Monday, June 24, 2013

Assault of thoughts 6/24/2013

"Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking" - JMK

- 300 years of financial crises, 1620-1920

- More evidence on how historical censuses counted labor and whether it matters for our estimates of returns to scale in manufacturing

- Why should space exploration get more money than ocean exploration? Paltry as our post-Apollo exploration efforts has been (relative to what they ought to be - of course we've done some amazing stuff), ocean exploration is even worse and arguably ought to be much more substantial. (broader discussion at Nat Geo here).

- More Moynihan Report anniversary work out of the Urban Institute (if you're interested in this they had some stuff out earlier in the year too which you should be able to find discussed with the search function on this blog).

- And speaking of anniversary retrospectives, EPI has a report out on some of the unfinished work of Dr. King (we've also discussed this on here a lot before, particularly policy recommendations in his last book).


  1. Anyone have a link to an ungated version of Margo's paper (the returns to scale/labor one)?

  2. Point 1: Back in the early 1970's, having worked very hard at screwing space programs down to the point where their future funding would depend on "normal politics" rather than high flying aspirations, Richard Nixon was quite determined that similar mistakes would not be made with oceanography. It seemed reasonable to combine the government's ocean research and surveys and climate monitoring programs into one umbrella agency -- the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration -- but he insisted that NOAA was NOT going to be a "wet NASA." So NOAA topped off at about a third of the NASA budget, and Presidents since have not found much reason to tinker with the figure.

    Point 2. Without much federal funding for manned undersea exploration and usage, attempts to build more ambitious habitants a la Sea Lab have pretty much tapered off. Paraphrasing the old NASA comment about "No bucks, no Bucks Rogers" we might add "No money, no Captain Nemo." We've got a fair number of people who enjoy aqualungs and spear fishing, to be true, and the technology keeps advanced to allow deeper, longer, and safer dives, but for most folks this is a sport -- no one dreams of building undersea cities any more.

    Point 3. All of this leaves usage of the oceans to commercial interests -- fishermen, oil companies, communication companies with undersea cables, and the like.
    (a) There are some efforts to utilize tide flows for energy generation off of coastal Europe; conditions don't seem right for doing this elsewhere -- apparently you need 40' tall waves with a couple hundred miles of reach. And of course BP and other companies drill into the seafloor for oil. Schemes for power generation from Ocean Thermal Gradients, studied back in the 1970's, never got off paper. Nor did ideas about building moorings for floating nuclear power plants thirty miles offshore (this is nicely covered in one of John McPhee's books).
    (b) Notions of exploiting nodules of concentrated metals lying on the ocean floor have not led very far in the past 40 years -- not quite surprising, since the original ballyhooed attempt to mine the ocean riches was actually cover for a CIA plan to retrieve a Soviet submarine rather than an actual dredging program. There's a UN agency which is supposed to coordinate the various commercial firms which might want to hunt nodules and to collect much of the profit, if there is a profit -- remember The Law Of The Sea Treaty? But the last I checked, only two companies had actually registered with it, and only one of them had done any dredging.
    (c) Other than modules, the deep sea bottom looks pretty darned worthless for commercial use. There aren't many fish below the level of the continental shelves, and not much vegetation. Here and there are some hot water vents with exotic lifeforms, but there's no existing market for those strange weeds and worms, and they aren't common enough to justify commercial trapping or cropping.

    None of this, you might note, seems to require much beyond sporadic activity by live on-site humans. And the companies involved seem to have rather limited, or even parochial, interests. BP doesn't look for deed down magnesium modules, the various intelligence agencies tapping communication cables aren't running population counts on tunas and tortoises, etc. Nobody is much interested in how clean the waters are, or how healthy the stocks of various fish species might be, or what sorts of pollutants are accumulating, or what the effects of global warming might be, etc. Arguably this is short-sighted and someday we'll be regretful about it.

  3. Point 4. Libertarian space buffs are fond of arguing that all we need to settle and exploit the solar system is the free enterprise system. Without NASA and clueless federal bureaucrats and UN kleptomaniacs, American entrepreneurs would already be gathering Helium 3 from the lunar soils, and planting colonies across Mars and solving all our energy needs with solar power satellites. They just need freedom and no taxation and no lousy federal health plans and no interference from criminally stupid environmental regulators and global warming buts, and the heavens would be ours! Looking at what we do with the oceans is an interesting test of just how well leaving "exploration" up to industry works out.


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.