U.S.A. fact of the day, *Jump-Starting America*

The United States, as of 2014, spends 160 times as much exploring space as it does exploring the oceans.

That is from the new and interesting Jump-Starting America: How Breakthrough Science Can Revive Economic Growth and the American Dream, by Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson, two very eminent economists.  And if you are wondering, I believe those numbers are referring to government efforts, not the private sector.  I am myself much more optimistic about the economic prospects for the oceans than for outer space.

Most of all this book is a plea for radically expanded government research and development, and a return to “big science” projects.

Overall, books on this topic tend to be cliche-ridden paperweights, but I found enough substance in this one to keep me interested.  I do, however, have two complaints.  First, the book promotes a “side tune” of a naive regionalism: “here are all the areas that could be brought back by science subsidies.”  Well, maybe, but it isn’t demonstrated that such areas could be brought back in general, as opposed to reshuffling funds and resources, and besides isn’t that a separate book topic anyway?  Second, too often the book accepts the conventional wisdom about too many topics.  Was the decline of science funding really just a matter of will?  Is it not at least possible that federal funding of science fell because the return to science fell?  Curing cancer seems to be really hard.  Furthermore, some of the underlying problems are institutional: how do we undo the bureaucratization of society so that the social returns to science can rise higher again?  Will a big government money-throwing program achieve that end?  Maybe, but the answers on that one are far from obvious.  This is too much a book of levers — money levers at that — rather than a book on complex systems.  I would prefer a real discussion of how today science has somehow become culturally weird, compared say to Mr. Spock and The Professor on Gilligan’s Island.  The grants keep on going to older and older people, and we are throwing more and more inputs at problems to get at best diminishing returns.  Help!

Still, I read the whole thing through with great interest, and it covers some of the very most important topics.


There has been talk of mining the oceans for minerals for years.

u.s.a prediction of the day:
virginia is going down tonight

As with many mining projects, ocean miners have found that political manuevers change with tides of public opinion that raise costs in the process.
Elon Musk has demonstrated that the space program can achieve greater efficiencies, but alternative energy may not produce similar efficiences. As noted in Mark Mills (Mahattan Institute) writings, if battery technology had kept pace with Moore's law, a postage stamp sized battery would power the Empire State Building. It currently takes a hundred barrels of oil to produce a battery with one barrel worth of energy storage.
Ocean research is contradicting the wasteful AGW panicked research in demonstrating that natural phenomena such as the AMOC has greater climate influence than mankind's CO2 production. Cores demonstrate a history of turbulent climate change that AGW proponents tend to ignore. Greenpeace founder, Patrick Moore, notes that the proliferation of foramnifera in that past almost brought atmospheric CO2 levels to within 150 ppm (low point 180 ppm) before CO2 levels started increasing with the decline of ice age conditions.
As with ancient libraries, we should be concerned with preserving our libraries and technological advances against manmade and natural catastrophic events. One Carrington equivalent or greater solar blast could fry our electronic dependent civilization back to the Stone Age. Imagine the societal upheavals of war, immigration, and other problems then. Core samples are demonstrating that these blasts are not uncommon. The magnetic poles and Earth's magnetic field strength has been rapidly changing do that GPS systems have to undergo more frequent calibrations. We hardly understand the threats and are concentrating too much money on chimeral AGW research with inaccurate predictions which fail in matching actual outcomes.
There is a need to get our scientific priorities straight before a ignored warning of catastrophe occurs that makes our achievements moot.

Science should be funded by prizes, the current system of funding relying entirely on avoidance of risk to the bureaucracy does not work. It results in funding only going to safe choices which is the opposite of what you need for progress. A real system of science would look totally chaotic and serendipity would play a much bigger role.

The key breakthough in cell phones was made in the early 40s by Heddy Lamarr thinking about how to reliably send data in a shared noisy envirment securely in discussions with George Antheil. Implementation in discrete logic in the 40s would have been costly, plus the idea was too radical at the time. Miltary contractors implemented it in the 60s, but they were spending other peoples money with assured profits. Technology to implement it in commercial products didn't come until the 80s, and in the US in quasi proprietary products, but government in Europe required an industry standard, and focused competition honed this breakthough into global product leadership standard, mostly leaving the US behind where locking customers into proprietary standards hindered product development.

When would you award the prize for this breakthrough, and who would you give the reward to?

The patent was classified, but would have been available to military contractors in the 40s and 60s. As an idea, it would spurred work on implementing it requiring dozens of engineers and technicians, perhaps few seeing the original patent. It would have spread by word of mouth, becoming a framework for designs that struggled with the tradeoffs of the real world noise, plus limits in electronic technology.

The breakthough idea has required decades of work in thousands of implementations, which sold hundreds, then thousands, then millions of product units driving economies of scale feedback.

The same goes for lithium ion batteries invented by a researcher working for what's Exxon today in the 70s, using a deadend chemistry, but others working on the idea developed the all the current chemistries in common use today by the end of the 70s.

But it was mostly Asian workers and funders willing to pay workers for the more than a decade to work out how to manufacture commercial products in the 90s. Then another decade to scale up manufacturing to begin volume sales for high value products. Then another decade of dealing with manufacturing and customer real world issues.

Lithium ion battery tech became the "standard" in the 10s, displacing lead acid and nicad, plus disposable carbon zinc and alkaline in large part.

In the real world, a breakthough is when a new direction is struck with the fruits coming only after a thousand incremental small breakthoughs overcoming thousands of obstacles in both manufacturing and the real world stresses on the implementations, eg, heat, cold, impacts, current surges, ....

Einstein came up with relativity in a few years, but it took years for others to understand the idea enough to work with it, and then decades to employ it in products, broadly interpreted, from research papers to GPS components.

The only example I can think of where a prize resulted in a breakthough was the British Longitude Act on July 8, 1714. Multiple awards were made, but the best result came only after decades of work by John Harrison, with his working class status hindering his getting the reward even after exceeding the object accuracy. He only got full recognition when he was 80, but not the actual original prize, which was never awarded.

You should write a book ...

@ChrisA- I agree, more prizes needed.
@Mulp - R&D means research (the invention) and development (the engineering). You do realize that any first generation invention will be improved by others? Every single one. The polio vaccine for example (injectable vs eyedrops). Even Einstein's general theory (an invention, not a discovery, even if not patented); the math was perfected by others, Einstein was weak in the math. And independent invention, the rule not the exception, is no excuse for not patenting. Think of how quicker something would have been invented if there was a prize (that's granted rather than delayed) or a enforceable patent (a rarity with courts hostile to inventors) to be had.

I watched any number of underwater TV shows and movies when I was a kid in the 1960s: Sea Hunt, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Incredible Mr. Limpet, The Glass Bottom Boat, etc. James Bond and Johnny Quest were always going underwater. It seemed like the future was underwater. Thus, everybody fell for the CIA's cover story that Howard Hughes' Glomar Explorer ship was for mining nodules of manganese(? magnesium?) off the bottom of the ocean, when it was actually for lifting up a sunken Soviet sub.

Don't forget "Hello Down There" with an array of 1960s stars: Tony Randall, Janet Leigh, Jim Backus, Ken Berry, Roddy McDowell, and less expectedly Richard Dreyfus as the bass guitarist and vocalist in an underwater rock and roll band:

How many people remember Skylab? And that before Skylab, there was SeaLab:

'I am myself much more optimistic about the economic prospects for the oceans than for outer space.'

And apart from instant global communications, hurricane tracking from origin to landing (and data collecting involving lesser forms of severe weather), and oh yes, actually being able to monitor the 3/4 of the planet that is water, what have satellites done for us lately?

Of course, maybe this does not count as space exploration - 'NASA’s Earth Observing System (EOS) is a coordinated series of polar-orbiting and low inclination satellites for long-term global observations of the land surface, biosphere, solid Earth, atmosphere, and oceans. As a major component of the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, EOS enables an improved understanding of the Earth as an integrated system. The EOS Project Science Office (EOSPSO) is committed to bringing program information and resources to the Earth science research community and the general public alike.'

Since I don't use GPS, that aspect of space technology is not particularly relevant to me - just like twitter or facebook.

And here is a breakdown of the satellites in Earth orbit - 'Using the UCS update, as at the end of November, the main purposes for the operational satellites are: Communications: 777 satellites. / Earth observation: 710 satellites. / Technology development/demonstration: 223 satellites. / Navigation/Positioning: 137 satellites. / Space science/observation: 85 satellites. / Earth science: 25 satellites.' https://www.pixalytics.com/satellites-orbiting-earth-2019/

'Is it not at least possible that federal funding of science fell because the return to science fell? '

When the going get tougher, the economist says 'Why bother?'

The first weather satellite (TIROS 1) was launched on April 1st 1960. The trashcan demonstrated satellites were useful tools for meteorological investigation. So, it's a very interesting question: what fraction of the "space" budget is effectively Earth observation? LandSat, @NOAASatellites, the future SWOT mission.......all focused in our pale blue dot.

You can say you personally don't use GPS but there are lots of applications related to our daily lives: the system ships use to avoid collisions it's based on GPS, everything dealing with natural resources (the water you drink, oil/gas), urban planning, police work, infrastructure design and construction, etc.

'You can say you personally don't use GPS but there are lots of applications related to our daily lives'

Absolutely - the point was more along the lines that GPS is the sort of space application we take for granted. And a technology whose value in ocean exploration would be difficult to overstate, obviously.

'the water you drink'

Probably not that though - the water supply for this town/region includes the drilled wells just a bit closer to the Rhine from where I live.

Let's say we spent 10% of the military budget and 10% of the welfare/pension budget on ocean research instead. How would that affect society?

You might be surprised just how much of the military budget is already spent on ocean research, not that it would be easy to reliably categorize it, and it is certainly not 10%.

Try this for example - 'The Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command (NMOC) provides environmental information to help Naval and Joint forces operate more safely and effectively, and make better decisions faster than the adversary.

The Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command (CNMOC) directs and oversees the collection, processing and exploitation of accurate, relevant and timely oceanographic, meteorological, hydrographic, precise time and astrometric information.' https://www.public.navy.mil/fltfor/cnmoc/Pages/home.aspx

Then there was this data collection effort - 'The Navy is starting to release a treasure trove of physical data about the sea that was gathered in secrecy during the long decades of the cold war, exciting scientists who see it as a bonanza for understanding environmental change.

The riches include readings on ice depth, ice shape, ocean depth, sediment composition, sea-surface height, salinity, seabed magnetics, water temperature, bioluminescence and light transmissibility. Over the decades, the Navy deployed thousands of ships, airplanes, submarines and satellites to collect such data. Usually kept secret, the information was viewed as vital to the quiet war against the Soviet Union, helping submariners glide stealthily through the sea and hunt out the hidden assets of their adversaries. ... "The Navy holds much more data on the past state of the oceans than the civilian community could ever hope to get hold of," said Dr. Gordon J. MacDonald, a geophysicist at the University of California at San Diego. "The value of that data is measured in tens of billions of dollars."' From the NYT, sadly - the Post seems to have no online article.

Thanks for the well written insight.

If you want to improve US growth? Some policy proposals:

1. Zeroing corporate taxes would be a start. Reduce bucreacracy to set up new business (drive the US higher in the Ease of Doing Business) would help as well. These measures would improve incentives for entrepreneurial innovation.

2. Another big push for growth could come from repealing incentives for people to not work such as abolishing social security, unemployment insurance and food stamps. Those kinds of policies combined could add 1% to growth rates over the next couple of decades through massive increase in labor supply.

3. Open borders. Will increase immigration and more people means more labor supply and more ideas.

4. Abolish occupational licensing. The most pervasive monopoly in US economy is occupational licensing.

5. Abolish all forms of rent controls and construction restrictions in the major cities: SF should be much cheaper than Tokyo so labor could move to where they are the most productive.

6. Repealing a lot of costly regulation would also help, that's related to 1 though as it would improve Ease of Doing Business rating of the US.

I guess such measures combined could perhaps double US growth rates over the next couple of decades.

You're on the right track but overdoing it. Social Security is paid only to people who have worked. There is a program called SSI that pays a very small amount to people who haven't. Also, we can have a humane and productive immigration policy without completely open borders, which are impossible (the US is not prepared for a population of 2 billion).

SSI mostly adds to earned income and SS benefits, hence its name, "supplemental".

The largest block under 62 are US citizens handicapped in some way, with paid wages a big objective, with exclusions for handicap aids, assistance, education, training, and earned income always increasing total income. Feds fund States to provide training, jobs, etc.

SSI goes only to US citizens, never to non--US citizens. Immigrants must be supported by earned income or others until granted citizens, except for refugees, (not "asylum seekers") who get stipends for short times provided to sponsoring aid organiztions.

I know anti-immigrant groups want laws/constitution like of Dominican Republic where stateless people are born if their skin is dark enough. If your sskin is dark, you are deported to Haiti no matter origin. Like the MAGA US deported hundreds of thousands to Mexico, because Asian origin people were more easily forced onto buses or train cars to Mexico. Indians came from Asia ten thousand years ago.

'for people to not work such as abolishing social security'

You are aware that to get American social security (in most cases), you need to work at least a decade first, right? Social security is a reason to work, at least the way the system is currently designed, in general.

And the maximum benefit requires earning at least the maximum taxed wage for 35 years. Most people won't get to the maximum in less than 5 years, if ever. Ie, start working at 16-17 on through college/trade apprentice and if lucky start earning the top taxed wage at 22-23, then work until 58. Most workers earn less than 60% of the top wage for 35 years or less, thus a benefit of under $20k per year for a couple or worker with dependents (spouse, children, grandchildren).

I support spending more government money on basic scientific research. The private sector can't do it, for many reasons.

I think climate science is sucking all the oxygen out of the room. Though the non-linear climate AOC models are useless, working in modelling is a good thing.

We need big projects to keep our project management skills sharp. After the collapse of the So. Cal. defense industry in the early ninetees I wonder if we even have the skills to manage massive projects like aircraft carriers, nuclear subs, and manned space exploration.

Finally, I am glad you mentioned the Prof on Gilligan's Island - he was an inspiration. :)

Medical/public health is the biggest research spending category, with a lot going through military.

In energy, "research" funding is half for nuclear, and most flogging 60s era nuclear. Ie, since 2000 half the Energy dept R&D budget is nuclear, mostly rebuilding decaying assets from the 60s. The funding to build the AP1000 nuclear power plant is wasted "research", along the lines of the 737 MAX, just life extension of 60s designs intended to produce plutonium for bombs, with electric power to run the bomb fuel production.

Real nuclear energy R&D would be on molten salt, etc which would burn 95% of the fuel producing energy, not less than 5%.

California defense required mostly midwest heavy industry which was killed by economists arguing the world was at ppeak steel demand and Korean steel mills would product more that totall global demand, proving the folly of socialism/government central planning. Milton Friedman advocated shutting down US steel mills and importing steel sold by Korea below costs.

The forecasts were wrong because political promises seldom happen in even quasi democracies, but the consumption of steel is self reinforcing - producing steel requires infrastructure consuming steel sucking up more than the added production.

But the "market" in the US closed lots of steel plants driving down demand for infrastructure cutting demand for steel. Big obsolete mills were replaced over time by minimills recycling scrap, including scrap from Asian imports, mostly cars.

But building infrastructure gets more costly because minimills can't produce stuff for infrastructure like big bridges, ships, nuclear reactors. They are now imported from mostly Asia with long lead times, and design corrections very costly. With so little knowledfe/contact with foundries, US architects screw up specs, requiring costly changes.

Note China added almost as much steel production from 2000 to 2015 as total global production circa 1975, all for building infrastructure, etc, a 4x-5x production, AND CONSUMPTION, increase.

To be fair, the US replaced steel with aluminum and plastics, in cans, and in cars, etc.

That substitution required lots of R&D spending. A lot by government in military budgets.

Let's see the world ocean by itself has a volume of 1,332,000,000 cubic km. (It would make a sphere with a diameter of 424 miles.) "Outer Space" OTOH, makes a sphere with a diameter of roughly 400,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000 cubic kilometers. The oceans contain about 1.5e21 kg while space contains about 1e53 kg. Space contains some existential threats to our species, the oceans, as far as I know, do not. I would like to see more data collection in the oceans, and robotics will likely play an increasing roll. We don't spend money on research for only one reason, but to suggest there is an economic justification to spend more on someone's pet discipline is no more likely to succeed than choosing the discipline at random.

Well, some would possibly argue that the change in oceanic streams could maybe wipe us out - but even if that's an over-exaggeration -, just because of the sheer scale you pointed out - it's a lot simpler for the human race to influence anything going on in the oceans than in outer space. I'm not a space-research expert, but afaik our chances of constructing a reasonable asteroid-defense system (for example) in the near future is close to 0, whereas we are likely to possess the technical means for an ocean clean-up or ocean heating/cooling (we may have already done that). I don't want to come over as a defendant of oceanology, but let's face it: space research usually has awful return on investment ratio.

"afaik our chances of constructing a reasonable asteroid-defense system (for example) in the near future is close to 0"

It's the other way around. It's virtually certain we could do so with near perfect effectiveness. It's entirely a problem of detection far enough out. See the impactor 10 years in advance and the gentle nudge of a nuke a couple of asteroid-diameters off the surface will ablate a thin layer and give a gentle push to the whole thing. People give thought to non-nuclear means of doing so, but mostly because of knee-jerk anti-nuclearism (researching this encourages keeping nukes around) and because of the potential of spin-off technology for mining (where you might not want to irradiate stuff), not because there's any real doubt nukes will work.

'if we even have the skills to manage massive projects like aircraft carriers, nuclear subs ...'

Surprisingly, neither of which are built on the West Coast, much less Southern California.

Understood. The point is we need big, complex projects to maintain our skills.

Carbon removal technology would be a good place for government to contribute, in part because the contribution could be in the form of taxes to discourage carbon emissions while private companies take the lead in developing the technology. There is a private company, called Carbon Engineering, that is developing a prototype for carbon removal in a plant near Vancouver that is being funded in large part by oil companies. A skeptic might question whether it's just a green stunt by the oil companies, but the company was founded by an applied physicist from Harvard and the CEO of the company welcomes the investment by the oil companies because they also contribute engineering skills and, perhaps more important, their lobbying skills. If the technology works, in order to achieve the scale necessary to make the effort to remove carbon from the atmosphere worthwhile will require investment in the trillions, something that only government can achieve. Focus on a narrow goal, like carbon removal, then think very big. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/07/business/energy-environment/climate-change-carbon-engineering.html

In addition to the imposition of taxes for direct carbon emissions, government could impose taxes on big companies that have enjoyed a free ride by shifting production to low cost China, low cost not only for the labor but the production costs including energy used in production. Those coal burning power plants in China provide the energy to produce goods for American firms, firms that do so with impunity as the cost of the resulting carbon emissions is borne by everybody. If an American firm wishes to have their goods produced in China, fine, but make those firms pay the cost of the additional carbon emissions rather than giving them a free ride.

We ate a salad of cabbage and lettuce, sprouts and sunflower seeds and salmon for the main course. A third of a lemon was on each of our plates. Tom and Sara tried to spear the distance with talk about the president and their favorite television hosts. I nodded my head and complimented the paintings on the walls, the photographs from around the world.
“It tastes bitter,” I said, “like even under the dressing.”
“I’ve been saying that for years,” Tom said, wiping his mouth with his napkin.
“There’s salt and pepper,” Sara said, taking a gulp of water.
“Even the dressing, it’s like cynical.”
“It’s meant to be.” Sara looked at me directly for the first time.
“What?” I said.
“Rough around the edges,” she said.

I've been reading a young Irish writer who doesn't use quotation marks in the dialogue. The reader is left to determine when the dialogue begins and ends and when their thoughts begin and end. It's not a new technique but she uses it to great effect.

Ah-ha! But this is Marginal Revolution; think how much more SPACE you can explore per dollar at the margin!

Why, we've explored BILLIONs, nay TRILLIONS of cubic kilometres of space for the same price as a few MILLION cubic kilometres of ocean. To those of you who say that space is boring and one cubic kilometre of hard vacuum looks much like another, I can only say the same of sea water.

“The United States, as of 2014, spends 160 times as much exploring space as it does exploring the oceans.”

That seems ludicrously wrong. Civilian resource extraction from the oceans exceeds space spending by nearly an order of magnitude. To say nothing of military expenditure, scientific research, fishing and related environmental work…

For an oil number north of $200 billion / year, see https://oilprice.com/Energy/Crude-Oil/Oil-Majors-Bet-Big-On-Offshore-Drilling-In-2019.html

Beyond that, much of what the US government spends on “space exploration” is actually spent on things like rocket making (pork), education, support of other agencies (like NOAA), aeronautics, and a bevy of other line items that can hardly be called "exploration."

It does look like this is changing, and space will be the growth path in the coming century, but for reasons other than that the government is spending plenty on it, because they aren't and it wouldn't help much if they did. It's more to do with the broad rise in our technological capabilities making space accessible at a smaller economic scale and the tapping out of big growth opportunities down on the ground makes it relatively attractive.

And perhaps if we brought back Ma Bell we could have the old Bell Labs again?

With a proportionally diverse workforce, of course.

"Taxpayers of America Unite! You have nothing to lose but your cellphone service!"

Why, I bet that if government declared a War on Cancer (or even a War on Poverty) that would be the end of cancer (and poverty). How did these "wars" work out, anyway?

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