Friday, May 20, 2011

DARPA and Temporal Autarky

DARPA wants to travel to the stars.

Fair enough - and very good in my mind. What I find even more intriguing in their Request For Information for a 100 Year Starship Study is that they are specifically interested in a business model that I've long maintained is an insurmountable problem for long-term investments. The RFI says:

"The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has initiated a study to inspire the first steps in the next era of space exploration—a journey between the stars.1 Neither the vagaries of the modern fiscal cycle, nor net-present-value calculations over reasonably foreseeable futures, have lent themselves to the kinds of century-long patronage and persistence needed to definitively transform mankind into a space-faring species... We are seeking ideas for an organization, business model and approach appropriate for a self-sustaining investment vehicle. The respondent must focus on flexible yet robust mechanisms by which an endowment can be created and sustained, wholly devoid of government subsidy or control, and by which worthwhile undertakings—in the sciences, engineering, humanities, or the arts—may be awarded in pursuit of the vision of interstellar flight."

I would love to respond to this RFI. Max submission is five double spaced pages, so it might be feasible. The problem is I have no clue how to surmount this problem. It's precisely this temporal externality that frustrates me so much and the best I can come up with is a government solution. That is riddled with problems itself, of course.

Anyway... I'm thinking on this now. The response has to be in by June 3rd. Would it be inappropriate to just submit something alleging there's no obvious solution and for the time being you have to rely on public investment (and make a case for why that's the case)?


  1. I'm not being sarcastic, I don't understand what the problem is. Are you saying the free market fails because you can't convince investors to put their money where you think they should?

  2. I think this elides the real issue a bit, the sort of positive externalities arising from mankind as a "space-faring species" (e.g. decreased probability of mass extinction events), are really difficult (impossible?) to commoditize.

    Absent some revolution in physics, the time horizons involved in interstellar travel seem too large to make any sort of trade or extraction based regimes financially lucrative. Which isn't an argument for not doing it, but it seems like a political problem, not an economic one.

    Though, FWIW, I'd be ecstatic if I was wrong.

  3. Bob - I'll try to post on what I mean by "temporal autarky" very soon - I've written about it in the past, but not recently. I use the word "autarky" deliberately. You have a better chance of making a transaction with a North Korean than you do with someone living twelve months in the future. We fake it of course. We transact with contemporaries and act like we're making "intertemporal" transactions. But it's not really an intertemporal transaction at all. The future is an autarkic regime (and the past is an imperial threat to the present and the future).

    If you think about it in these terms, it's not without consequences.

  4. It'd pay for itself if they made the base of the ship four-sided and had the sides extend up to a point.

  5. @mobsrule....

    A pyramid scheme!

  6. DK sounds intriguing. Since you are only talking about influencing investment decisions in the present, I guess I'm still not seeing how that perspective will affect things. But I wait with bated breath.

  7. Wow. Put aside the difficulties in starting and sustaining such an endeavour. Let's assume that it is doable. Wouldn't a century long autarky devoted to space exploration attract a lot of unwanted attention from world governments?

  8. argosyjones,

    It's not a "scheme" if it boosts aggregate demand... which is all Bernie Madoff was TRYING to do. We should bust him out so he can fly this thing. With a mustache he'd look like Henry Gloval.


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