretending that the ugly choices inherent in that form of human cooperation known as politics (including international politics) simply do not exist. But someone has to pull the heads of the pigs to get us our pork. Every so often voters notice the ugliness of it,  and respond by voting out a few incumbents. Feeling satisfied with themselves, they turn back to their own lives.

The threads of mythology that hold a body politic together are, I have said, fragile. What Jordan calls trader morality is a cousin of straightforward pluralism, which is a historically contingent arrangement. The fault lines of American pluralism appear to center on this malign neglect of the world of elected officials most of the time; remove the neglect and Azazel’s sacrifice goes from a blood rite to mere bloodshed.

In his book, my father hypothesizes that a combination of historical circumstances combined with the rise of the new media landscape have pushed us very close to that edge. In fact, the trend is global; the various myths and sacred cows are find themselves staring down the barrel of a gun wielded by those in the grip of the glamour of negation.

The information environment has, I think, rendered the American bargain untenable. But the eradication of previous myths will not bring us to paradise; as alt-Sam argues, the result will be rather the opposite. Instead, we need to begin to rethink ourselves and our ideals. This process does not take place in a vacuum; nearly all of the resources for doing so will come from the conceptual schemes we are already inside of, as Americans among other things.

The questions we must wrestle with, as these three writers highlight, are the big ones: how do we reconcile living a worthy life, holding our public officials to moral standards, and the demands of survival and preserving our most important institutions?

Contrary to Machiavelli and his intellectual descendants, I do not think that such a synthesis is impossible. I don’t think that survival and preserving the body politic demand that we put the morality of the soul to the side. But I also agree with him that the traditions of thought which construct ideals without considering the terrible choices that are often required for such preservation and survival are lacking.

For me, a proper ideal of good government and the good life must be embedded in the practice of politics; it must internalize the relationship of practical demands into a moral framework. An important part of this is helping us to determine when, as Jordan would put it, the moral price of survival is worth paying, and when it is not. Many of the problems that Jordan and my father identify come, I think, from drawing lines carelessly and then being inconsistent in defending them, or even in remembering where they are. Such lines are important, and not to be dealt with frivolously.

I’m not even going to try to outline the substance of this alteration of our current mythologies, which are presently trembling in an ICU somewhere. Such a task is far beyond my present level of expertise. Thankfully, there are others working on that task, and have been for a long time. I hope one day to be at a stage where I am comfortable joining them. Until then, I do feel comfortable insisting that the project is far from impossible, and increasingly a necessary one. Our long pact with Azazel is slowly unraveling, and if we do not find a new one, I’m afraid our present institutions will all be so much mud in Heraclitus’ river.

Piercing the Veil: The Arbinger Institute on Self-Deception and Natural Goodness

Having come to the stretch of research for my book where I will primarily be reading business and self-help books, I picked up Leadership and Self-Deception, a book that my boss has been recommending to me practically since I started reporting to him. This was not meant to imply I needed it more than most; he recommends it to everyone. The first thing I noticed was the unusual byline—the author was not a person but an organization: The Arbinger Institute. The book itself was also not what I expected—it was written as a narrative, rather than a straightforward exposition. Between the format and the brevity of the book, I finished it in a couple of days and immediately picked up their other book, The Anatomy of Peace.

I enjoyed both books, and think nearly anyone could find something of value in either one. But given my reasons for reading the books in the first place, I couldn’t help but attempt to force their framework into mine. But of course, that’s no way to do a proper synthesis! First, you have to understand a framework on its own terms.

So I will attempt an honest, if brief and therefore incomplete, critical assessment here.


Self-Deception, Self-Betrayal, and Seeing People as People

The difference between the two books is not one of theory but of focus. If you’re primarily interested in how Arbinger’s philosophy can help you develop a company culture that is both effective and humane, you probably want to read Leadership and Self-Deception. If you’re more interested in the broadest possible applications of the philosophy, including to your life as a whole, then The Anatomy of Peace is your best bet. Both can serve either purpose, they are simply tailored differently.

The framework that runs across the books, and in the Arbinger Institute’s consulting work in organizational culture and conflict resolution, is consistent. People are steeped in self-deception, and this self-deception invites self-deception in the people around them and frustrates them in their goals. In Leadership and Self-Deception, the state of self-deception is called being “in the box”. In The Anatomy of Peace, they work up to that phrase but speak primarily of having your “heart at peace” rather than “at war”.

The process of getting into the box is quite straightforward. You see another person and perceive some way you can help them. Only you decide not to. In deciding not to, you do not merely do nothing and feel bad about it. You actively begin rationalizing the choice. In Anatomy, they use a metaphor from carpentry—when something is crooked it must be “justified”; that is, made straight.

The choosing not to honor the desire to help the person in question is what they call an act of self-betrayal, and this act makes us crooked. As such, we immediately begin seeking justifications. The justifications take two basic approaches—making ourselves feel bigger and more than we are, and diminishing the person we had the instinct to help. “I’m a busy, important person, and I don’t have time for this kind of trivial thing,” would be an example of the former. In each book they mention a high-powered career husband who uses this justification to avoid doing the dishes, mentally denigrating his wife because he comes home after working long hours only to be made to feel like he should do more, when she is “just a housewife.”

Moreover, we begin to feel resentful of the person we originally had the instinct to help, among other negative emotions. After we enter this state, it can persist, becoming a sort of mythology we build around ourselves and our relationship to this person, and even, as seen in Anatomy, the whole category of people to which they belong. This state is “being in the box”; where the box is the wall of justifications and negative emotions we carry with us whenever in certain situations with certain people.

Moreover, this has major implications beyond how we are feeling or what actions we take outwardly. When you’re “in the box” or your “heart is at war”, other people can tell, and their first instinct is to react in kind. In other words, when we betray ourselves and become warped, we invite the people we interact with to warp themselves as well. In both books this vicious cycle is called collusion because it becomes a sort of self-perpetuating mutual dysfunction.

The great strength of both books is how rich they are in stories, provided as examples. One story that sticks out in my mind is the relationship between a mother and a son, told by the former. She talks about how her son always stays out later than he’s supposed to, and she always nags him about it, and this just kind of keeps happening. Then she recounts one incident where he wanted to borrow their car, and she said he could do it on the condition that he came back by 10:30, assuming that was too early for him. But he immediately says yes, and she spends the rest of the evening stewing over how she is sure that he is going to be late. She sits, waiting for it to be 10:30, getting more and more angry about it.

But when he arrives at 10:29, she finds herself feeling disappointed. After wasting all that time feeling angry, she wants to feel justified about it. So instead of rewarding him for keeping his promise, she says “cutting it a little close?” in a snippy way. From his point of view, now, he’s justified in always coming home late because even when he comes on time she treats him the same way. From her point of view, the fact that he almost never comes on time regularly justifies her attitude. This is what Arbinger means by collusion—they get stuck in a particular relationship to one another and are more motivated to seek justification than to break the cycle. And they continually encourage the very behavior in each other that they wish would end.

The solution is embedded in the framing of the problem—we enter into self-deception when we betray ourselves and justify this betrayal in ways that make us see others as objects. The answer, then, is to honor our initial desires to help one another, and to see one another as full human beings struggling with needs, challenges, and desires just like us. Obviously it’s easier to say than it is to do, and I will have to point you to the books for their many, many examples of how this works in practice.

But the central story is this: we often create caricatures of the people around us for selfish but ultimately self-destructive reasons. With the courage to see people as they really are, and act on our generous impulses when we can, we can have more fulfilling and peaceful lives at home, at work, and even on the global stage of diplomacy and war.


Seeing People As They Are—Which is What?

At the heart of this new optimistic view of the possibility of knowledge lies the doctrine that truth is manifest. Truth may perhaps be veiled. But it may reveal itself. And if it does not reveal itself, it may be revealed by us. Removing the veil may not be easy. But once the naked truth stands revealed before our eyes, we have the power to see it, to distinguish it from falsehood, and to know that it is truth.

(…)Man can know: thus he can be free. This is the formula which explains the link between epistemological optimism and the ideas of liberalism.

-Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations

The big epistemological assumption underlying everything the Arbinger Institute does is that we can see people for who they really are. The reason it is called self-deception is because we are deceived; we are not seeing reality as it is. They do not shy away from this assumption; they state it quite plainly and repeat it frequently in both books. Whether or not you agree with the particular stages by which we enter self-deception, it’s all rather moot if there isn’t any payoff to overcoming it.

The books do not draw its arguments and evidence from metaphysics, scientific studies, or big-T Theories. The fact of prior research is mentioned several times and Arbinger’s history page claims that founder C. Terry Warner led “a team of scholars” in the 70s who conducted research on the matter. I am sure if I dug deeper into his and their corpus I could find more substantial stuff, but these two books are how they present their ideas to the world. So with the caveat that Warner and his institute may have more going on than there is in the two books, I’m going to focus on the framework as it appears in those books and in this short paper.

The framework is very thin on theory. There is a theory, and several core concepts, but it’s remarkably simple. The primary method of defending the theory is, as I said above, not through citations or drawing on a grand theory of human nature, but through casuistry. That is, through a pile of individual stories that are taken to be representative. Every objection in each book—and Anatomy in particular clearly draws on the objections that Leadership faced after its publication—is met with not one, but many little stories of interactions between people. There are also several visuals; simple charts and squares (“the box” comes from a four-square diagram used to illustrate the justifications and attitudes we carry around after betraying ourselves) in the style of a training session at a business.

This brings me to my core objection to the framework, and one which I believe it does not have the resources to respond to: everything we know about cognitive science tells us that the idea that we can pierce the veil between us an unblemished reality is simply false. Truth is not manifest. All of our perceptions are in some sense constructed; from our eyesight which is a model projected by our brain that can be manipulated in predictable ways, to our memories, to the rhetorical-ethical frameworks through which we interpret the world. Scientists, for instance, do not simply peer at reality dispassionately. They are selective in what they choose to observe and consider significant, and this selectiveness is informed by their beliefs about what has been established as more-or-less given by other people in their field, most of whom they have not met or are dead, and whose results were only replicated (when, in the best of times, they are in fact replicated at all) by a subset of the community.

Even the much more limited case of simply understanding the situation you are presently in, social psychology has demonstrated that how we construe a situation is as much about psychology as it is about perception.

I would be interested to see how they would respond to this line of criticism; as far as I can tell they haven’t yet defended their framework against it.


Virtue as Alternative but Close Cousin

It should come as no surprise that I see virtue ethics, in tandem with cognitive science, as able to provide a fuller account than the Arbinger Institute’s. However, I think the insights from both books are valuable, and can be comfortably absorbed into a virtue ethical framework.

“Self-deception” and the Arbinger’s story of how it develops is a wonderful shorthand for how our numerous cognitive biases nurture the vice of pride, and how that vice, if unchecked, comes to poison our relationships and our lives.

I have already said that I don’t think staring upon unblemished truth is an answer or even an option. But I do think that the virtue of charity can play that role in Arbinger’s framework just as ably. Especially that aspect of charity that is loving your neighbor as you love yourself; Leadership and Anatomy are both a call to see others as full human beings with “comparable hopes, needs, cares, and fears” to our own. That is the virtue of charity, to a T. That, and (as with all virtues) acting upon that notion—helping out people when you see them in need.

Living in New York City makes it very easy to think about this. Most of the time New Yorkers treat most other New Yorkers as objects—mostly physical impediments to getting somewhere, sometimes something worse. It’s not a regular occurrence, but also not rare for people to get into shouting matches on the subway because of perceived slights or perceived inconsiderateness. People don’t like being treated like objects, but their response is to treat others that way. On the other hand, it is very common that when someone looks lost, people will go out of their way to ask if they need help. And when someone falls down, half of the subway car will jump up to make sure they’re OK and offer their seat. And when someone who is elderly or pregnant gets on the train, they very frequently get offered a seat even when it’s crowded. When confronted by other people’s vulnerability, it is much easier for us to be charitable. Arbinger is asking us to be charitable even when it isn’t easy; that we owe it to one another to work as hard as we can to avoid seeing each other as objects, under any circumstances.

The books also ask us to have the courage to admit that we have accepted a construal of the situation that is psychologically self-serving but morally distorting. And, beyond that, to find the courage to act on this knowledge—to own up to these past mistakes to those we have harmed, to be vulnerable and ask the forgiveness of those we may have been harsh and unforgiving of ourselves.

And of course, they are asking for our faith. Faith that we can have the wisdom to see what we should do as we live our lives, faith that that will resonate with the people around us as Arbinger’s stories have resonated with us. Faith that we know what we owe, so that we can be just, that we can have the discipline to see this moral vision through most of the time, faith that we can be both forgiving and forgiven. Faith that we will work better together if we can do so with humility. Faith that other people are worth giving the benefit of the doubt in the first place. Faith in our natural goodness, and the natural goodness of most other people when helped out of their own cycles of self-deception.

I won’t go through and list how all of the virtues are applicable here (after all, they always are) but you get the idea. The basic insights of the Arbinger Institute’s books are valuable and basically correct, but they make more sense in a cognitively informed virtue ethical framework than in their simple, truth-is-manifest, pierce-the-veil framework.



Let me conclude by just saying that I am a big fan of these two books, and how they present their ideas. It was a surprise to discover that Leadership and Self-Deception is a narrative rather than an exposition, but a pleasant surprise. More philosophers and scholars should take a crack at presenting their ideas in fiction, even if it takes collaborating with someone who is a better writer than they are. This is part of what makes Russ Roberts, for instance, so admirable. He has not one but three novels dedicated to making the core insights of economics accessible.

I recommend either or both of these books to anyone thinking seriously about bettering themselves at work or anywhere else. They’re wonderful and inspiring, not to mention useful. Moreover, they are very short, so it is not a big time commitment to take them on. You could do worse than reading one of these books, or both.


This post is a brief interlude from our normal discussions on virtue, ethics, and community. For a moment, let’s talk about rockets. They’re really big, and really cool, and they’re about to change human history forever.

Check out this Vine:

What you’re looking at is the first stage of a Falcon 9 rocket failing to land perfectly on an autonomous spaceport drone-barge in the Atlantic Ocean. Let me break that down for you and give you a bit of background just in case you don’t follow developments in rocketry.

Who is SpaceX, and a bit of history

SpaceX is an American aerospace company based out of California, founded in 2002 by Elon Musk (previously a co-founder of PayPal) with the stated goal of lowering the cost of access to space, and in the long term, colonizing Mars. They have several future rockets in development, but their current work-horse rocket is the Falcon 9. It’s the first and largest of the Falcon 9’s two stages you see crashing in the above Vine. Since the Falcon 9 was introduced to the market in 2010 it has filled its launch manifest with contracts from both NASA and the private sector, business that came at the expense of existing rocket companies like Boeing and Arianespace, by offering access to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) for substantially lower prices than the competition.

The Falcon 9 however  is an “expendable launch vehicle”, or ELV, which means that each rocket launch is a one-use event. The rocket is not recoverable, and a new one is built each time. Needless to say, this is a very expensive way to do business. Imagine what airline tickets would cost if they threw away the plane after each flight.

Of course the problem of expendable launch vehicles being wasteful and expensive has been known for a long time. This was obvious during even the dawn of the rocket age immediately after World War II. There was some work done on reusability back then, but those projects were quickly scrapped and the funding was moved to expendable design. The reasons for this were two-fold: (1) the military needed rockets to deliver nuclear payloads, and those sorts of rockets are a one-way trip. Reusability is a wasted feature on an ICBM. And (2), President Kennedy wanted to reach the Moon on an incredibly ambitious time schedule in order to beat the USSR at something. Expendable rockets are simpler to build and fly, and the technology easier to develop, so they could meet the politically imposed schedule that reusable rockets could not. To the extent the Apollo program intimidated the Russians and helped prevent the Cold War from escalating into a hot one, it was probably worth it, but rocket reusability was lost for a generation.

The next attempt to build a reusable system was the Space Shuttle, and it was a partial success, but mostly a failure. The Space Shuttle Orbiter (the white quasi-plane looking part) was partially reusable, but not rapidly so. It required significant refurbishment between each mission (especially on the heat-absorbing tiles), which was very expensive. Further the solid rocket boosters on each side basically had to be rebuilt each time they were used (a bit like rebuilding the engine of you car between each trip to the grocery store), and the big orange external fuel tank was lost entirely. The end result is that the Space Shuttle flew infrequently and cost between $1 and $2 billion per launch, depending on how you chose to do the accounting. Not very frequent, and not cheap. (By comparison, Falcon 9 may have a smaller capacity than the Shuttle, but a new one can fly every month and for only $65 million per launch).

NASA fiddled around a bit more with reusability in the 90’s by experimenting with the DC-X and VentureStar concepts, but both of these projects were eventually abandoned by NASA despite their technical merits and NASA has not done anything significant in the RLV space since. Ever since that time NASA has (in my opinion) been fatally captured by the special interests in Congress more interested in funneling government money into local-district jobs than reaching space, and the Constellation-come-SLS programs have been a sinkhole of money and engineering talent from which no useful rocket will ever fly.

SpaceX picks up where NASA left off

Now it’s precisely into this morass of despair that mankind will never develop cheap access to space that Elon Musk ventured when founding SpaceX. We know from interviewing engineers who started the company with him that Elon demanded that reusability be built into the Falcon’s Merlin engines from the very beginning, even if the rockets themselves weren’t reusable yet. Elon had learned the lesson of the Space Shuttle – it wasn’t enough for a rocket system to be “sort of reusable”. If access to space was going to be cheap, reusability had to be rapidly reusable, or RRLV. Basically – fly, land, refill the tank, and fly again within a day or so. No six-month refurbishment cycle, no strap-on boosters that need replacing.

SpaceX is advancing quickly towards that goal, and has already made more progress than NASA ever did. As I mentioned earlier, the Falcon 9 only flew for the first time in 2010. The “Grasshopper”, a modified Falcon 9 used in Texas to test reusability, was built only a year later in 2011 and flown between 2012 and 2014. Here’s some videos of those test flights. In 2014, following an ordinary rocket launch (if any of them are ordinary yet), SpaceX caused the Falcon 9’s (since upgraded to v. 1.1) first stage to decelerate and briefly hover over the Atlantic Ocean before landing in the water. The stage wasn’t recovered but it proved deceleration to a controlled landing was possible. And so it was that last November SpaceX revealed its autonomous spaceport drone-ship, a football field-sized drone-ship that a rocket could conceivably land on.

(As a side note, the ship itself is really cool. You think remote-controlled drones that Amazon sells are cool? Or that Google’s self-driving cars are the bees knees? Well this is a drone ship the size of an oil rig that can hold position in stormy seas and a rocket can land on. What a great synthesis of recent innovations in offshore platforms, sensors, and drone technology.)

Now as you saw in the above Vine, the landing was not a success. That’s shame, but I bet the folks at SpaceX are really happy with it anyway. For one thing, this wasn’t an expensive test-flight rocket built just to land on the barge. This was a fully functional (and paid for) Falcon 9 that had already delivered a Dragon cargo spacecraft into its docking orbit with the International Space Station. This flight had paying customers satisfied with the performance; SpaceX is basically having NASA pay for its test flights.

More importantly though, this was only the first attempt to land on an free-floating platform at sea that’s ever been attempted by a vertically-landing rocket (or any kind of rocket, that I know of). It’s amazing to me that the rocket even hit the barge at all. For a rocket coming in from 80 km up and traveling at Mach 10, finding a 100′ by 300′ target in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and landing on it even as gently as was seen is incredible.

And of course this isn’t where the story of SpaceX’s reusability program ends. The reason this rocket crashed is already known (it ran 10% short of the necessary working fluid in the hydraulic system controlling its wings). A bit more hydraulic fluid will be added to the next attempt (in just three weeks!), and maybe this time the Falcon 9 will stick the landing. Or, as Elon admitted on Twitter today, maybe the rocket will blow up for another reason entirely. But the point is they keep learning and trying. Eventually I have faith they’re going to get this, and the Falcon 9 will become the first rapidly reusable space transport system the world has ever seen – and probably some time this year, as they have twelve flights on their manifest to keep trying with.

But why should anyone besides a rocket nerd care? 

Okay, so possibly some time this year SpaceX may land a rocket, fill the tanks back up, and fly again. What’s this mean in practice to the average Joe?

This is where economics comes in. Currently, a Falcon 9 costs $65 million / flight and puts 28,000 lbs of cargo into Low Earth Orbit; that’s about $2,100 per pound. The Falcon Heavy (the next generation SpaceX rocket to fly for the first time this year, but using mostly proven Falcon 9 technology) should bring the price per pound down to around $1,000. Not bad at all, compared to contemporary and historical examples. But that’s based on the ELV design where the rocket is thrown away. What happens when we reuse the rockets? Well, prices come down – a lot.

Rocket fuel is pretty cheap. According to Elon, the fuel bill is less than 2% of the cost of a launch, or about $20/lb for the Falcon Heavy. If the cost of the rocket can be amortized over 20 flights or more, you’re looking at costs to reach orbit down around $100/lb or less. Assuming a human and all his luggage weighs 500 lbs, that’s a mere $50,000 to reach orbit. Compare that to the $70 million per person that NASA is currently paying Russia to reach the ISS. Quite a savings.

Further, consider that SpaceX is currently building (and throwing away) a new Falcon 9 every month. Imagine if instead of throwing them away, they flew them again the next month (or week (or day)). Within a year SpaceX could have a fleet of rockets making daily trips to orbit. Currently there isn’t even demand for that level of space access, but that’s because the current market is built around paying Boeing $50,000 per lb instead of paying SpaceX $500 per lb or less. When price falls, demand rises.

Once space access is cheap, what happens? Here’s some ideas-

  • You think the Hubble telescope is cool? With cheap space access, private Universities or smaller national programs could put multiple Hubble telescopes in orbit each. And bigger, too.
  • Private robotics teams could afford to send rovers to the Moon, Mars, Venus, or, who knows- Ganymede.
  • CubeSats, already cheap, could become college-project cheap.
  • Bigelow Aerospace could put inflatable space stations in orbit larger than the ISS, for much less money, and lease the space to national space programs and corporations.
  • A private company could send men back to the Moon.
  • Communication and weather satellites could be larger, and more numerous, improving life on Earth in numerous ways.
  • We could mine the asteroids for precious metals such as gold and platinum. These metals aren’t just for jewelry, but have useful industrial purposes too (like being used in fuel cells). One large asteroid can have more platinum-group metals than have been mined in Earth’s entire history. We could see within 10-15 years these metals be demoted from precious to bulk commodity, just as aluminum was a little over a century ago. The consequences of such a price change is hard to predict, but you know engineers and entrepreneurs will come up with something.
  • We could go to Mars.

And those are just the near-term ideas that people are already working on. Ultimately what’s worth noting is that Earth is only a small part of the solar system. There’s more of everything in space. Most of the Sun’s solar energy does not hit Earth. There’s hundreds of times more physical resources available in the asteroid belt than we have ever used on Earth. There’s 200 million cubic km of water just on Ceres, and then there’s the rest of the asteroid belt and all the comets. Habitable real estate is not so common, but you can make it if necessary.

Previous technologies I would compare this to would be the advances in navigation and ship design that propelled European explorers, settlers, and colonizers to every corner of the globe in the 1500-1700s, the invention of the rail roads connecting the American continent and the Russian frontiers, and the advent of container shipping which really globalized the world economy. Each of these inventions made what had been previously unreachable, available and cheap. The European settlement of the Americas essentially quintupled the physical resources available to Western civilization, a fact that we are still in the process of developing. The containerization of trade (along with a steadily improving regulatory climate in East Asia) made Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China into economic dynamos. And so giving humanity access to 1000x more energy and physical resources that it previously had will have … unknown effects. But you can bet they’ll be big. Get ready. We’re about to see an expansion of human economic activity that only comes along every few centuries. It’s going to be awesome.

Leading By Example

In my previous post, I criticized Nathaniel’s ethic of unilateral charity as being ineffective or even perverse under certain institutional arrangements. An abolitionist who merely bought slaves to free them would only cause the evils of the slave trade to increase while enriching the slavers. However, I don’t want to be seen as being overly critical of Nathaniel’s ethic, because it’s truly beautiful. In fact, I should say that it should be the default ethic. We should always strive to act unilaterally and directly first, and only fall back to collective action when it’s obvious an institutional failure prevents our unilateral action from having positive effects.

Again, to keep things concrete, I will use the example of chattel slavery in the American South. This institution was obviously evil in pretty much every way, so there can be no reasonable debate as to whether a virtuous actor should strive to end it. The question is: how? My contention was that Nathaniel’s strategy of simply buying them and setting them free is naive, and probably harmful.

My suggestion, were I to travel back in time and find my opinion on the matter requested for some reason, would be to work on improving the white culture in the South, and their perception of blacks as people. Cultural and legal change would then flow from the majority’s view that “Hey, blacks are people too.”. Of course this process eventually did happen in America, over a hundred years or more, but there might be opportunity to speed that along. This task would not be Sisyphean (there’s an end goal that’s possible to reach), but it was indeed Herculean and required much charitable effort. And notably, the laws that eventually made a real difference in improving black lives (such as the Civil Rights Act, and ending the poll taxes and literacy tests) did not happen until after this process had reached a critical mass of American voters.

How would I have speed up this process? This is where Nathaniel’s ethic of using sympathy to end the cycles of injustice comes into play, but we apply it slightly differently. Rather than buying up all the slaves, I would pass the hat around at the local Abolition society in order to buy a few dozen slaves. Of course I would offer these slaves their manumission and the choice to simply walk away (otherwise, what sort of abolitionist would I be?), but I would make the argument to them that they can best help their own situation, and their children’s situation, and the culture at large the most by becoming a champion of black dignity and charity. Notably, by helping whites. Yes, whites.

Slavery is was a problem for blacks, but was a problem of whites. Slavery was a white problem, and its ending is a sign of white progress. It was the English communities that legalized, condoned, and practiced slavery that bear the flaw. You have to fix that flaw, and the only way to really fix it is encourage brotherly love from whites to blacks. To end slavery most effectively, whites have to love blacks; which is to say, blacks must make whites love them.

Does this sound fair? It’s not fair. Life ain’t fair. Get over it.

Imagine, if you will, if the Abolition Society took it upon itself to teach a freed black slave a trade such that he was able to provide for himself in early 1800s America. Maybe he’s a carpenter. And every couple years this carpenter takes on a white (yes, white) apprentice. This youth, raised in a racist culture, probably doesn’t have a high opinion of the black carpenter, but he needs a job and this one is on offer. Over the course of several years, no matter how derogatory the apprentice may behave, the black master treats him with dignity, pays him fairly, and makes an effort to teach the young man the ways of carpentry. After a few years, the master lends the young man a bit of money if necessary for him to get started with his own tools and business.

Now imagine that happening with dozens, or hundreds, of black professionals every year turning out many young whites on the world that see them as fair and dignified people. In this way I think the process of love between the races could be speed up quite a bit.

You’ll notice that the path I have described (based on Nathaniel’s ethic of redeeming the sinners) is very different than what actually happened, which is why our poor nation has had such a hard time of it on race relations. The Abolitionists seemed more concerned with using legislative tactics and war (but I repeat myself, as law is force too) to simply compel the rest of white America to comply with the Abolitionist view of the world. Even if the Abolitionists were morally right on slavery, they caused unnecessary loss and strife in their impatience and desire to achieve ends rather than change hearts. Further, the black community has often taken a view of having “black institutions” like Howard University or the NAACP help black people, feeding into the “us vs them” atmosphere that has poisoned race relations all these years. More action by both parties at the local and personal level, and with a goal of changing the heart of the racist rather than forcing his lips to comply, would, I think, have helped a great deal. It certainly would have set a great example.

They Can March With Me

In Greek mythology King Sisyphus was punished for deceitfulness by being compelled to roll a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this action forever. Upon hearing this story, everyone I’ve ever met have agreed this would be a fairly frustrating way to spend eternity.

I can’t help but think of Sisyphus when reading about the ethic of my new co-blogger Nathaniel Snow. I find Nathaniel’s deep commitment to personally fixing the problems around him (rather than waiting for government to do it) to be very inspiring, and indescribably admirable in their charity, but also a bit short-sighted. (Sorry!) The issue I see is that there are circumstances where his strategy of unilateral charity brings lasting change, and circumstances where it does not. In this latter situation, the ethic leads to a Sisyphean task.

To keep things concrete, I will use the example of ending slavery and manumission. Nathaniel has made the case (and sensibly) that it would have been a lot more straightforward (and perhaps even cheaper) for abolitionists to have simply bought chattel slaves from their owners and set them free, rather than to organize politically to have the law changed in the face of stiff opposition. I can see the logic in one sense, but in other this view ignores that slaves (until the law was changed to end the slave trade) were a renewable resource. If one were to raise charitable money to buy all the slaves in Savannah (and the owners were willing to sell, which is another issue we’ll ignore for now), there’s nothing to stop the former owners to take you money, walk down to the port, and buy the next shipment of slaves coming in from West Africa.

In the above situation, the unilateral actor has actually made the situation worse. Now instead of there being a single African abducted from his or her home and shipped overseas, there’s two. The slave-owner is no less worse off (assuming slaves of equal quality), the charitable actor is poorer, and the scallywags involved in the slave trade have made twice as much profit on their endeavors.

Furthermore, there’s no obvious point at which this cycle stops short of the entire population of Africa being forceably moved overseas. From the point of view of the market, the charitable actor is just another source of “demand” for slaves.

Where I think Nathaniel’s ethic works best is illustrated by the example of his previous post, where he makes the point of knowing the people in his community and helping them. In his example community there is no obvious institutional failure. Parenting often involves personal failures (as I will be the first to admit), but it takes place within a good system. Inside that good system, good people are empowered to help each other effectively, and a few kind words and deeds go a long way to Pareto-improving everyone’s situation. This is the admirable and inspiring part of Nathaniel’s ethic of individual action.

So that’s the difference I think that illustrates when individual action is positive, versus when collective action is necessary. Inside a good system, individual action produces Pareto-improvements. (In fact, we could define “good” systems that ones that allow Pareto improvements from individual action) In bad systems, individual actions produce perversity, and collective action is necessary to change the system (because only a tyrant can change a system unilaterally). Note, however, that I’m not arguing against charity and personal sacrifice, those will be required in either case. In the collective action cases, charity is not only possible but required; write a check to your local Abolition Society, and volunteer your time.

They Can Dine With Me

The bleeding heart libertarian starts out with some moral ends in mind. That forces that sort of libertarianism into a politically activist position with regard to reform. I eschew that approach, considering all reform to be destined to failure. Feel free to disagree, but keep in mind that the victims of successful reforms are unobservable.

They are Bastiat’s Unseen. We really like to apply Bastiat to reforms that we consider interventionist, or from our point of view on net harmful, or not fitting with our sympathies. But Bastiat must also be applied to those reforms that do activate our sympathies. We must always check to be sure that it is not a factional sympathy that is aroused, nor a telescopic sympathy, but a general sympathy.

Andrew Cohen thinks a parenting license is a good idea, justified on the basis that it will reduce the amount of other sorts of regulations required, and on the moral premise of Mill’s harm principle. Brilliant on the basis of calculus. Cohen pre-empts two sorts of objections: (1) a presumption against regulation of all sorts, and (2) a belief that we do not have the means of testing parental competence.

To rebut the first objection Cohen suggest that the new license would allow for the repeal of various other regulations, hence, on a Kaldor/Hicks basis, we have less net regulation. But Cohen fails to explain how the special interests that maintain the existing regulations could be appeased into accepting repeal of their rents. Who will pay off the teachers’ lobby and the consumer protection agency? Those entities are political powerhouses.

The second objection Cohen addresses is akin to Hayek’s knowledge problem. How can we know who will be a good parent? Cohen suggests that we only try to weed out those who would obviously be bad parents, perhaps by administering an exam or two. He also implies that the cost of licensing would deter bad potential parents from entering into the endeavor.

Very well, but this would also weed out many good parents, unless one simply defines good as wealthy.

It further ignores one point that strikes incredibly close to home. Any honest and good parent would immediately confess to sometimes being a bad parent. Perhaps not an awful parent, but certainly at times emotionally harmful, occasionally guilty of placing children in harm’s way, and despite all best attempts to the contrary often negligent.

But all this should be swept aside. Cohen’s real fault is assigning to a centralized bureaucracy that which each of has a better probability of deterring individually. How can we really deter bad parenting? Here’s a crazy idea: how about inviting the neighbor family over for dinner?

In isolation, sympathy does not discipline the behavior of weak parents. But when we get together with other families good habits are caught. If we form a strong bond, the threat of being rejected from that group serves as a powerful deterrent against bad behavior. Morality is what we share.

My kids were out playing in the neighborhood one summer’s day when I decided to take the dog for a walk and to see what they were up to. Not finding them in the likely places I did a more extensive search through the neighborhood. One of the neighbor boys had been climbing a sign-post when the sign fell off the top and landed on the lad’s head. My kids had been with him at the time, and were in front of his house when they explained what happened.

Finding no parent at home I intruded the premises (willing to assume full liability for whatever followed) and found the boy with a 6 inch long gash down the middle of the scalp and a lot of blood in a bathroom. We called the mom, and asked if we should take him to the hospital nearby, but she said she was on the way. But all that blood. I got him cleaned up so that the mom did not pass out when she saw him.

Since then (and before) I’ve known the neighborhood kids pretty well. I’m involved. Most of them are boys and I’ve got girls, so there’s a good reason to know each of them personally. And we regularly welcome the other kids (and parents) into our home.

When I worked at an inner-city boarding school I was often responsible for taking kids to the pool at the local YMCA. Sometimes other kids were there, misbehaving. I often crossed a line with a simple “NO” and saw behavior improve. Maybe it’s because I look like a narc, but I would hope someone would do the same for my child.

This isn’t just “it takes a village.” It is more. And it is practiced more than it is the product of theory. It takes concentric realms of responsibility, and a willingness to cross some lines when the situation demands it.

I suggest Mr. Cohen’s have dinner with the neighbors sometime. As usual, if he lacks an opportunity, they can dine with me.

Equilibria of Violence

Some have been expressing shock at how little coverage the recent Boko Haram massacre has received in the global media. Many are surprised that a national government which responded so decisively to ebola would present such a relatively tepid response to a violent insurrection situated within its own borders. I suspect  those people are underestimating the distances—geographical, political, and psychological—involved.

[Note that this will not be an analysis of the conflict itself, nor of possible solutions, but is rather a hypothesis that partially explains domestic and international inaction and the implications of that inaction. For something more conflict-specific, I recommend starting with this, this, or this.]

First, geographic. I grew up in Kuwait, and while not present for the first Gulf War, my family was there during the invasion of Iraq. Basra is a two-hour drive from Kuwait City, give or take. 30 minutes from the northern border. In traffic I couldn’t drive across Minneapolis, or Calgary, or Sydney in that time. Nevertheless, the running joke was that “first years and Americans got out”, and after the initial exodus, the remaining expats and locals settled back into their routines of school, work, and everyday life. Occasionally these routines would be interrupted by an unimpeded missile, but even then the pseudo-normality remained. Anthony Loyd describes a similar phenomena in My War Gone By, I Miss It So, about the daily living in Sarajevo during the Yugoslav conflict, and the need to dart across alleys and dodge snipers when going about everyday errands.

These are extreme examples, but when you look at a map of the affected areas in Nigeria, Google Maps has it pegged as a 20-hour drive. That’s equivalent to a north-south trip from Minnesota to Louisiana. For Americans living several states away from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, just how much did that shake up your everyday life? Whereas a potential ebola epidemic in the heart of Lagos? That’s a clear and present danger.

Political distance is about access to power, a group’s capacity to affect power relations. If you’re part of a small Republican minority in a “Democratic” state (or vice versa), it’s unlikely any national politicians, or even many state-level politicians, are soliciting your input; whereas a key demographic in a swing state? They hang on your every word. Why can Saudi Arabia and Bahrain effectively ignore their Shi’ia populations, or China, except in the breach, its Uyghur population? The exceptions prove the rule: until the groups can pose a meaningful threat to political stability, it is costly without benefit to respond to those populations. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith systematized this perspective in their recent book, The Dictator’s Handbook, which I highly recommend.

The combination often get mixed with a potent third, which is psychological distance. This is a completely independent variable, and the maps get redrawn often as the relative weights of kin, shared faith, politics, ethnicity or other dimensions shift in relation to one another. The term, the “Other” is a marker of this distance, an admission of the empathic chasm that lies between two people, or two populations.

Cumulatively, the effects of these three dimensions of removal means that, in the absence of the conflict in question burning itself out, the lack of priority and political will condemns the situation to that of an endemic infection. Wars don’t demand an end by themselves. Americans have talked in stunned terms about the longevity of the conflicts in Iraq or Afghanistan, but consider the Tamil resistance in Sri Lanka that maintained itself for decades before finally ending a few years ago; the Lord’s Resistance Army in central Africa, which is no longer as prevalent in the north of Uganda as it had been, but has endured by ignoring the borders of its neighbours. The Naxalite resistance in India and Nepal has roots going back to the 70s, and is anything but resolved.

Bruno Latour, in his paper Turning Around Politics, touched on the heart of the issue when he wrote: “Here is a Copernican Revolution of radical proportions: to finally make publics turn around topics that generate a public around them instead of trying to define politics in the absence of any issue.” The dimensions of distance impede the formation of an effectual public, and what that means at least in the short term is that the system settles into an equilibria of violence. For comparison, you may consider how a state like Wisconsin fails to see any immediate cause for concern in the tens of thousands who have died as a result of clashes between cartels and government forces in Mexico in the last decade. That distance is geographical, political, and psychological, and unless some group arises that is capable of closing the gaps, and barring any significant systems disruption, there is no reason for the violence to disappear. Wole Soyinka, reflecting on the genocide in Rwanda, vows “never again”, but in the absence of a public those  words are mere aspiration, sentimentalist and ineffectual.