Monday, November 05, 2012

Government and the bright future

On the verge of an historical US election, it seems an appropriate time to discuss the role of government in the "bright future". I identify politically as a blue Tory. In the lexicon of Canadian politics, that means fiscal conservatism and relative indifference to social conservatism. As such, I prefer free markets with, at best, a light touch of government to ensure everyone plays fair. However, I do not share the antagonistic view of government of American conservatives. Government, as I see it, is inefficient and large. For this reason, it should stay out of anything in which size is unimportant. We don't need, for example, government broadcasters or oil companies or airlines (all things which we in Canada currently have or have had in the recent past). The private sector has proven amply capable of providing these services. However, I think really big things are beyond the purview of the private sector and space programs seem to be a good example. Sure, big companies like Apple or Exxon Mobil could probably afford to bankroll a project like the Apollo program. A modern version of the Apollo missions would cost about $10 billion per year for about 15 years. Apple, for example, had net profits over the last year of about $40 billion. So theoretically, the largest corporation in the world could afford to fund something like the Apollo program assuming all of its shareholders could be convinced to relinquish a portion of their dividends. However, the mandate of corporations is not to invest in projects which can pretty much guarantee not to be profitable. That is not to say there isn't any money to be made in space. Energy and resources are in glorious abundance in the Solar System and eventually, fortunes will be made, but not on timescales that good capitalists can abide. A long-term investor is someone planning for his retirement in 40 years, not his great-great-grandson's in 140 years. Of course, I don't mean to suggest that governments take a long view either. Most can't see beyond the next election. However, they can commit to projects that aren't profitable as long as enough of the citizenry is inspired by the effort to represent an attractive voting bloc. Now, it might be a bit mercenary of me to say so, but when it comes to motivating governments, a small, but vocal group can often have influence far in excess of its size. In 2004, George W. Bush beat John Kerry by only about three million votes out of over 120 million votes cast. The presidential election of 2008 was one of the more one-sided in recent memory, yet Barack Obama beat John McCain by less than ten million votes. Imagine how much influence a solid block of five million Americans who are committed to space exploration and willing to vote that way could have on the US political landscape. It is certainly more likely to succeed than trying to get that same five million to fund a private space program at $2,000 per person per year for 15 years with no hope of a return.

The real trick and one I don’t know how to overcome is to convince politicians on both sides of the political spectrum that those five million votes really are available to the guys with the best offer for future space exploration. In the recent Republican primary race, Newt Gingrich made a rather surprising pledge to establish a lunar base within eight years of his presidency. Not surprisingly, he was widely-ridiculed within his own party. Setting aside the question of affordability in tough economic times, Republicans are likely to be wary of chasing votes within the scientifically-literate community of space exploration enthusiasts. Their sometimes bizarre views on evolution and climate change and, more recently, human reproduction make many of them seem to be a bunch of ignorant hicks or conspiracy theorists. In order to influence them to embrace space exploration, they need to know that space enthusiasts would be willing to overlook the occasional weirdness from the fringes of the party in exchange for a firm commitment to the bright future. Too bad Newt didn’t win.


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