The Long View 2003-11-20: Snappy Answers

Apollo Astronauts Training at Cinder Lake Near Flagstaff, Arizona

Apollo Astronauts Training at Cinder Lake Near Flagstaff, Arizona

John's 2003 ponderings about Mars in this post and the last are fortuitous, since I just reviewed the Martian by Andy Weir. This is exactly the kind of thing that got me interested in science, and directed me to physics as a field of study. Planetary science has always been close to my heart, possibly since the USGS Astrogeology Science Center is in my hometown.

Life on other planets has deep roots here too, since Percival Lowell's obsession with Mars spurred the construction of the observatory that still peers into the heavens here. A lot of fun science fiction was written before we visited other planets with automated probes, but Weir's book demonstrates that sci fi can still be fun even now that we know more about the other planets.

From the point of view of 2016, I would that we had more seriously considered breaking apart Iraq into three states on sectarian lines. John mocks the idea here, but hindsight improves its prospects. Of course, Iraq could still very well have turned into a shithole if we had tried something different, but at least we could have claimed to have applied the same logic that animated the dissolution of the empires of Europe after WWI. Sometimes W is called Wilsonian, but if we had partitioned Iraq he would have actually deserved that epithet.

My caution on the hypothetical partition of Iraq comes from two sources. First, national self-determination has probably been good on balance in the 100 years or so since it was imposed in Europe by President Wilson, but also at terrible cost. Even now, cases like Putin's adventuring in Ukraine or the sham that is Belgium expose the limits of the idea. Second, it is hard to exaggerate the ways in which the Middle East is a messed up place, and the smart bet is on chaos and disaster.

As for John's musings on economics in the end of this post, I find that I mostly distrust everyone on economics after the 2008 housing bubble. A few smart people noticed something was wrong, but almost everyone, including well-known economists, had no clue whatsoever. Clearly, we don't know what we are doing.

Snappy Answers

Many thanks to Jay Manifold of A Voyage to Arcturus. He did the math (not just once but twice ) in response to my question about how the lack of a Martian magnetic field can explain the planet's tenuous atmosphere, when Venus with its very dense atmosphere also lacks an intrinsic magnetic field. To put it briefly, he points out that the Venerian atmosphere is dense because it consists largely of the sort of material (carbon, mostly) that makes up a big fraction of the crust of the Earth. This means that the atmosphere of Venus is so dense that one would reasonably expect quite a lot of it to be left by now. This would be so even if the solar wind eroded it much faster than it eroded the atmosphere of Mars, which presumably was once denser than today, but never as dense as the atmosphere of Venus.

This is perfectly reasonable, but it does illustrate the limits of the hypothesis that the density of the atmosphere of a terrestrial-type planet can be explained by the strength of the planet's magnetic field. Compared to the atmosphere of Venus, Earth's atmosphere is a pretty good vacuum, yet Earth is a strong magnetic field. Just as there are additional factors to explain the state of the Venerian and terrestrial atmospheres, so there are likely to be other factors to explain the current state of Mars.

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A point of usage: Why do I wrote "Venerian" instead of "Venusian" when referring to Venus? Because philosopher and science-fiction writer Olaf Stapledon did. He did it because you are supposed to form an adjective from a Latin noun by using the oblique root. (E.g., "tempus" = "time," but the English adjective is "temporal," from "temporis" (which is "of time"). I know that an editor would not let me get away with an affectation like this, but that's the point of having a blog.

* * *

Speaking of other factors, I for one was greatly surprised when The New York Times took David Brooks as a regular columnist. The Times , frankly, has been leaning toward liberal totalitarianism for many years now, and the editorial page in particular has been kept scrupulously clean of thought crime. Brooks, however, is a serious conservative. It seemed for a moment that the Times was starting to thaw.

Now we know the reason the Times could tolerate him, I'm afraid. Brooks may support the Bush Administration and he has audible doubts about affirmative action, but he is sound on gay marriage. In his editorial of November 22, The Power of Marriage , he adopts a mutual-aid model of the institution that is independent of gender, and indeed of everything except the affections of the people involved.

That is enough. If you accept that human beings are nothing more than senscient rights-holders, then it makes no ultimate difference what else you believe. You will concede the rest of the postmodern agenda in due course.

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David Brooks, I suspect, is merely confused. For some real public policy malice in the pages of the Times, you can't do better than Leslie Gelb's Op Ed piece that ran yesterday, The Three-State Solution. Here is the plan for Iraq from the president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations:

The only viable strategy, then, may be to correct the historical defect and move in stages toward a three-state solution: Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center and Shiites in the south.

Almost immediately, this would allow America to put most of its money and troops where they would do the most good quickly: with the Kurds and Shiites. The United States could extricate most of its forces from the so-called Sunni Triangle, north and west of Baghdad, largely freeing American forces from fighting a costly war they might not win. American officials could then wait for the troublesome and domineering Sunnis, without oil or oil revenues, to moderate their ambitions or suffer the consequences.

Leslie Gelb was later interviewed by National Public Radio about this column; he could barely restrain himself from spitting whenever he said "Bush Administration." He obviously thought that the war was a bad idea; the point of his lunatic proposal, I suspect, is to help ensure that the war turns out in such a way that everyone will have to agree with him.

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I see that we have had more than a flurry of good economic news in the last two days. The US GDP was at an annualized rate of 8.2% in the third quarter, and other numbers are nifty, too. Niftiest of all is the fact that inflation shows no sign of picking up, despite low interest rates and the enormous federal deficit.

How is this possible? No doubt because we live in a fundamentally deflationary world. This is due in part to the growing economy of China, and increasingly of India. Also, the millennial talk about the New Economy was not all hype; new technologies really do allow for continuous increases in productivity, which means that wages can rise and unemployment can fall without sparking price increases.

The most interesting aspect of this situation is that governments can get away with printing money. If fact, they have to. Too much fiscal discipline in a deflationary environment is a recipe for disaster. Thus, it may seem that we have arrived at the best of all possible worlds.

To that I say Hah. It is of course true that inflationary environments don't last forever, and that the bills will come due. There is, however, another downside to this situation, one that would apply even if deficit spending could go on forever with impunity. A government that can simply print money is in much the same position as a government that supports itself by selling some lucrative commodity. When a government can support itself through oil sales, for instance, it no longer has to worry about taxes. When that happens, it no longer has to worry about the people, either.

The governments of oil states do in fact make some effort to buy popular acquiescence for the regime. When these efforts succeed, the government can be as corrupt and incompetent as it pleases, so long as the people get their subsidies and their public-works projects. Retail industries may benefit, but the productive economy tends to languish, as people buy their goods from abroad.

This is, pretty much, the tale of what went wrong in much of the Middle East and Latin America. Sometimes I wonder whether a grander version of the same process might be happening to the US.       

Copyright © 2003 by John J. Reilly


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