All posts by Rand Simberg

Thought-Provoking Sean Penn

I haven’t said much about Sean Penn’s idiotic slamming of George Bush and Bill O’Reilly, but I couldn’t let this pass.

“He doesn’t provoke thought or challenge my head or my spirit,” Penn says of the highest-rated President of all time. “I don’t think he does the country’s either.”

I’ve never heard Sean Penn say anything that would lead me to believe that there is any possibility of provoking thought. And when it comes to challenging his head, it sounds like just metabolizing might do that.

As for the second statement, it would have been much more accurate if he’d just quit at the third word.

My question is, why does what entertainment figures say even get reported? Why is it news?

Sauce For The Gander–No Goose Need Apply

The Washington Times informs us that Marion Frances Berry is getting pro bono work from a Washington law firm to help her with her absurd case to keep a Clinton interim appointment on the Civil Rights Commission beyond the appointed term.

Only one problem–it’s illegal. According to commission statute, “”The Commission shall not accept or utilize services of voluntary or uncompensated personnel. This limitation shall apply with respect to services of members of the commission as it does with respect to services by other persons.”

Funny, she had no problem at all in invoking the same law to keep John Lott’s statistical data out of Abby Thernstrom’s dissent in the commission’s nonsensical report on the “disenfranchisement of blacks” in the Florida election.

As presently constituted, this commission has become a running joke, except that it’s not really funny, and, like Jesse Jackson’s antics, it continues to distract blacks from dealing with their real problems.

Japanese Space Tourism

According to Space Daily, the main Japanese space agency (NASDA) is proposing building a space tourism vehicle to be launched on their H-2 rocket by 2008. I’m not sure that this is the best way to develop that industry, or that the Japanese government will decide to do it, given their financial straits, but it’s interesting that NASDA has much more vision on this subject than NASA, much of which still won’t even seriously discuss public space travel.

Space Policy Comments

Mark Whittington notes:

First, I don’t think you can say that the US space program was “socialistic” in 1961-71, because it’s purpose was not economic, but rather oriented toward national security/prestige. The moment the nation decided to run a national space line-an economic function which would have been best run by the private sector-then the space program became socialistic.

Well, sort of. But remember that NASA was more than just Apollo, and in its formation, it absorbed the old National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), which did have an economic function (one that it performed quite well). It provided basic technologies to the aviation industry that resulted in many of the advances from the thirties through the fifties. Once that happened, NASA’s technology development served mainly NASA’s needs, rather than industry’s, and that happened in the sixties.

But the point remains that once we established this government agency to do “space,” it became the be-all and end-all of space in many people’s minds, and all of the government “commercialization” efforts that have occurred as a result have been funneled through NASA. We certainly don’t have anything resembling the traditional American free-enterprise model when it comes to human space flight. At least until recently, with things like the X-Prize and XCOR.

Also, while creating a “frontier” in which everyone can participate is a good goal, I don’t see any action items that a NASA could do to implement that goal. What do you propose? Technology development? Core markets? Something else?

What he said. Technology development (that has broad application–not commercial prototypes masquerading as X vehicles, as X-33 and X-34 were) would be nice, but not sufficient.

Core markets are essential. The launch cost problem is fundamentally a market problem, in that there is insufficient market to provide the economies of scale necessary to reduce launch costs. If instead of spending billions per year to send a couple dozen people into space, the government took that same several billion and issued RFQs and POs for tens of thousands of people to go into space (at a much lower cost per person), and sold whatever they didn’t need on the open market, this would spur an entirely new industry dedicated to low-cost access. It would be a subsidization similar to the airmail subsidy that got the airline industry going in the thirties. I’m not necessarily proposing that, but it would be the quickest way to achieve my proposed goal.

Also recall that I didn’t necessarily propose that NASA do anything. I proposed a thorough overhaul of federal space policy to meet my goals. One possible outcome of that is a total disappearance of NASA in its current form. As I said, until we decide what we are trying to accomplish in space, there’s no point in figuring out what NASA should do, since NASA (at least the forty-four-year-old NASA to which we’ve grown accustomed) may turn out to be irrelevant.

My biggest concern about O’Keefe will be that, in the absence of some policy direction beyond “fix space station,” his concern will be not to do the right thing, but to “do the thing right.”

Reader “Paul” comments:

I disagree that we need to define a goal; implicit in “define a goal” is the assumption that someone, somewhere, is smart enough, and has enough data to accurately pick a goal. And the assumption that one exists.

Picking goals doesn’t require being “smart.” Since they are subjective, it just requires reaching a political consensus, after a rational national debate (something that hasn’t occurred with regard to space in four decades). Choosing goals doesn’t require data, and goals exist as soon as we decide they do–they aren’t floating around somewhere in the aether waiting to be discovered.

It’s achieving goals that requires being smart, and this is what the competitive market generally does much better than governments, particularly for goals that are individual.

As I said in the post, if we don’t have a goal, there’s no point in having a program, since there’s no way to determine whether or not it’s being successful. Maybe your goal is to not have a government space program at all. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but it’s orthogonal to my point, which is that we have no national goals at all for the money that we spend on federal space activities (at least none directly related to doing interesting things in space).

The funding decisions are made almost totally on the basis of jobs in various congressional districts, foreign aid to Russia, and “international cooperation,” all of which can be achieved without launching a single scrap of hardware into orbit, as we saw for fifteen years on the space station program.

One of the best aspects of privitization is that each organization involved can have its own vision, and the market will weed out the bad ideas.

I think that you’re confusing privatization with “free market.” Privatization simply means taking an existing government function and transferring it to a private entity. The only market for the service, at least initially, is the government. The situation remains a monopsony (the demand-equivalent of a monopoly–a single large customer in the market). It’s primarily a means of saving taxpayer money, but if done cleverly can eventually be leveraged into an more useful commercial venture.

The Truth Is Out There, Ken

Ken Layne saw a UFO up in the Owens Valley. No biggie, I see ’em all the time, if you take “Unidentified Flying Object” literally. I almost never know what I’m looking at up there–they fly too durn high. But his guess that it’s some super-secret whatchamacallit from an Air Force base is probably correct.

My uneducated guess is that our weird hovering/speedy triangle aircraft was headed home to Edwards AFB.

My slightly more educated guess is that “home” is not Edwards, but Groom Lake or Nellis in Nevada. Better security.

Anyway, read it if you’d like a nice travelogue of a trip up the back of the Sierras. It’s one of my own favorite drives.

Mixed Feelings

My joy at seeing the Cornhuskers get the snot kicked out of them is extremely tempered by the fact that it’s being done by the Hurricanes.

And speaking of college football, Professor Reynolds continues to refuse to see the error of his fight-song ways.

Oh, well, what do you expect from someone who thinks that bourbon is the all-American beverage?

Deeply Saddened

According to the AP, Bill and Hillary Clinton were “deeply saddened” at the news that their dog, Buddy, was “hit by a car.” It was an “accident.”

Best of the Web helpfully points out the other occasions when the Clintons were “deeply saddened.”

I suspect that a couple of those 2200+ occasions were the deaths of Vince Foster and Ron Brown. I wonder if Buddy was about to write a tell-all book?

Your Tax Dollars Not At Work

Here’s an article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel about a new web site that allows anyone to see exactly where farm subsidies go.

One revealing quote:

“I wish we didn’t have to have the subsidies, but if they weren’t there, a lot of people would be growing nothing, I can tell you that,” Walsh said.

Yeah, that’s right. If we didn’t pay people not to grow things, we’d all starve…