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Posts from the ‘Economics’ Category

Chasing the DC Foreign Policy Career Dream

By Taylor Marvin

Are you a student or young graduate hoping to break into the DC foreign policy world? Writing in Foreign Policy, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Eric Trager shares advice for those hoping for careers focused on the Middle East. Trager’s points are intuitive, and reasonable. If you want to work on Middle Eastern policy issues, regional skills are vital. This is particularly true in the current job market, where a huge number of highly-qualified candidates competing for a limited number of entry-level foreign policy positions (a small number undoubtably made smaller by the gradual trend towards unpaid internships replacing what were once entry-level paid work, which is more pronounced in but not limited to prestige niches) means that employers can be as selective as they want. Trager recognizes this, warning applicants that “there is simply too much talent for too few paying jobs.”

So what makes a successful entry-level applicant? Regional language skills, or better yet fluency, is a minimum requirement, and the Arabic dialects many first-generation Americans may have learned at home isn’t enough. Applicants should also have spent time in the Middle East. It isn’t enough to just simply study abroad in highly-trafficked regional centers, Trager writes, noting that job applicants “who stray from well-traveled paths within the region — studying in Haifa, rather than Jerusalem, for example — always stand out.” It’s also valuable for candidates who write senior theses in college to conduct actual research in the Middle East. Finally, a DC internship is vital. American foreign policy jobs outside of academia are overwhelmingly centered around Washington, and “the best applicants for entry-level positions will have spent at least one summer working in D.C. getting to know its ways,” in Trager’s words.

All of these points are reasonable. In an age where American foreign policy in and outside of government suffers from a lack of hands-on regional skills among its practitioners, language ability and study experience in the Middle East should be vital for graduates hoping to spend their careers studying the region. Yes, this trend towards language fluency and extensive study abroad requirements for entry-level applicants is partially driven by an oversupply of hopefuls and an undersupply of actual paying jobs, but it also has real value, as anyone who remembers Fred Kaplan’s anecdote in The Insurgents relaying that roughly one percent of US embassy officials in Baghdad in 2006 spoke fluent Arabic knows. These requirements are also driven by the simple selectivity that makes it difficult to distinguish valuable knowledge from arms-racing “credential creep,” as Faris Alikhan terms it. As Adam Elkus (a qualified FP watcher if there ever was one) noted on Twitter, a post 9/11 foreign policy career bubble is now popping — particularly for those focused on the Middle East, I’d guess — and the jobs that many students expect simply aren’t there.

But value aside, there’s another obvious takeaway from Trager’s advice — that the foreign policy world is limited to those from wealthy backgrounds. Or more pithily, it means that “building a career in policy often means not only living on little income, but paying your way around the world,” in Sarah Kendzior’s words. Think about what these requirements practically signify from a student’s perspective. Assuming they achieve admission into an elite college at all, taking three years of language courses as a four-year undergraduate means that a student must decide that they’d like to focus on the Middle East as a freshman, at the latest. In other words, a career in Middle Eastern policy requires many students to make decisions about the rest of their lives when they’re nineteen years old. Study abroad is open to all students on paper, but in reality studying for one or two semesters in a foreign country requires significant amounts of money for visa expenses, food, travel, and so on. If these expenses are covered by scholarships and grants great, but for many they are not. Since most students who study abroad tend to do so in their junior year, conducting senior thesis research in the Middle East implies many students studying abroad not only once, but twice.

Unpaid DC internships are great resume builders for students who attend universities in the Washington area. But for those in other parts of the country — so the vast majority of university students — it’s much harder. An unpaid DC summer internship requires moving across the country, finding housing in an unknown city, and covering living expenses for a summer. Many summer internships are full time, so unless interns have the energy to work a night job they either have to take out a loan or have their parents cover their expenses. Given that an unpaid internship only maybe leads to future paid employment, borrowing money to fund one is not unreasonably too much for many.

Similarly, this is all assuming that students have the opportunity to move across the country for a summer at all. For working students this may not be possible, either because they need the money or they’ll simply lose their job back home if they do. If “at least one summer” at a DC internship is the bare minimum, now we’re talking about blocking off two summers, or possibly three if a fall semester study abroad stint conflicts with a full-length summer internship. Again, this isn’t to say that on-the-ground regional experience isn’t important, or that cultural immersion isn’t vital to those learning Arabic or Farsi. (Immersion is instrumental to learning Romance languages, much easier for English speakers to acquire than Arabic.) But we should be realistic about what Trager’s guidance practically means for students. Foreign policy driven by a knowledge elite will tend to be staffed by, well, the elite.

There really isn’t a good answer here. American foreign policy is best served by practitioners with deep knowledge of both their region of focus and Washington, DC. But restricting foreign policy jobs to only those lucky enough to meet a steep criteria of experience and internship requirements is bad for everyone. If Trager’s advice really is the minimum necessary to be competitive for an entry-level DC policy job, we’re selling students a lie. International Studies majors are at least in theory benchmarked around the assumption that there are jobs for graduates, an assumption strengthened by the entire world of consumer foreign policy media fed to students. Perhaps we should be telling International Studies majors that jobs in their field are restricted only to the elite (and to an extent all liberal arts and social science majors are now told that), but the message doesn’t seem to be sinking in — particularly for students who succeed above expectations in their International Studies majors at the expense of extracurricular internships and experience focused on later out-of-major employment. Of course everyone knows that International Studies isn’t Petroleum Engineering or Computer Science (or even Economics for that matter), but at least in my experience IS classes are not presented as a fun four-year course of study its students are never going to need in their professional lives, even if that is true for most.

Again, there’s nothing unreasonable about Trager’s advice from the perspective of an employer seeking quality work. Ultimately the lesson to Middle Eastern policy hopefuls boils down to what prospective law students are just beginning to hear: unless you are already firmly in the elite, don’t try.

Another Decade of Labor Underutilization

By Saad Asad

Unemployment continues to drift downward, but at a slow pace. The average job growth for 2012 was 153,000 jobs, unchanged from 2011. At this rate, we will not attain pre-recession employment levels until after 2025. (Click through the chart to enlarge.)

Labor Underutilization Dec-12

Progressive Taxation or Punishment?

By Saad Asad

The American Taxpayer Relief Act, passed to divert the recent fiscal cliff, distributes most of the prescribed tax hikes towards the wealthy, though the lower class taxpayers do not go by unscathed. Due to the capital gains and dividends tax increases, in particular, the top 1% alone will be subject to over 40% of the increases. Because of the lapse of the payroll tax cut, middle class families will also face a tax increase in 2013 as well. I used data provided by the Tax Policy Center to illustrate the tax change from 2012 to 2013 in chart form. By dividing up the top quintile, we can see that the top 1% pay most of the increased burden compared to the other 19% in the top quintile. Depending on one’s political beliefs, this is a move towards progressive taxation or punishment for the rich.

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Brainstorming a Plausible Alien Invasion

Cowboys_&_AliensBy Taylor Marvin

Over the recent holidays I spent one evening watching Cowboys and Aliens. The movie is ridiculous — of course it means to be, and the tragedy isn’t its irreverence but the fact it isn’t that good — but it is thought-provoking. Alien invasions stories are a hugely common trope, especially in film. It’s easy to understand why they pop up so frequently. Invasion stories feature suitably dramatic survival-of-humanity stakes, and importantly don’t require inventing a future society, like other forms of science fiction. Accessible, dramatic, conflict-oriented — what’s not to like?

Unfortunately, alien invasion stories are at best usually utterly implausible. Of course, this can be irrelevant — plausibility isn’t required to tell engaging stories, and is certainly much less important than relatable characterizations, drama, and the other tenets of good fiction. But it is an interesting challenge: how can authors tell stories about alien invasions in line with reasonable assumptions about aliens’ behavior and incentives?

The core implausibility about most alien invasion stories isn’t plucky humans triumphing over aliens capable of flying across the galaxy — suspension of disbelief exists for a reason — but instead aliens’ incentives. Of course, the only thing we can assume about alien civilizations is that, well, they’re alien. It’s very difficult to make any assumptions about how an alien civilization would be organized, what they would value, and how they would behave. But we are able to identify universal constraints, and extrapolate which of these constraints aliens’ incentives are bound by. No matter how alien, there are certain limitations that we can assume all technological civilizations are bound by. Civilizations appear to be universally limited to expensive, slower than light travel. The galactic scarcity of certain chemical elements is also universal, as is some degree of natural selection within and between species. Even if intelligent species are common they are likely be widely separated by space and time, and a plausible depiction of a populous galaxy must square with our failure to observe evidence of alien technological civilizations.

Most alien invasion stories depict aliens invading the Earth in pursuit of its resources. In Cowboys and Aliens [mild spoiler], the resource the alien aggressors are after is gold. This is, to put it politely, very implausible. While there are rarer chemical elements in the Milky Way, gold is scarce galaxy-wide, making it a potential valuable commodity for alien species. However, this is a tricky assumption in and of itself — humans’ high valuation of gold is not only due to scarcity, but also aesthetics. There’s no reason that alien sensory systems and psychology would necessarily value the shiny luster of gold. Worse, it’s difficult to believe that a civilization capable of routine interstellar travel faces any real scarcity. Even if the aliens had completely harvested their own system’s resources, there are considerably more cost-effective means of acquiring gold than stealing it from hardscrabble Westerners. Gold is likely to be present in most stellar systems, offering potential resources at lower travel costs than the journey to Earth (again, remember the ‘space travel is expensive’ assumption). More exotically, given the high cost of interstellar travel for even advanced species, harvesting resources from black hole accretion disks is likely more cost-effective for a suitably advanced civilization.

Other films are even worse. Battle: Los Angeles depicts aliens invading for [mild spoiler] Earth’s water, when any civilization able to travel between stars could trivially harness the energy to melt any minor icy moon. Avatar gets around this by inventing “unobtainum” so valuable it’s worth flying to the next start to get it — an example of MacGuffinite if there ever was one.The truth is there really isn’t any plausible rational reason for an alien invasion of Earth. Most simply, there’s no mineral resources found on Earth that can’t likely be had in any stellar system. It’s also unlikely that aliens would invade our planet for living space, because it’s similarly unlikely that any aliens we encounter require the same narrow environmental band that we do — aliens could just as easily “invade” the to-them inviting environs of Venus, Titan, or Jupiter. Really the only thing unique about Earth is its biosphere, but even if aliens valued Earth’s life they would be unlikely to invade in pursuit of it. Nuclear weapons are a comparably basic technology, and it’s a reasonable assumption that aliens would associate Earth’s obvious radio emissions with a mastery of nuclear technology. If prospective invaders could ascertain that Earth housed nuclear weapons, they would also know that its defenders could arbitrarily destroy the very biosphere the invaders were after.

So, assuming that interstellar travel is costly, it’s reasonable to say that while colonization is rational to select species, invasions are not — as long as we define “rational” as “fulfilling a reasonable cost-benefit ratio, expressed in resource terms”. But defining strategic rationality in even a solely human context is problematic. As M.L.R. Smith writes, citing F. Lopez-Alvez:

“To pass judgment on whether anyone is rational or irrational in political life is to assume that one exists in Olympian detachment with a unique insight into what constitutes supreme powers of reasoning (a self-evidently delusional position). The assumption of rationality, however, does not suppose that the actor is functioning with perfect efficiency or ‘that all rational decisions are right ones, merely that an actor’s decisions are made after careful cost–benefit calculation and the means chosen seem optimal to accomplish the desired end.’”

So while we can speculatively presume that aliens have no rational incentive to fight us for purely acquisitional rationals, this doesn’t rule out alien civilizations rationally valuing conflict. After all, strategic rationality rests on internal consistency, not a universal yardstick — the “desired end” varies. Perhaps alien civilizations are religiously driven to genocide (I’m using “genocide” in a species extinction context), or make the rational decision that the existence of any alien competitor is a potential existential risk that cannot be tolerated. As Charles Pellegrino has extensively argued, natural selection pressures would tend to select for aggressively competitive and preservation-minded civilizations. Aliens that expand far enough to encounter other species have powerful incentives to quickly destroy them.

But, importantly, there’s considerable ground between invasion and destruction; ground that doesn’t leave much room for exciting narratives. Again citing Pellegrino, a genocide-minded interstellar civilization would simply attack a potential competitor with a spacecraft accelerated to relativistic velocity. The capability to launch such an attack is a prerequisite of most plausible interstellar species, and would be nearly impossible to counter. So a plausible alien invasion story requires a delicate middle ground: aliens must not seek to destroy us completely, nor desire to capture and exploit the solar systems’ resources.

So where does that leave us? Luckily for humanity, it’s difficult to imagine a plausible alien invasion story because alien invasions themselves aren’t particularly likely. We haven’t observed evidence of technological civilizations in decades of looking, which means — among other possibilities — that they aren’t there at all and we’re alone in the galaxy (disconcerting), are deliberately preserving our ignorance (more disconcerting), or are actively hiding themselves out of fear of a dangerous universe (very disconcerting). But if we’re specifically looking for a plausible alien invasion, there are some possibilities.

A speculative example:

The conflict begins when humans detect the very bright exhaust plumes of alien spacecraft decelerating into the solar system. Even if the incoming aliens are equipped with extremely powerful antimatter reaction drives this deceleration will take decades, giving human civilization time to attempt to divine the aliens’ intentions and prepare for possible hostilities. The alien spacecraft are eventually revealed to be gigantic ships that, after decelerating, go into orbit in the outer solar system. Once they have arrived the aliens make an unexpected announcement. We are at war, but there are rules: we must fight, and we cannot use nuclear weapons.

If we violate these two rules, human civilization will be summarily destroyed by a relativistic rocket launched from outside of the solar system. However, if we follow the rules our civilization may survive.

This, of course, does not seem to make any sense. What are the aliens after? As the conflict progresses similar questions arise. The invaders seem to prefer to fight us on Earth, or in its close proximity. Fortunately for us, for a civilization capable of interstellar flight on a massive scale, the conflict seems bizarrely evenly matched: the aliens are certainly more advanced and their soldiers more formidable, but not so much that they instantly roll over Earth’s militaries. Even more fortunately, the aliens’ war strategy seems bizarrely uncoordinated. Eventually, humans deduct that the alien forces appear uncoordinated because they are — humans are facing not a unified force but competing, unaffiliated factions.

Why would the aliens behave this way? Clearly, this is not a rational way to win a military conflict. But it does make sense if they aliens aren’t seeking, in a strict sense, to win. After all, if genocide is best accomplished with a relativistic rocket and resource-motivated invasions don’t make sense, than any plausible invasion must be in pursuit of another outcome. In this speculative case, imagine a historically-martial alien species that, either by biological or social norms, selects leaders and social prestige through combat. If intelligent species are common enough to allow the practice to function, periodic limited wars would be a rational means of social organization, and an equitable way of periodically reordering the social hierarchy. Sure, this is an insanely costly means of social organization, but in strict combat and opportunity costs. But that doesn’t make it impossible, or even unreasonable for a post-scarcity species with limited individual self-preservation instincts and a fear of intra-species war.

These two rules are conductive to the limited war the aliens seek. Announcing that we must fight conveys that there will be no negotiated settlement, because, of course, the aliens aren’t interested in the outcome of the conflict, per se: they’re interested in the resulting redistribution of intra-society prestige, but not the actual military outcome. The prohibition on nuclear weapons limits the possibility that humans pose an existential risk to both the aliens, or ourselves. If nuclear weapons are allowed humans are likely to bomb ourselves into eventual radioactive extinction, regardless of the outcome of the war — something the aliens have no real interest in.

Taking this concept farther, why would the aliens have any interest in preventing inadvertent human extinction by excessive in-atmosphere nuclear weapons use? After all, they obviously place low value on human life if they don’t mind throwing us into a costly war simply to maintain their social order. One intriguing possibility is that perhaps the invaders have no qualms about destroying humanity, but fear punishment from a third-party species.

Given the vast age of the universe, the time span between the emergence of two species can measure in the millions of years — plenty of time for the elder species to gain an insurmountable advantage over its younger competitor (though this does not necessarily imply that the elder can prevent subsequent competitors from expanding as well, and complete galactic hegemony appears impossible). If this first species elects to expand, it has the enormous advantage of expanding into an empty galaxy and enjoys a later privileged position over younger civilizations in the local area.

If expansion is subject to such a massive first-mover advantage, the first long-lived first interstellar civilization to arise is in a position to force their own preferred norms on subsequent civilizations. This provides a reasonable pathway towards a local set of norms in a crowded galaxy, and avoid the collective action problem that otherwise hampers the emergence of restrictive norms. If this first-mover placed paramount value on preventing the genocide of intelligent species, this enforced preference would explain the reserved behavior of the alien invader. This prohibition is a milder version of the zoo hypothesis, expressed by William I. Newman and Carl Sagan as “imposing strict injunctions against colonization of or contact with already populated planets.” Simply fighting is permitted; completely destroying its inhabitants is not.

The presence of a local third-party hegemon would explain the invaders’ prohibition on nuclear weapons use. It would also make the aliens’ limited war practice considerably less risky. If the species they elected to target was actually a powerful civilization — aware of the local norm — for some purpose concealing its capabilities, the invaders would be presumably safe from existential retaliation.

This enforced norm means, of course, that the threat behind the invaders’ rules is a bluff — if humans refuse to fight the specter of an extinction-causing relativistic rocket strike is toothless. From the aliens’ perspective, this isn’t a problem. As long as humans are unaware of the powerful first-mover species, we’ll buy the threat. From a storytelling perspective (because, of course, that’s what alien invasion stories are about) this also gives a suitably dramatic out. Humans are suffering unbearable losses but puzzle out the nature of the galactic order, make a nail-biting, desperate decision, and call the bluff. Conflict ends, with only a minimum of the implausible deus ex machina invasion stories are prone to. Not bad, right?

Labor Underutilization

By Saad Asad

The unemployment rate rose to 7.9 percent in October largely due to an increase in the labor force of people looking for work. All measures of labor underutilization show a recovery, albeit a weak one, over the past two years.

Birth Defects in Iraq

By Taylor Marvin

Via @pourmecoffeeThe Independent reports a huge rise in Iraqi birth defects, caused by lead and depleted uranium rounds used during the war:

“The latest study found that in Fallujah, more than half of all babies surveyed were born with a birth defect between 2007 and 2010. Before the siege, this figure was more like one in 10. Prior to the turn of the millennium, fewer than 2 per cent of babies were born with a defect. More than 45 per cent of all pregnancies surveyed ended in miscarriage in the two years after 2004, up from only 10 per cent before the bombing. Between 2007 and 2010, one in six of all pregnancies ended in miscarriage.”

This is awful, and as @pourmecoffee notes, underreported in the US media — no one likes to read about the long term damage caused by their country’s wars, especially when the harm causes is something as vicerally awful as  birth defects.

I think an interesting avenue for research would be how war affect fetal health outcomes through the maternal stress channel, rather than environmental toxicity. In a recent thesis project I looked at whether earthquakes in Chile raise the incidence of low birth weight pregnancies through maternal stress. I found a small but significant positive correlation between earthquake intensity and the incidence of low birth weight pregnancies in the third trimester, as well as increased diagnosis of mental health issue in women who experience earthquakes during their first trimester. It is reasonable to suspect a similar relationship for war-related stress, and a quick literature search turns up few previous studies.

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.

Thoughts?

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.

The Hunger Games and Political Control

By Taylor Marvin

I’ve been working my way through Abigail Nussbaum’s excellent reviews, and particularly enjoyed her reading of The Hunger Games (she has no love for Battlestar Galactica, but that’s another story).

The Hunger Games trilogy isn’t a particularly good narrative, and Suzanne Collins’ disregard for believable world building is particularly frustrating — Panem just doesn’t feel like a functioning state, and the lives of its people outside District 12 are at best one dimensional. However, one aspect of Panem society that does exist as part of a believable state structure is the concept of the tessera, which allows poor teenagers in the labor camp-like districts to earn food allotments for their families at the cost of an increased chance of random selection to fight in the gladiatorial Hunger Games, which are organized by the despotic Capitol.

Authoritarian regimes often align themselves with the interests of the middle class — the Assad regime in Syria is a good contemporary example of this phenomenon. Assuming that individuals’ political power is roughly aligned with their income, it’s often more secure in the long-term for despots to protect the economic interests of a pampered, and politically adept, middle class at the expense of a much larger poor population than to make populist appeals to the very poor.

In The Hunger Games, the tessera functions as a mechanism for aligning the district middle class interests’ in the districts with those of the regime in the capital. While impoverished districts like District 12 lack a true middle class, more secure district families aren’t forced to take out tesseras and have a lower chance of having their children selected for the Hunger Games. These families enjoy the benefits of the Games — presumably, greater social stability if we accept the regime’s rhetoric that the Hunger Games are a substitute for more severe forms of collective punishment — while avoiding their costs. The fact that upper-class children are occasionally randomly chosen to fight makes the system more acceptable for everyone in the districts by maintaining the illusion of impartiality.

Save California, Tax Oil

By Saad Asad

Facing a $16 billion shortfall, Gov. Jerry Brown of California passed a budget that makes significant cuts to programs for low-income families and puts tax hikes on the November ballot. Excluded from this rancorous debate was the passage of an oil severance tax, law in states as conservative as Alabama and Sarah Palin’s Alaska.

Oil severance taxes are merely taxes on the extraction of oil. Since the economic activity generated from drilling is only temporal, Californians deserve restitution for the non-renewable energy extraction in the state. A modest tax on California oil extraction could generate up to $380 million. These revenue gains could have helped avoid cuts to child-care subsidies for low-income families ($64 million) and the Healthy Families program ($80 million) during a recent round of budget cuts.

An oil severance tax would only be a small hit to oil companies. Consider  the recent profits of California’s major oil companies: Chevron pulled in first quarter profits of $6.47 billion, and Exxon a staggering $9.45 billion. CEOs of these corporations received $35 million and $25 million in total compensation for 2011, respectively.

Because the price of oil is set at the world market, the tax will not be passed on to consumers but will be held by the local producers. Though the introduction of an oil severance tax could lead to a short-run reduction in supply, this reduction will not increase prices at the pump. California is already an oil importer, so the current price already reflects these transportation costs.

Critics argue this tax would reduce current production and discourage new drilling, forcing more oil to be imported and reducing the economic activity generated by oil companies. However, research carried out for Wyoming’s legislature suggests that oil production is highly inelastic in regards to changes to production taxes (i.e. a severance tax). The report finds that, “a production tax rate increase is shown to decrease early period exploration effort, affect little change in reserve additions and future production, and substantially increase discounted tax revenue. Policy implications of this outcome suggest that state officials may consider raising production tax rates as a way to increase revenue while risking little in the way of loss to future oil activity.”

A University of Alberta study confirms this inelasticity, staging “the simulations are consistent with prior studies in that they reflect insensitivity of oil production volumes with respect to even comparatively large production tax rate changes.” Headwaters Economics, an independent research firm, claims that price is the ultimate driver of oil production in a state, not tax structure.

Another criticism of oil severance taxes is that aggregate state revenues will decline due to decreases in property tax (via devaluations of land) and income tax liability (via decreased profits). A RAND study disputes this point and argues that property taxes would fall 6 cents per dollar for every dollar collected by the severance tax, and the net revenue for every severance dollar raised would be between 84 and 99 cents.

Despite its positive benefits, oil firms have consistently prevented a severance tax from passing via the legislature or the ballot box. Gov. Pat Brown attempted to pass a severance tax in 1959 but failed, as did then Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa in 1995. Proposition 11 in 1980, also an attempt, failed 55%-45%. More recently, oil firms defeated Proposition 87 in 2006 by spending $93 million, the most expensive ballot in state history (for perspective: both sides of the same-sex marriage Proposition 8 battle spent a total $70 million).

If California wants to pass an oil severance tax, it needs legislators tough enough to stand up to the vigorous oil lobby. Though the campaign may be tough, it is necessary if the state wishes to save programs for low-income Californians and prevent budget cuts to K-12 or higher education.