Sunday, June 17, 2012

Social Justice in the Free Market

First, read this story, then come back.

Awful, right? That's what I thought. How can an institution call itself a university and be this bigoted and closed-minded in 2012? This is a sad statement about where we are--where we still are--in this country. What a horrible story, I thought.

And then, I thought about it a bit more, and I realized it's actually a profoundly beautiful story.

It is beautiful, because it is the very essence of the free market at work. A business exists to make money. This is not evil. This is not greed. It is simply the function of a business, and it is a wonderful thing, a pillar of our freedom. Unlike government, a business cannot compel us to spend our money there. A business only survives by convincing us to spend our money there. Businesses that operate unethically, or do things that are repugnant to us, do not last. The free market punishes the unethical and the vile far more effectively than any government agency or regulation, and that is the mechanism that is at work here.

A business' brand is everything. Their brand is their reputation, and reputation is what keeps customers coming back for more. This is why McDonald's replaces your cold fries, or Walmart exchanges that sweater with the tear you didn't notice until you got it home--reputation. Do you keep going back to that restaurant you ate at a couple of times and it sucked? How about that store where you can never find any help? Of course not.

A university--when you get down to it--is just another kind of business. They have employees (faculty), a product (education), and customers (students). Education is big business. Every student brings in tens of thousands of dollars per year, and universities compete fiercely for those dollars. They hire the best professors (those with--again--a good reputation). They maintain competitive athletic programs. They offer a wide variety of student services, like health services, day care, and top-notch recreational facilities. The list goes on. A university is a business, and that business has to attract and maintain a customer base like any other.

Shorter University has implemented a policy so repugnant that over 80% of its employees (faculty) walked out. (Customers aren't the only ones with free choice in a free market. Customers vote with their dollars, employees vote with their feet.) A university can no more operate without faculty than a repair garage could operate without mechanics, so this poses a major problem.

Certainly, they will hire more professors. However, if the professors they had before didn't want to work for them because of this policy, new ones likely won't either. Thus, the university may not be able to hire the same quality of professors they need, nor in the numbers they need them. Think about it: people who are established and have a reputation for being great at what they do are sought after and have more options. They can choose not to work at Homophobia U. Shorter University will have to lower its aim, and take in professors who are willing to work for them--those with lesser reputations (perhaps those new to the profession) and fewer job prospects.

Like any business that can't attract quality talent, they will have to settle for what they can get. If  the replacement professors are not as capable, the university's academic reputation will take a hit, just as their administrative reputation has. In essence, their "brand," cultivated over their 139 years in existence, will be damaged. The combination of reaction to this offensive policy, as well as flagging reputation of the school resulting from too few professors or poor quality professors, will cause current and potential students to vote with their dollars and go elsewhere for their education. Shorter will be unable to attract new students, and start hemorrhaging existing ones.

No students equals no money. Soon, some programs will have to be cut. Some teachers and other staff will have to be laid off. Adherence to this asinine policy could sink this university--and rightly so. Shorter University has a choice: cling to their bigotry and severely, perhaps irreparably, damage their business, or issue a mea culpa, retract the policy and survive to be 140. It is their "greed" which will force them to change their behavior--not government, and not a sudden attack of social conscience--and it's a win-win for the consumer (student) and society--no government necessary.

And that, my friends, is a beautiful thing.

Good Riddance

So, this was an actual tweet that I saw today, and it rendered me speechless for a moment:

I couldn't believe what I was reading. "A dear man"? Are you fucking kidding me? Rodney King was a waste of life--a violent, alcoholic career felon with a long history of domestic violence. Take a look at the heartwarming ways this "dear man" expressed his love for his family, particularly his spouses (from this site):

July 27, 1987:  According to a complaint filed by his wife, King beat her while she was sleeping, then dragged her outside the house and beat her again. King was charged with battery and pleaded "no contest."  He was placed on probation and ordered to obtain counseling.  He never got the counseling.

June 26, 1992:  King's second wife reported to police that King had hit her and she feared for her life.  King was handcuffed and taken to a police station, but his wife then decided against pressing charges.

July 14, 1995:  King got into an argument with his wife while he was driving, pulled off the freeway and ordered her out of the car.  When she started to get out, King sped off, leaving her on the highway with a bruised arm.  King was charged with assault with a deadly weapon (his car), reckless driving, spousal abuse, and hit-and-run.  King was tried on all four charges, but found guilty only of hit-and-run driving.*
(*This summary doesn't mention that King actually struck his wife and knocked her down with the car as she reached back in for her purse. You can find more details here.)

March 3, 1999:  King allegedly injured the sixteen-year-old girl that he had fathered out of wedlock when he was seventeen, as well as the girl's mother.  King was arrested for injuring the woman, the girl, and for vandalizing property.  King claimed that the incident was simply "a family misunderstanding." 
This "dear man" was dangerous, particularly to those who "loved him so."

I understand that King was Dr. Drew's patient, and that requires Drew to have a certain amount of sympathy, but there are limits. King's untimely (but long overdue) demise likely saved his fiancee, Cynthia Kelley, from becoming wife/domestic violence victim number three. It also likely spared society at large a panoply of criminal acts in the coming decades, any one of which--given how many of his prior acts involved alcohol and motor vehicles--could have been fatal to his future victims.

Regardless of what you may think of the 1991 police beating that made him famous, Rodney King is not a sympathetic figure. He is not a hero, an innocent victim, or--as the ever-clueless Al Sharpton laughably suggested--an important civil rights figure. He was an oxygen thief, and his demise is no tragedy. Save your crocodile tears for a more deserving subject.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Neil Armst-wrong

Apollo 11 lunar astronaut and American hero Neil Armstrong.
American astronaut hero Neil Armstrong, rarely one to speak publicly, has come out as an outspoken critic of the commercialization of space travel. He, along with fellow Apollo alumni Gene Cernan and Jim Lovell, testified before Congress to this effect, and drafted an email statement to NBC space correspondent Jay Barbree to decry the move to privatize space travel. Specifically, the trio seem concerned about NASA's shift--at the direction of the Obama administration--from funding their own shuttle-replacement space vehicle for US astronauts, to encouraging private enterprise to develop solutions for US space transport. SpaceX president Elon Musk responded to this criticism in a recent 60 Minutes interview.

The spacefaring trio's objections appear to be threefold:

- Privatization of space transport would take "substantially longer and be more expensive than we would hope."

Shuttle Discovery being inspected for tile damage by ISS crew.
Are they kidding? This should be the tagline for every government program ever created.  Take the Space Shuttle, for example. While it had some spectacular scientific and technical achievements, including helping to build the ISS, the shuttle program was another greatly oversold government program that never performed to expectations. When the shuttle program was launched by NASA under the Nixon administration in 1972, it was projected that the shuttle fleet would perform as many as 50 launches per year. The final shuttle launch--that of Atlantis on July 11, 2011--was STS-135, the 135th launch since the first orbiter, Columbia, took to the final frontier on April 12, 1981--a far cry from 50 launches per year. As far as the cost, this blurb from Wikipedia summarizes it nicely:

Early during development of the space shuttle, NASA had estimated that the program would cost $7.45 billion ($43 billion in 2011 dollars, adjusting for inflation) in development/non-recurring costs, and $9.3M ($54M in 2011 dollars) per flight.[31] Early estimates for the cost to deliver payload to low earth orbit were as low as $118 per pound ($260/kg) of payload ($635/pound in 2011 dollars), based on marginal or incremental launch costs, and assuming a 65,000 pound (30 000 kg) payload capacity and 50 launches per year.[32][33]
The actual total cost of the shuttle program through 2011, adjusted for inflation, is $196 billion.[4] The exact breakdown into non-recurring and recurring costs is not available, but, according to NASA, the average cost to launch a Space Shuttle as of 2011 is about $450 million per mission.[34]

Russian Soyuz spacecraft.
Because of this cost, and the considerable time required to refit a shuttle for re-launch, US astronauts currently reach the International Space Station via Soyuz capsules launched by the Russian space agency at a comparatively cheap, but still astounding, cost of $60 million per seat, a price that is steadily increasing. 

SpaceX's Dragon being grappled by the ISS's Canadarm2.
The cost to orbit cargo aboard Dragon is estimated to be under $5,360USD/kg. This is far less than the cheapest Russian vehicle, the Rockot, which can orbit cargo at approximately $7,297 USD/kg (and this figure is difficult to trust--from "the Russian Sh'til was also rumored to be very cheap, but its launch was subsidized at an undisclosed rate by the Russian Navy, rendering valid comparison impossible."). Dragon's figure for hauling cargo is just slightly over half the Space Shuttle's cost for same, at $10,400/kg. SpaceX president Elon Musk predicts a transportation cost for US astronauts aboard Dragon capsules of $30 million--half the cost of sending them up with the Russians--a price which will surely fall with increased competition and improvements in technology.

The competition between private companies will create a race to come up with the best solution for the lowest cost, and to deliver that solution first. Unlike a bloated, plodding, ponderous government effort--which can languish for years, or even decades, without result (or with very poor ones) because it enjoys endless taxpayer funding and doesn't have to worry about making a profit--a private effort will be driven by the profit motive to create workable solutions within a reasonable time frame and at the lowest possible cost.

- Commercializing space would lead to safety issues.

Lunar astronauts Neil Armstrong (L) and Gene Cernan (R).
Space exploration will always be dangerous, but there is no reason to think that it will become more so under private efforts than under government ones. During its 30 years of operation, the shuttle program lost 2 of the total 5 orbiters built, along with 14 lives. A private company should be able to do at least that well!

A company's reputation--its "brand"--protects consumers (in this case, astronauts) far better than government regulation and oversight ever could. Remember, these companies are competing for contracts worth billions, and to establish themselves as leaders in a new market which will be worth many billions more. The company that cuts corners and then has a serious accident will lose their shot at all of that. It is in their own greedy, profit-driven self interest to make sure that their missions go off without a hitch. 

- America will lose its dominance in space. From

"To be without carriage to low Earth orbit and with no human exploration capability to go beyond Earth orbit for an indeterminate time into the future, destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature," the three said.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in front of the Falcon 9 rocket.
For the love of science and economics, will someone please give the Grumpy Old Men their medication?

SpaceX Dragon test crew.
We are already "without carriage to low earth orbit"--we depend solely on the Russians and their Soyuz capsules, remember? Private enterprise has already exceeded the status quo with regard to unmanned orbital cargo transport. The current Russian Progress capsule carries approximately 2,600kg of cargo to the ISS. Once unloaded, it is loaded up with trash from the ISS, disconnected, deorbited, and left to burn up in the atmosphere. 
The SpaceX Dragon module, by contrast, is designed to take up approximately 6,000kg of cargo, and then to return safely with 3,000kg of cargo, opening up numerous scientific, technical and experimental possibilities. (Dragon recently orbited and returned with half of these quantities for its recent demo flight to the space station.) For manned missions, the Soyuz capsule carries 3 astronauts/cosmonauts. The manned version of the Dragon capsule is currently being tested for a crew of 7.

As for deep space exploration, being able to hand off regular LEO (Low Earth Orbit) cargo and crew transport duties to private companies like SpaceX will be a boon to NASA, freeing up their manpower and resources to concentrate on deep space exploration missions, like a mission to Mars.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in front of the Falcon 9 rocket.
Commercialization of frontiers has been the norm for the human race, and it has led to unparalleled growth. At one time, crossing the Atlantic was an arduous and dangerous proposition. Same with the American frontier. Now crossing from London to New York, or New York to Los Angeles, is as easy as purchasing a ticket, and the greatest danger one faces in the whole journey is the drive to the airport.

Contrary to being the death of America in space, privatization is its rebirth. Armstrong's Apollo companion Buzz Aldrin sees this, as does NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Why can't he?
Virgin Galactic CEO Sir Richard Branson and aerospace designer Burt Rutan.
It takes heroes--people of great personal courage like Charles Lindbergh, Lewis and Clark, and Neil Armstrong--to take the first tentative steps into a new, uncertain, and dangerous frontier. It takes heroes of a different stripe--entrepreneurs like Sir Richard Branson, Burt Rutan, and Elon Musk--to follow in those footsteps, pry open that frontier, and make it accessible to all. I have the greatest respect for Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan, and Jim Lovell, but I believe that they are wrong. Privatization of space is not a development to be feared. It is a natural, logical, and long overdue next step in our journey to the stars. It should be celebrated for what it truly is--the brilliant dawn of an exciting new era for humanity in space.