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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Arnold Böcklin, “The Chapel”, 1898.

What I read this week:

Of course, the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece everyone’s talking about.

Assessing Soviet defensive tactics at Kursk (via Gulliver).

Pussy Riot – Magic pixie dream dissidents.

Another good — and fairly negative — take on Pussy Riot. I do think it’s troubling that the author ranks the Voina art collective’s public orgies as “worse” than lighting police vans on fire.

Assessing China and Japan’s naval strengths.

AirLand Battle and USAF-USA cooperation 1973-1990 (via Robert Farley).

Revisiting A Pocket Guide to Vietnam (via Sullivan).

The Frames – Perfect Opening Line.

A New Space Race? Not So Fast

By Taylor Marvin

A vision of what’s to come? NASA photo.

Over at The Diplomat, Daryl Morini has a though provoking piece arguing that NASA’s dramatic Mars Science Laboratory mission foretells “the coming US-China space race.”

To be sure, high profile NASA successes carry a nationalistic subtext. A failure of the highly-public Curiosity lander, in the words of prominent Mars exploration expert Robert Zubrin as paraphrased by Sydney Morning Herald writer Michael Hanlon, “could have meant effectively an end to the US venturing into space for at least a generation, and the keys to the solar system would have been handed to the Chinese.”

Zubrin’s warning is certainly grim, but is wildly overblown. The loss of the Curiosity lander would have been a major blow to the American planetary exploration program. But handing “the keys of the solar system” to the Chinese?* Unlikely — aside from Curiosity, NASA and the European Space Agency currently have four operational orbiters or rovers studying Mars: the 2001 Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft, and the MER-B Opportunity rover. More importantly, this prediction underestimates just how important the trail-and-error experience is to successful space exploration, which China’s young space program lacks. China has never successfully dispatched an exploratory mission to Mars, and the recent launch failure of the joint Chinese-Russian Yinghuo-1/Fobos-Grunt probes reemphasizes how difficult these missions really are. We have every reason to expect Chinese exploratory successes in the future, but it’s worth remembering that the US and Russia’s dramatic successes in space are based on decades of painful but informative failures.

The Unites States has been dispatching missions to the Red Planet since the 1960s, missions that have grown more complex and less failure-prone over time. It’s likely that NASA’s recent string of dramatic Mars successes is due to technical and managerial lessons learned during the agency’s equally dramatic — and humiliating — failures in 1998 and 1999. For example, investigations in the wake of the loss of the Mars Polar Lander related Deep Space 2 impactor found that NASA projects were consistently under-resourced and under-tested, and a 2001 internal audit reported that Mars programs conceived under the 1990s ‘Faster Better Cheaper’ cost-cutting mantra lacked “appropriate number of staff or competencies needed to effectively carry out its strategic goals and objectives”. Today’s NASA Mars probes, which have not experienced a major failure since 1999, benefit from this experience. Even if Curiosity had failed, it will take decades of Chinese space exploration for the PRC to build up the institutional knowledge and experience NASA benefits from.

More importantly, Morini argues that the success of Curiosity and China’s nascent space ambitions herald a new space race:

“This amazing feat in human space exploration is revealing of the geopolitical context back on Planet Earth. In particular, this event marks a milestone in the present trend of an expanding US-China rivalry, and a budding military-technological space race.”

The last space race put humans into space, and left footprints on the moon. America and China are beginning to militarily compete in space, but the term “space race”, with its grand historical allusions, poorly characterizes this rivalry. In fact, I’d be very surprised if the US-China geopolitical rivalry likely to dominate this century results in a space competition similar to the Cold War’s, for numerous reasons.

First off, the US-Soviet space race was enormously expensive. At its peak the Apollo moon program consumed 2.2 percent of federal outlays; while figures for the Soviets are hard to come by, a combination of chronic resource shortages in the Soviet space program and a tangled bureaucracy crippled the Russians’ moon shot despite the Soviets’ impressive engineering credentials. Uncrewed exploratory probes were also expensive, though of course paled in comparison to crewed space programs. The massive government pushes of the space race were only possible because the conflict between the US and USSR was so intense — remember, while American and the Soviet engineers were scrambling to put a man on the moon there was a distinct possibility that their two countries could blow each other to hell at any moment.

Curiosity on its way to Mars. USAF photo by George Roberts, via Wikimedia.

Fortunately, the rivalry between economically interdependent America and China is nowhere near as severe its Cold War predecessor, and has little prospect of becoming so. This makes it difficult to imagine America’s rivalry with China justifying massive space expenditures. Furthermore, the space race of the Cold War was a competition played for external audiences just as much as domestic consumption: both the US and USSR sought to demonstrate their system’s scientific and industrial superiority to non-aligned nations. Outside of the bipolar international structure of the Cold War, these audience considerations have less merit; Washington and Beijing alone will not dominate this century’s world affairs to the extent that the rivalry with Moscow did during the second half of the 20th.

The relatively balmy relations between Washington and Beijing make aggressive space expenditures unlikely. As I argued earlier this year [slightly edited for clarity]

“The Apollo program was an enormously expensive effort, costing $98 billion over 14 years. Yes, this expenditure is dwarfed by the US defense budget — in 1969 alone the US spent nearly $500 billion in 2009 dollars on military spending — but 2.2% of federal spending comes with large opportunity costs. Governments don’t spend these kinds of funds lightly, especially if there’s little apparent electoral benefit from massive space spending. The Apollo program only scraped above a 50 percent approval rating in the immediate aftermath of the Apollo 11 landing, and without the external Soviet threat it’s unlikely that the massive space expenditure of the 1960s would have been possible.”

Without a dramatic, and unlikely, worsening in US-China relations it is difficult to imagine any political appetite for these kind of expenditures.

It’s also difficult to imagine the target of a US-China space race. Transient excitement over Curiosity aside, uncrewed space exploration just doesn’t capture the hearts of the world: few people will retell where they were when Curiosity landed to their children. To be sure, competition between the US and Soviet space programs included unmanned planetary exploration, but these probes were always a minor — and often publicly ignored — chapter in the space race. After all, while most Americans today can likely identify that the USSR launched the first man into orbit (hopefully!), few are aware of the Soviets’ impressive successes landing probes on the surface of Venus.

A return to the Moon is a natural target for a US-China space race. However, I’m not sure the Moon retains a powerful draw. Sending taikonauts to the Moon by 2030 is an official goal of the Chinese space program, but replicating an American achievement half a century old doesn’t exactly fit the dramatic definition of a space race. Even establishing a manned base on the moon, the eventual goal of the Chinese lunar program, is unlikely to stimulate a competing American base. A permanent human presence on the moon is of little scientific value and, contrary to many claims, would be of little use as a base for expeditions to Mars or other extraterrestrial targets. Similarly, mining operations on the Moon are likely decades away. China may go through with its lunar goals — though it’s worth remembering that very few grand long-term space goals articulated by any national space agencies ever progress beyond the paper stage  — but it is unlikely that replicating the US lunar landing in grander form will motivate aggressive competing American space spending.

Mars, of course, is the logical target of a US-China space race; a crewed mission to Mars by either country would be a truly impressive accomplishment. But just as the technical difficulty of Apollo far surpassed those the earlier Vostok program faced, a crewed mission to Mars would be far more difficult, dangerous, and expensive than traveling to the Moon. A crewed Mars mission would require major advances in spacecraft and mission design, and keeping humans healthy during the isolated and radiation-heavy four to eight month (depending on the propulsion technology used) trip to the red planet is a daunting challenge. A crewed Mars program would require numerous heavy lift launches and establishing a comsat system around Mars, and more ambitious mission designs require advances in orbital construction. These difficulties do not mean that crewed missions to Mars are impossible, but it is worth noting that the Apollo program is not a good predictor of their cost or difficulty. Colonizing space — which Morini likens to the pre-WWI Scramble for Africa — is even more expensive, and technically challenging.

Secondly, the space race of the Cold War was not solely an exercise in peaceful competition. Instead, the space race was an organic outgrowth of the missile race between the US and USSR. As Greg Goebel’s extensive history of the space race emphasizes, early investment by Washington and Moscow in rocket technology was motivated by the desire to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles; Sputnik, humanity’s first satellite, was launched almost as an afterthought. The real focus of both programs was fielding missiles capable of heavy throw weights, and later on developing rockets capable of putting heavy spy satellites in orbit. Of course, a rocket capable of carrying a heavy warhead across the world is not conceptional very different from one capable of lifting a civilian payload to orbit. While the extremely heavy-lift rockets of the later moon race had no connection to military use, they leveraged off technologies developed in the missile race — technologies like working solid and liquid fueled engines, staging, and ablative reentry heat shields all grew out of early ICBM design. It is doubtful that the Cold War space race would have taken off the way it did if the military enthusiasm for early rocket development didn’t guarantee funding for nascent space programs.

Does the current military rivalry between the US and China reflect this dynamic? Not really. The military already has ICBMs and spy satellites, and little motivation to invest in further innovative space projects, at least compared to the innovation of Cold War rocket development. The technological developments necessary for more ambitious US/Soviet space race-style exploration have no relevance to today’s militaries. If another true space race occurs, politicians must justify it entirely on civilian grounds.

Morini focuses on this military rivalry, cautioning against forgetting “the military significance of technological superiority in space in any modern war.” This is certainly true. China is heavily investing in anti-satellite weapons as part of its asymmetric area-denial/anti-access strategy, the US Air Force recently developed the impressive X-37 uncrewed spaceplane, there is the future possibility of the US and China competing to acquire the ability to mission-kill each other’s surveillance satellites, and a broad area maritime satellite surveillance capability is a requirement for China to operationally deploy its anti-ship ballistic missile capability. However, unlike during the Cold War this is a rivalry of deployment rather than innovation. The US and USSR both possessed rudimentary to advanced anti-satellite capabilities during the Cold War, though both sides avoided frequently demonstrating their capabilities for fear of creating dangerous orbital derbies. Current space militarization is more accurately characterized as expanding neglected existing capabilities than truly pushing the technical envelope. While the rivalry between the US and China could lead to fielding more comprehensive anti-satellite capabilities, it’s difficult to term this a “space race” — certainly when compared to the theatrics of the Cold War. While this may be a question of semantics, I have trouble believing that the public will acknowledge that competing surveillance and anti-satellite systems warrant the title.

If you define a space race as gradually improving space military capabilities, then yes, one is “now in full swing”. But the Space Race of the Cold War, where the US and USSR competed to match each others dramatic and daring exploration, is a memory and one’s that’s unlikely to soon be repeated.

*Note that these aren’t Zubrin’s direct words; I was unable to find the direct quote Hanlon paraphrases. Also note that Zubrin is a long-time advocate of crewed missions to Mars (check out his excellent book The Case for Mars), and certainly has an incentive to play up fears of a new space race.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Marianne von Werefkin, “Rote Stadt”, 1909. Via WIkimedia.

What I read this week:

Joshua Foust makes a lot of sense on Pussy Riot and celebrity slacktivism.

Repression, dissent, and the onset of civil war.

The story of WikiLeaks, once an exciting tale of overcoming government secrecy and empowering online activists and journalists, is now a story primarily concerned with the vagaries of diplomatic immunity, British-Ecuadorean relations, and Swedish rape laws.”

Gender, norms and survival in maritime disasters (via Tyler Cowen).

Liberal democracy is viable, but can we do better?

Assessing Iran’s nuclear goals – and assessing the assessors.

Are ‘waterworlds’ planets in transition?

Moka Only feat. MF Doom – More Soup (DJ Serious Remix).


Conscripts in the Soviet Union

By Taylor Marvin

Soviet soldier armed with an AK-74 rifle, 1980. Image by Wikimedia user J.Lemeshenko.

Today I stumbled upon an interesting used book: The Soviet Union Today: An Interpretive Guideedited by James Cracraft and released in 1987.

I’m just beginning to work my way through the volume, but Mikhail Tsypkin’s chapter on Soviet conscripts is both fascinating and depressing. In a system that put little value on the individual, the two year term of service for conscripts in the Red Army was miserable and dangerous, even in peacetime. A brutal hazing culture where veteran second-year conscripts brutalized their younger comrades functioned as an officially-sanctioned method of enforcing discipline and passing on skills. Drunkenness was a constant problem, and  punishments were brutal. Soldiers accused of transgressions like drinking, challenging officers, or going AWOL for less than 24 hours were sent to the guardhouse for up to 15 days, where freezing cold, starvation diets, and being forced to stand for 18 hours a day were normal. Up to 15 percent of Soviet conscripts possessed only a basic grasp of Russian. Soldiers were prevented from owning civilian clothes, both to discourage them from going AWOL and make it more difficult for soldiers to illegally acquire alcohol, which shopkeepers were forbidden to sell to soldiers in uniform.

Conscripts were deliberately stationed far from their own communities, both to combat the rampant problem of unmotivated soldiers going AWOL and decrease soldiers’ sympathy for the local population in the event that they were called out to put down civilian unrest. Soldiers stationed in the Eastern European satellites were in effect confined to quarters for their entire terms of service to avoid “cultural contamination”.

Soviet officials went to great lengths to keep conscripts isolated. Radios were often confiscated, soldiers often had no understanding of the global conflict they were an unwilling participant in. From the text:

“The political indoctrination system often fails to provide plausible explanations of international crises that result or might result in the use of Soviet military might. Thus, at least some Soviet soldiers during the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia thought they were in West Germany or even in Israel. During the 1968 crisis a Soviet infantry division was alerted and moved to the Sino-Soviet border, but its enlisted men were not told why. Similarly, neither enlisted men or officers of a surface-to-air missile battery alerted during the 1973 US-Soviet showdown were offered any explanation of the international situation.”

The Israel anecdote, in particular, seems incredible, and it’s easy to mock ignorant conscripts for not knowing the obvious differences between Central Europe and Israel. But it makes perfect sense upon reflection. Soviet citizens had the strength and unity of the Warsaw Pact drilled into them all of their life, and the idea that a Communist ally could turn away from the Soviet Union would not be initiative. Of course, to a conscript from a small Siberian town with little knowledge of external politics and no access to images of the outside world, the differences between Czechoslovakia and Israel would not be obvious.


The Future of Driverless Cars

By Taylor Marvin

Kevin Drum flags a provocative quote from Alex Tabarrock on the future of driverless cars:

“At first when there is an accident people will ask, ‘did he have the driverless option on?’ But soon they will start to say ‘if only he had the driverless option on.”‘

There’s a fun parlor game — apologies, I can’t remember where I first saw this — in trying to imagine what aspects of our society future generations will judge as barbaric. We’re appalled that the earlier generations accepted slavery and racism as the natural order of the world, and often enthusiastically supported eugenics. What do we accept without thought that future generations will look upon with horror?

Typical answers include eating animals, punishing crimes with isolating prison sentences, and so on. However, I’ve always thought that future generations will be amazed that we let nearly everyone drive a car, and accepted over 30,ooo motor vehicle deaths a year as perfectly normal. Of course, the freedom of private cars, and their costs, are a valued and necessary part of our society. But when driverless cars come into their own in the next few decades, I’m certain that the expectation that traffic deaths are a part of life will change.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Richard-Karl Karlovitch Zommer, “Samarkand, Uzbekistan”. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

AirSea Battle: the Help Desk for 21st century warfare.

Even failed peace agreements save lives.

If the Aliens Have Cities, Will We Be Able to See Them? (via Abel Méndez, via Winchell Chung).

Popular Erosion Of Liberty: Do You Feel Lucky?

How water companies are poisoning your kids.

Matt Steinglass on America’s decaying infrastructure.

So apparently Battlestar Galactica and International Relations is a book. Buy it.

Your Hand in Mine – Calender. 

Reconsidering “First Contact”

By Taylor Marvin

Staying on the subject of aliens, what would a human first contact with an intelligent alien species be like? Science fiction typically presents two possibilities: violent confrontation, or cooperation that benefits humanity — think human’s first contact with the Vulcans in Star Trek, whose good example led to the banishment of human violence and poverty. In any case first contact is nearly always assumed to have a unprecedented effect on the human experience.

However, both these scenarios assume direct contact, and communication, between us and the aliens.  This is unlikely. Instead, human “encounters” with aliens are much more likely to be discoveries of distance evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations.

How would humans react to such a discovery? I’m not convinced the results would be especially dramatic. Let’s imagine that next week astronomers detect a discarded debris shield from an alien spaceship by pure chance zipping through our solar system. If this shield is similar to the one utilized on the proposed Project Daedalus fusion interstellar probe, it would be a 50 ton beryllium disk — not a particularly informative artifact, even if we could examine it in detail. Assuming the shield(s) traveled independently just in front of the alien spacecraft — Project Daedalus does not use this scheme, but increasing the distance between a shield and the main body of a spacecraft could increase protection from interstellar debris — the shield would continue on its path after the spaceship decelerated, and would spend only a short time in the solar system before continuing on its way.

The Project Daedalus spacecraft, compared to a Saturn V rocket. Note the meteor shield. Image via Icarus Interstellar.

My point is that while encountering such a shield would be absolute proof of an intelligent alien civilization, it would tell us next to nothing about who created it. All we would know is that sometime in the last 9 billion years an interstellar alien civilization did exist, and that they utilized spacecraft roughly similar to those proposed by humans — that’s it. What effect would this knowledge have on humanity?

Of course it’s impossible to tell, but I suspect not much. Knowing that someone else is — or, more likely, was — out there would challenge humanity’s understanding of its place in the cosmos, but probably would not dramatically alter human culture. In contrast to Star Trek’s wide-eyed optimism, humans’ propensity for conflict would likely continue. Beyond that, who knows?

Exploring the repercussions of such a fleeting encounter could make a great premise for a short story.

What Would an Expansionist Alien Species Be Like?

By Taylor Marvin

One of the more interesting questions about the universe is the apparent rarity of intelligent life. It is reasonable to suspect that given the vast size of the universe and apparent frequency of rocky planets intelligent civilizations are common in galactic habitable zones, even disregarding the possibility of exotic biologies. However, humans have not encountered aliens and observed no evidence of these civilizations, despite the fact that evidence of both extant and extinct sufficiently advanced civilizations should be apparent across galactic distances. This is especially puzzling because today’s humans are not far from the technological requirements — conservatively, fusion drives and generation ships — required to colonize a significant portion of the galaxy.

This puzzle — if aliens are common, where are they? — is termed the Fermi Parodox. Scientific America author Ian Crawford elegantly summarized the possible solutions to the paradox:

“There are only four conceivable ways of reconciling the absence of ETs with the widely held view that advanced civilizations are common. Perhaps interstellar spaceflight is infeasible, in which case ETs could never have come here even if they had wanted to. Perhaps ET civilizations are indeed actively exploring the galaxy but have not reached us yet.

Perhaps interstellar travel is feasible, but ETs choose not to undertake it. Or perhaps ETs have been, or still are, active in Earth’s vicinity but have decided not to interfere with us. If we can eliminate each of these explanations of the Fermi Paradox, we will have to face the possibility that we are the most advanced life-forms in the galaxy.”

There’s a lot to explore here, but I’d like to focus on two of the four potential answers: that intelligent civilizations are chose not to expand through the galaxy, or are somehow prevented from doing so. Importantly, it appears that this “prevention” is not based on an inherent difficulty of interstellar colonization. Again quoting Crawford:

“Any civilization with advanced rocket technology would be able to colonize the entire galaxy on a cosmically short timescale. For example, consider a civilization that sends colonists to a few of the planetary systems closest to it. After those colonies have established themselves, they send out secondary colonies of their own, and so on. The number of colonies grows exponentially. A colonization wave front will move outward with a speed determined by the speed of the starships and by the time required by each colony to establish itself. New settlements will quickly fill in the volume of space behind this wave front.”

In a famous 1998 paper “The Great Filter – Are We Almost Past It?”, economist Robin Hanson suggests that humans do not observe aliens because life encounter a “great filter between death and expanding lasting life” that prevents it from colonizing the galaxy.

“No alien civilizations have substantially colonized our solar system or systems nearby. Thus among the billion trillion stars in our past universe, none has reached the level of technology and growth that we may soon reach. This one data point implies that a Great Filter stands between ordinary dead matter and advanced exploding lasting life.”

Either intelligent life evolves extremely rarely, or it is extinguished before expanding. While Hanson believes this filter is best explained by the presumed rarity of the evolution of intelligence, he provides a fascinating description of social hypothesis that explain the theorized short lifespan of intelligent civilizations. Interestingly, as humans appear to be relatively close to interstellar capability, this suggests that — rejecting a biological Great Filter mechanism — that humans are also close to encountering the Great Filter.

Confounding the puzzle, Hanson argues that evolutionary theory suggests that civilizations that do arise tend towards expansion, making their absence harder to explain:

“In general, it only takes a few individuals of one species to try to fill an ecological niche, even if all other life is uninterested. And mutations that encourage such trials can be richly rewarded. Similarly, we expect internally-competitive populations of our surviving descendants to continue to advance technologically, and to fill new niches as they become technologically and economically feasible.”

Hanson argues that energy constraints, desire to outpace potential competitors, and concerns over local disasters would motivate even sedentary civilizations to expand — the galaxy is not full of hermit civilizations. Similarly, the finite lifespans of main-sequence stars would eventually force all civilizations that reach the end of their sun’s life to expand or die. This suggests that most intelligent civilizations eventually expand, leading it to the Fermi paradox — if intelligent civilizations are common and expansionist, why don’t we observe them?

There are three broad possibilities: aliens are expansionist but hide, either on purpose or inadvertently; civilizations are routinely destroyed before they can expand; or that civilizations elect not to expand.

Because evidence of advanced civilization is typically thought to be detectable on galactic scales, if expansionist civilizations exist in our galaxy something must be preventing us from detecting them. Typical explanations include that we have detected but cannot recognize evidence of very alien extraterrestrial civilizations for what it is, by chance aliens avoid technology detectable over vast distances, or that the galaxy is dangerous and technological civilizations are actively hiding.

Another possibility: rather than electing not to expand, planets are somehow routinely prevented from developing interstellar civilizations. Science fiction suggests a few fictional answers. In Alastair Reynolds Revelation Spacenascent interstellar civilizations inevitably attract the malevolent attention of the “Inhibitors”, dormant machines left over from an early interstellar war, or, more fancifully, in Charles Stross’ A Colder War ill-advisedly meddle with H.P. Lovecraft’s monsters. Other commonly theorized dangers are nuclear or biological warfare, or environmental disaster. More exotic theorized perils include civilization-destroying experiments with strong artificial intelligence, or attracting the attention of rapacious hidden aliens (I find this unlikely).

Another potential “Great Filter” mechanism is that alien civilizations do arise, are not prevented from expanding but instead elect not to. There are numerous explanations for this tendency. An early, widespread alien civilization could have imposed a “no-expansion” norm on following civilizations; Reynold’s long-lived Inhibitors could be considered a particularly violent way of enforcing this norm across deep time. Civilization could be universally cautious, and avoid expansion at all costs for fear of attracting the attention of hidden malevolent aliens; however, it is difficult to reconcile this with the death of stars — why would a solar system-bound civilization fear a potential danger over certain death at the end of their sun’s life? Alien civilizations could also universally prize preserving the natural state of the galaxy, though again it is doubtful that this naturalistic impulse would survive the death of civilization’s stars. Or, advanced civilizations could universally embrace virtual reality or lose physical form while somehow avoiding the resource and survivability incentives to expand.

Another potential solution is that advanced civilizations commonly arise, but are prevented from expanding due to for purely economic or organizational reasons; in this case, the solution to the Fermi paradox would be the “it is too expensive to physically spread throughout the galaxy” hypothesis. As Hanson notes, there are numerous problems with this theory; most notably, evolutionary pressures tend to select expansionary traits in successful or long-lived societies. However, I’d like to examine this possibility in more detail: why would civilizations chose not to expand in the absence of external pressures (previously set non-expansion norms, fear), innate non-expansion traits (tendency towards naturalism), or disinterest (move to virtual reality without a local resource constraint, etc.)?

There are clearly long-term benefits to galactic expansion. Civilizations that do expand would have access to much greater energy resources and vastly increased security. However, it is important to remember these benefits are collective, long-term benefits, and species with finite lives have little reason to invest in the extreme long-term. If we restrict our discussion to human-like species composed of reproducing, autonomous, sentient individuals, it is possible to argue (speculatively!) that the drive for galactic expansion largely vanishes. Interstellar colonization is a collective effort that likely fails a human-based cost-benefit test scaled around a few human generations; when rational short-lifespan individual utility maximizers are the decisionmakers, under conditions roughly similar to foreseeable future humanity interstellar colonization seems unlikely. It is even possible that individual species like our own would be unable to organize interstellar expansion when motivated by the impending death of their sun.

I am not arguing that the “it is too expensive to physically spread throughout the galaxy” is a particularly convincing universal solution to the Fermi paradox, but instead that economic constraints are a more likely explanation for supposing that near-baseline humans will not expand widely in the foreseeable future than astronomical or social-triggered destruction.

Of course, “conditions roughly similar to foreseeable future humanity” benchmarked on the early 21st century certainly leaves a lot of leeway for future humans, not to mention other species broadly similar to our own. That said, we can broadly speculate about the qualities of expansionist species with biology (again, reproducing, autonomous, sentient individuals) similar to our own:

  • Exponential reproduction: In the last half century the world total fertility has fallen precipitously, from a mean of 4.95 in the 1950-55 era to 2.36 today. This fall is well understood, and is associated with the advent of birth control, rising incomes, and women’s’ increased social empowerment and education. But importantly, falling total fertility is only possible because birth control allows sex to be decoupled from reproduction, and the human reproductive drive is a sex drive. It’s entirely possible that an alien species would have a reproductive, rather than sex, drive that negated the entire idea of birth control and made exponential population growth difficult to avoid. Massive population growth could be a powerful incentive to invest in interstellar expansion.
  • Extreme life extension: I’ve previously wondered if human’s falling birthrates would prevent humanity from ever investing in space colonization — after all, barring some catastrophe living in off-world will in the medium-run always been more expensive and uncomfortable than living on Earth. If humans don’t have a pressing reason to leave in large numbers, they likely won’t. While human colonies off of the Earth would significantly improve the survivability of the human species, it’s difficult to imagine this is a sufficient reason to motivate investing in these colonies. However, medical advances resulting in extreme life extension would undo the population control gains from stable world total fertility and again raise the specter of global overpopulation, perhaps prompting investment in off-world colonization. The same logic could apply to other species.
  • Competing local societies: As Hanson notes, competition creates strong pressure to expand into unexploited niches. Competition among local societies could create incentives to expand in otherwise non-expansionistic species. However, it is difficult to imagine sufficient competition among human-like species to prompt interstellar expansion while avoiding local war that destroys the capability for extensive interstellar travel, though perhaps strong prohibitions on armed conflict could avoid this.
  • Innate expansionistic tendencies: To move into more speculative factors, it’s possible to imagine alien species with an innate desire to expand — just as human behavioral evolution appears to have favored aggression. An innate desire for expansion would motivate investment in colonization beyond that justified by human cost/benefit calculations.
  • Low/High risk tolerance: Space exploration is risky, both in direct risk and its high opportunity cost. Space colonization is much more risky. It’s conceivable that a species with a higher innate psychological tolerance for risk would elect to invest in risky expansion for reasons that don’t make sense to humans. Conversely, an species with a tolerance for risk much lower than humans could judge the long-term security of space colonization worth the risk and opportunity cost. Lifespan could conceivable play a role as well; assuming species consisting of sentient individuals, longer-lived species could either have lower (more to lose) or higher (boredom) tolerance for risk than humans.
  • Extreme technological advancement: All of these previous traits alter the benefit side of an expansion cost/benefit ratio. However, extremely advanced technology developed for other purposes could justify expansion by radically reducing the cost of expansion. For example, self-replicating von Neumann machines could make expansion much cheaper. This relative affordability could prompt highly advanced species to expand when they otherwise would elect not to.

If this theory holds (and I’m not entirely convinced that it does; for example, extreme life expansion could be very common even in relatively young intelligent species), we would expect human-type civilizations that do expand to be dominated by those with innate high population growth, or extremely high technological capabilities (i.e. no expensive generation ships or warp drives). More speculatively, we could expect the most expansionist species to be those where policy is not set by individual utility maximizers. These “non-individually rational” species could include hive minds a la Star Trek’s Borg, machine races, or something else entirely.

If we accept the argument that species composed of short-lived, individual utility maximizers are not particularly inclined to expansion, and these civilizations tend to not delegate social decisions to non-individual utility maximizing actors like “God computers”, then a potential solution to the Fermi Paradox is that civilizations with the expansionist traits listed above arise only rarely. This, however, does not address the problem that expansionist societies would tend to out-compete and displace non-expansionist societies.


Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children?

By Saad Asad

Child poverty rates in the United States soared to 22 percent in 2010. The problem is worse for minorities: 39 percent and 35 percent of Black and Hispanic children, respectively, live in poverty. Despite this troubling issue, the federal government has made little headway in reducing child poverty rates over the past decade.

Admittedly, the rise was exacerbated by the recession and the related foreclosure crisis that wiped out jobs and homes. But the effects of the 2008 financial crisis explain only part of the US’ high child poverty rate: in pre-crisis 2007 it was 18 percent. Over the past ten years, the rate has only increased.

Child Poverty 2000-2010

As a UNICEF study explains, these individual problems escalate in to a nationwide economic problem:

“Failure to protect children from poverty is one of the most costly mistakes a society can make. The heaviest cost of all is borne by the children themselves. But their nations must also pay a very significant price – in reduced skills and productivity, in lower levels of health and educational achievement, in increased likelihood of unemployment and welfare dependence, in the higher costs of judicial and social protection systems, and in the loss of social cohesion. The economic argument, in anything but the shortest term, is therefore heavily on the side of protecting children from poverty.”

To prevent this crisis from worsening, immediate relief can be found from expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and maintaining unemployment insurance benefits to the jobless. For the long haul, though, the US should look to the policies implemented by the United Kingdom in reducing its own child poverty rate. Aside from increasing subsidies,the UK increased access to  childcare programs and targets were set to eliminate child poverty by 2020. So far, the UK has reduced absolute child poverty significantly.

From a structural standpoint, communities and governments need to increase focus on pre-K education and child daycare for those families that cannot afford it. The negative effect of early-life poverty and lack of pre-K education on later-life outcomes is well understood, and impoverished children at age 4 are already 18 months behind developmentally.

President Barack Obama should also be lauded for requesting $210 million to set up zones across the country similar to the successful Harlem Children’s Zone. The one in Harlem pays strict attention to students’ behavior, increases their time in school, and enforces rigorous standards for teachers. David Brooks of the New York Times furthers:

“Forgive some academic jargon, but the most common education reform ideas — reducing class size, raising teacher pay, enrolling kids in Head Start — produce gains of about 0.1 or 0.2 or 0.3 standard deviations. If you study policy, those are the sorts of improvements you live with every day. Promise Academy [a charter middle school in the Harlem Children’s Zone] produced gains of 1.3 and 1.4 standard deviations. That’s off the charts. In math, Promise Academy eliminated the achievement gap between its black students and the city average for white students.”

Although these programs cost taxpayer money, they are effective in reducing child poverty and its resulting ill effects. And when considering how these ill effects can affect crime rates, unemployment rates, and overall economic growth in the future, then these measures are surely a worthwhile investment.

Conflict Clusters and Superpower Intervention

By Taylor Marvin

Afghan Mujahideen armed with a US-made anti-air missile; author unknown. Via Wikimedia.

Over at Political Violence @ a GlanceDavid E. Cunningham notes that while the number of armed conflicts around the world has vastly decreased, the conflicts that do occur are increasingly clustered in specific geographic areas (full disclosure: I do editing for PV @ a Glance)Why do conflicts cluster? There’s no comprehensive answer available, but Cunningham highlights the tendency of countries’ internal conflicts to destabilize and eventually spread to their neighbors. Conversely, stabilizing domestic factors like economic growth and democratization also spread and positively influence neighboring states; nations can be bad or good neighbors. As Cunningham says:

“We are still trying to understand why this clustering occurs, but it suggests that phenomena that were historically viewed as ‘domestic’ such as civil war, democratization, and economic performance, have significant international causes and effects.”

These are all very good explanations. But why do we see conflict clustering in certain regions of the world now, and why are these becoming clusters more pronounced? The obvious reason is that Cunningham’s “stabilizing influences” are more common today, making the regions with comparatively low stocks of these influences — notably the Middle East, southern Asia, and northern Africa — exceptional in a way they weren’t in the past.

But I think another important causal factor is the contemporary absence of competing global superpowers. During the Cold War, both the US and USSR used their global reach to selectively escalate regional conflicts. Numerous conflicts during the Cold War period that began as relatively small confrontations between regional actors were lethally prolonged by the escalating interference of the superpowers. Of course, we do observe some degree of clustering in Cold War-era conflicts; after all, the “neighborhood” effect Cunningham identifies was just as important then as it is now, though because “bad neighborhoods” were comparatively more common in the 20th century these clusters were geographically broader and less obvious. However, because the US and USSR essentially selected their degree of escalation in regional conflicts at random — for example, the US heavily escalated its involvement in the war between North and South Vietnam compared to its lighter touch in 1980s Nicaragua — the clustering effect was less pronounced. Unlike other, more proximate, regional effects, the destabilizing influence of the superpowers was global and selective.

Intervention by a superpower can arguably lessen the destructive effects of regional conflicts by ending them quicker than they would have in the absence of intervention. This logic only appears to apply when an external power intervenes on the side of one combatant, and commits enough resources to the conflict to decisively win it. This is not always the case — it seems likely that the 2011 Libyan revolution would have ended sooner in the absence of NATO, though of course in a Qaddafi victory. But during the Cold War intervention by a superpower was overwhelmingly likely to prolong regional conflicts by attracting competing intervention by its rival, suggesting that superpower intervention was more destructive during the Cold War than it is today.

Today, Russia is not able to exert a disruptive influence outside of its backyard and while the US continues to enter and escalate regional conflicts, American intervention is rarer than at the height of the Cold War. This partially removes the “global bad neighbor” effect, and reemphasizes the influence of local causes of conflict.