Category Archives: History

Learning from the past

Men in space: an expensive trip to nowhere

Summary: NASA dreams of manned space flight to the planets, and spends billions to do so. They focus on “how” with no thought of why, repeating the error that led to the failure of Apollo. Like the State Department (wrecked in the 1950s, never fixed) and DoD (same mistakes in a succession of failed wars), NASA seems unable to learn from its experience. For 52 years manned space programs have provided expensive entertainment for Americans and welfare for its aerospace corporations. FAILure to learn is a serious weakness for the government of a great nation.

Given time, a desire, considerable innovation, and sufficient effort and money, man can eventually explore our solar system.Given his enormous curiosity about the universe in which he lives and his compelling urge to go where no one has ever been before, this will be done.

Report by President John F. Kennedy’s advisory committee on space, 10 January 1961.

Space Dreams

Science Photo Library

Contents

  1. Men and Women in Space: a dead end.
  2. Next steps on the road to nowhere.
  3. Journalist cheerleaders.
  4. Comparing space to other big projects.
  5. For More Information.

(1)  Men and Women in Space: a dead end.

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History consists of missed opportunities and wrong turning onto dead ends. For example, what if Charles Babbage had completed his Difference Engine (a mechanical calculator) by 1850, and on that success he or his successors completed his Analytical Engine (a programmable computer) in the 1870s? What if America had not poured so much of its energy, creativity, and technical talent into the space program in the 1960s? What if we had spent it on some other form of research?

It’s not just hindsight. During the 1950s and 1960s the government commissioned numerous committees to consider the benefits of manned spaceflight; most of them repeated the conclusions of the 1960 Hornig Committee and the 1961 Weisner Committee (quoted above; the Chairman became a life-long opponent of the manned space program): the cost would outweigh the benefits.
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Space Station from "2001"

Space Station from “2001”

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The first 53 years of men and women in space validated their forecasts. It produced little useful science. The technological spin-offs have been even smaller (many commonly cited ones are myths, such as Tang, Teflon, Velcro, MRI, barcodes, quartz clocks, or smoke detectors). As for the commercial benefits of opening the final frontier, we turn to the definitive account of this wrong turn is Dark Side of the Moon by Gerard J. DeGroot (2006) — “The magnificent madness of the American lunar quest.”

Those who justified the presence of men in space argued that the early astronauts were like the medieval seafarers, looking for places to colonize. But the efforts of Columbus and Magellan were inspired by the commercial potential of new territories — exploration was pointless unless commerce followed. The Portuguese and Spanish courts would have pulled the plug on the explorers quicker than you can say Vasco da Gama if their voyages had been exclusively esoteric, or if they had brought back only worthless rocks. Instead, they returned with valuable commodities — precious metals, spices, trinkets, potatoes — which thrilled the medieval money crunchers.

In addition, the places they sought to explore were, by virtue of their existence on Earth, actually habitable. The same could not be said for colonies on the Moon or Mars. … The Moon, remember, makes Antarctica seem like an oasis.

NASA, with other nations, built the $150 billion space station that does little of commercial or scientific value. Now they plan further adventures.

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A speech by one of Britain’s greatest leaders gives a powerful start to our new year

Only the next generation can see what were the big stories of 2014, but one appears clear even now. In 2014 Americans finally became aware that the 1% has screwed us, taking most of America’s productivity gains since the 1970s. We saw it in the news about rising inequality, in new studies about inequality (e.g., by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez), and films expressing our fears about our future (e.g., “Divergent”, “The Hunger Games”, “Snowpiercer”), and news about the police oppression of the underclass.

A more interesting stage begins after we assimilate these facts; perhaps it starts in 2015. What do we do about this? Acceptance means becoming subjects, 21st century peons. Willingness to act puts us on a long road, probably beginning with a naive belief in small easy solutions — and that the 1% won’t strike back with the vast economic and political power they’ve gathered during the past 4 decades.

We’ll need inspiration during the inevitable dark days ahead, when victory seems unlikely while the cost appears high and imminent. There’s not much in Western history to draw upon. I recommend re-purposing songs and speeches, ones similar in spirit but directed to different ends than ours of today. Here’s one such speech by Lloyd George, one of Britain’s major reformers and greatest leaders (Prime Minister 1916-1922). We can take heart from his words, applying them to a better cause.

Perhaps we have become too sophisticated and too cynical so that such words no longer stir us. What then will do so? If nothing — we’ve become that passive — then perhaps we can no longer govern ourselves. Stronger people will rule and do so in their interest, not ours. We can console ourselves by tears and fantasy, as each person prefers. But I believe we remain strong when acting together, if only we realize it.

David Lloyd George (1863-1945)

David Lloyd George (1863-1945)

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Conclusion of a speech by David Lloyd George

About honor

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To the London Welshmen at Queens’ Hall, London

19 September 1914, at the start of WWI

Slightly tweaked to apply to us (changes are in italics)

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What we are fighting is that claim to predominancy of a class, a material one, a hard one, a class which if once it rules and sways the world, liberty goes, democracy vanishes … You know the type of motorist, the terror of the roads, with a 60-h.p.car. He thinks the roads are made for him, and anybody who impedes the action of his car by a single mile is knocked down.

… All I can say is this: if the old British spirit is alive in British hearts, that bully will be torn from his seat. Were he to win it would be the greatest catastrophe that has befallen democracy since the days of the Holy Alliance and its ascendancy. They think we cannot beat them. It will not be easy. It will be a long job. It will be a terrible conflict. But in the end we shall march through terror to triumph. We shall need all our qualities, every quality that Britain and its people possess.

Prudence in council, daring in action, tenacity in purpose, courage in defeat, moderation in victory, in all things faith, and we shall win.

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The good news in our past gives us reason for confidence about our future

Summary: The FM website discusses problems and proposes solutions. On holidays we interrupt our regular (somewhat depressing, hopefully inspirational) service to bring you something different. Today and tomorrow we’ll have good news! On Friday it’s back to usual, showing how the current wave of protests about and by the police is good news (but only for the 1%).

“For the world is changing: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air.”
— Treebeard, speaking in Tolkien’s Return of the King

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The future
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On the day before Christmas let’s give thanks for what we have. Humanity was born naked and ignorant, bereft of either armor or weapons, on Africa’s Serengeti Plains. We have survived droughts and floods, an ice age and a supervolcano — steadily leaning and developing our strength.  For perspective consider this early Holocene Sci-fi, as written by Pat Mathews:

  • Shaman:  I have foreseen a time when everybody can have all the meat, fat, and sweet stuff they can eat, and they all get fat.
  • Chief:        You have had a vision of the Happy Hunting Grounds.
  • Shaman:  It is considered a great and horrible problem! People go out of their way to eat leaves and grass and grains, and work very hard to look lean and brown.
  • Chief:        You’ve been eating too many of those strange mushrooms, and are seeing everything backward.

We have accomplished great things in the developed nations (with the emerging nations accelerating to catch up): ended slavery, created democracies, and brought rights to the poor, minorities, and women. Above all, our technological progress has created so many singularities (e.g., fire, writing). Consider Dodge City in 1877. Bat Masterson is sheriff, maintaining some semblance of law in the Wild West. Life in Dodge is materially only slightly better from that in an English village of a century before. But social and technological evolution has accelerated to a dizzying pace, and Bat cannot imagine what lies ahead.

Let’s see the year 1877 through the eyes of Bat Masterson …

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Let’s honor our generation’s greatest leader, one of the chief builders of a New America

Summary: Enough time has passed so that we can see in the 8 years of George W. Bush America changed to a degree seldom seen in our history, making him one of our few transformative Presidents. That many (perhaps most) of us do not like the specific changes he made does not matter. The 1% — his peers, in whose interest he ruled — gain much from the big steps under Bush away from the America-that-once-was towards a New America.  (This is the 2nd of 2 posts today.)

“The best leaders are those the people hardly know exist.
The next best is a leader who is loved and praised.
Next comes the one who is feared.
The worst one is the leader that is despised.

— Laozi, in the Tao Te Ching

Mt Rushmore as it will be, with President Bush

Mount Rushmore as it will be. One of these Presidents is not like the others.

George W. Bush on the USS Abraham Lincoln

On the USS Abraham Lincoln, 1 May 2003 (AP/Damian Dovarganes)

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Contents

  1. Our 7th transformative President
  2. National Security: triumph of the Deep State
  3. Undercutting the solvency of the government
  4. Etc, etc
  5. His buddy, Obama
  6. For More Information

(1)  Our 7th transformative President

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Since his inauguration, following his award of the Nobel Peace Prize, many have called for Obama to be added to Mount Rushmore (or, realistically, said that he deserved to be there). That is obviously absurd. ObamaCare is almost his only substantial legislative accomplishment. He executed the end of the Iraq War, negotiated by President Bush Jr. Obama made some executive orders, which might prove significant (or not, or might be cancelled by a successor). He followed trends well-advanced at the State level expanding civil rights to gays. But his major accomplishments were overwhelmingly to continue, deepen, and expand the policies of his truly transformative predecessor. A man who deserves to be on Mount Rushmore: George W. Bush.

More accurately, a statue of Bush should begin a similar yet competing line of sculpture, since he undercut or outright reversed the accomplishments of Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Lincoln. The changes Bush made had precedents — as Hoover’s policies foreshadowed FDR’s, and Carter’s did Reagan’s. But like the bold measures of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, FDR, and LBJ, Bush’s effects on America are of breadth and scale that defy easy description. We’re too close to see the full range of theses changes, to assess their relative importance, or do more than guess at their effects. But they’ve clearly set America on a new path.

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Lessons from WWI about “markets” ability to see the future

Summary: Brad Delong (Prof Economics, Berkeley) reminds us that on this day in 1914 the NYSE ended the longest period of stopped trading. The outbreak of war on 31 July triggered “the longest circuit breaker” in NYSE history. His post, as usual, gives an interesting account of that episode. Who closed the NYSE, and why? There is another lesson from this history, one of importance to us today.  (This is the second of 2 posts today)

Expect the unexpected: fish

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“Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find truth, for it is difficult to discover.”

— Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic “Weeping Philosopher” of Ionia

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Stock market strategists and economists often tell us about markets’ fantastic predictive ability (an emergent phenomenon from millions of investors), often to the extent of referring to stock prices as a barometer of economic health. Count me among the skeptics when it comes to forecasting.

Here’s a survey of risks by Nial Ferguson (Prof History, Harvard), typical of those before the 2008 crash. He doesn’t even mention the structural weakness of banks, the factor converting a real estate downturn into a global crash. But then nobody saw this (that I’ve found).

Even in what investors should see best — economic cycles — their record is mixed. Sometimes the market gets it wrong; the October 1987 crash predicted nothing. Sometimes the market sees things a little late: the Great Depression began as the US economic downturn began in August 1929; the stock market crashed on October 29 (timeline here).  Sometimes the market gets it right: the stock market peaked on 9 October 2007, the recession began in December, the economy crashed in Fall 2008 (timeline here).

Geopolitics have an immense effect on markets. Here economists have very poor record of forecasting, although they often see themselves as bookies of geopolitics (they tend to be hawks, which is odd given the horrific history of war’s effects). Likewise, investors poorly assess geopolitical threats. On this 100th anniversary of WWI let’s see how well investors anticipated that climatic event (timeline here).

In hindsight WWI looks almost inevitable. Historians see its origin in two decades of rising geopolitical tensions among the major western powers as William Lind explains. Yet investors back then didn’t feel rising tension. For a scholarly yet readable account I recommend Nial Ferguson’s “Earning from History? Financial Markets and the Approach of World Wars” (Brookings, Spring 2008), which provides the quotes below. An assassin killed the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on June 28. In the following month stock prices declined throughout the western world. Prices of US railroad and industrial shares dropped 15%. The Vienna stock market crashed on  July 13.

Although selling spread of stocks and intensified, investors in most assets in the so-far unaffected nations remained calm (the bond markets dwarf stocks in size). Similar crisis had been resolved through diplomacy. Europe had not experienced widespread war for a century.  Compelling analysis by experts such as Jan Gotlib Bloch (Is War Now Impossible?) and Norman Angell (The Great Illusion) proved war to be irrational and hence unlikely.

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Despite the Right’s Thanksgiving myth, the Pilgrims rebelled against their corporate landlord

Summary: Many posts here have documented the myths the Right has created to reshape our views of ourselves, of America. Today we debunk an especially ugly one, twisting the history of Thanksgiving. Read to the end for the big twist ending. {Second of two posts today}

Breaking the Myths

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Myths (AKA lies) are among the tools the Right uses to reshape America. Nicely crafted, interlocking stories about a fictional past of America. Such as a Thanksgiving as a celebration as an escape from socialism…

(a) The Great Thanksgiving Hoax“, Richard J. Maybury, Mises Institute, 20 November 1999 — Opening:

Each year at this time school children all over America are taught the official Thanksgiving story, and newspapers, radio, TV, and magazines devote vast amounts of time and space to it. It is all very colorful and fascinating. It is also very deceiving. This official story is nothing like what really happened. It is a fairy tale, a whitewashed and sanitized collection of half-truths which divert attention away from Thanksgiving’s real meaning.

(b) The Real Story of Thanksgiving“, Rush Limbaugh, 21 November 2007 — Opening:

That Thanksgiving story is right out of my second book, See, I Told You So, and we do that in the last half hour of every show on the Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving. It is so at odds with what all of us were taught in school. I’ll just give you a little heads-up. If you were like me, what we were taught in school was that the Pilgrims came over, and they were just overwhelmed; they were swamped; they had no clue where they were; they had no clue how to feed themselves; they had to clue how to protect themselves; they had no idea how to stay warm; they had no idea how to do anything. They were just typical, dumb white people fleeing some other place they couldn’t manage to live in.

(c) The Lost Lesson of Thanksgiving“, John Stossel, Fox News, 24 November 2010 — “Had today’s political class been in power in 1623, tomorrow’s holiday would have been called “Starvation Day” instead of Thanksgiving.”

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Did anyone predict the 2008 crash? Will anyone predict the next crash?

Summary: There are many who claim to have predicted the 2008 crash. Most (or all) in fact did not foresee the banking collapse that was at its center, that expanded a commonplace downturn into the worst global downturn since the 1930s. That tells us something important about our times, and what we an expect in the future.

Expect the unexpected: fish

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“Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find truth, for it is difficult to discover.”

— Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic “Weeping Philosopher” of Ionia

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An important message of the FM website is that the post-WW2 era has ended, starting an era of unpredictable events. It’s a message nobody wants to hear, ripping asunder our comfortable belief in the reliability and normality of our institutions. We see these things in the history of the 2008 crash, the worst since the Great Depression. Legions claim to have seen it coming; in fact few (perhaps nobody) predicted its nature.

I doubt the many (or anyone) will do better in the next crisis. This uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of our situation. We’re “off the map”, sailing through unknown conditions (that part of the puzzle I got right, writing about it as early as Sept 2008).

As an example of how this worked — and what we can expect in the future — a previous post looked at Steve Keen’s predictions of trouble for our financial system.  He saw the flaws in our financial system, the potentially ruinous fault lines — but not the distinguishing feature that in 2008 turned the commonplace bursting of an investment bubble into a global 1929-like crash: the collapse of banks in the USA and Europe.

Other economists, such as Nouriel Roubini, also saw the danger in broad terms, but not the fragility of the banks that brought so many nations to the brink of Depression. Many non-economists also saw it (though in less detail), such as myself (e.g., the housing bubble and unsustainable levels of debt). I doubt that the senior managers of the banks themselves saw the danger (although their blindness proved quite profitable for themselves, getting paid both to cause and clean-up the bubble).

Another prediction of the crash

Another description of a successful prediction appeared in Gideon Rachman’s review of Jonathan Kirshner’s new book, American Power after the Financial Crisis (Financial Times, February 9): “The fire of the crisis was extinguished at great cost, but ‘the firetrap remained.”

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