Sunday, January 11, 2004

I just encountered what appears to be a very interesting web site.  It is the home page for the Global Policy Forum. The description they provide of themselves is:

Basic Facts                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

GPF is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization, with consultative status at the United Nations. Founded in 1993 by an international group of concerned citizens, GPF works with partners around the world to strengthen international law and create a more equitable and sustainable global society. GPF uses a holistic approach, linking peace and security with economic justice and human development, and we place a heavy emphasis on networking to build broad coalitions for research, action and advocacy. We put our energy into well-focused and unique programs in which GPF has a special analytical and organizational edge. The GPF office is strategically located across the street from UN headquarters in New York.

I found one of their articles particularly interesting, Fall of the Dollar, By James A. Paul and Marianna Quenemoen. Their closing paragraph is quoted here:

The US can scarcely prevail as the global superpower if its economic fundamentals are weak. Britain’s two hundred years of global supremacy were based on a strong currency, a large trade surplus and growing foreign investments. Trade decline in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century gave a clear sign that Britain’s empire was on the wane. Today’s trade and payments deficits, and the falling dollar, may point in the very same direction for the global order based on US dominance.

Although I don't claim to know much about economics, I must say that this article is rather alarming. I would add that another, related, source of concern is large-scale exporting of jobs. The reason this concerns me is that it is another factor that threatens our national security. Why do I think this is true? Consider the line, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." Although Admiral Yamamoto probably did not actually say this (see Wikipedia article), it does nicely encapsulate an important fact of Twentieth Century economics: the United States had an enormous, unrivaled capacity to produce a lot of stuff, very quickly. It was our manufacturing capacity, more than any other factor, that led to victory in WWII.

Move the manufacturing capacity offshore, and the sleeping giant becomes a sleeping frilled neck lizard: all show and no substance.

Widely-scattered manufacturing sites would be impossible to defend, and would be vulnerable to being nationalized at times of political instability.  With a weak dollar, and limited indigenous manufacturing capacity, how could we defend ourselves? We couldn't fight a WWII-style campaign; we wouldn't have the resources. And we could not defend against a systematic terrorist campaign, because we couldn't defend our offshore manufacturing sites.

With a truly global economy, it could be foolish for anyone to attack us. It already is true that the world economy goes the way of the US economy. One of the great ironies of the 9/11 attacks is that, as the economy of the US declined, so did everyone else's. The demand for petroleum products plummeted, and the incomes of the oil-producing nations declined precipitously. That would happen again, if there another major attack were to occur. I am not at all confident, though, that that really is much of deterrent.

Now, back to the issue of the Mars project. Here we are, with a declining dollar and a weakening manufacturing base, running up a huge deficit, and spending a lot of money on space stuff without producing anything to sell. Recall that economic inflation occurs when you have too many dollars chasing too few goods. If the government spends a lot of money without a corresponding increase in the amount of goods to sell, each dollar becomes worth less That leads to inflation; it is why wars exert such a strong economic inflationary pressure. You pay people to build tanks, but since the tanks are not for sale, the amount of salable goods goes down.

Surely the current administration knows this. They may be banking on one thing: the commercialization of space. If much of the aerospace effort is financed by private industry, it is conceivable that salable good would result. But that would be a bit of a gamble, wouldn't it? Also, do we really want commercial enterprise in space at this point in time? Perhaps. But wouldn't a democracy have some kind of public debate about this, given what is at stake for everyone?

So, why commit 250 to 300 billion dollars – perhaps eventually reaching a trillion dollars – to such an undertaking? Some have suggested it is a ploy to enhance the president's image in an election year. Notice that the timing of the announcement dilutes the media coverage of the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries.

As it happens, I don't know much about politics, or the space program, so all I can do is ask pointed questions, not provide answers. The question I might be able to answer is this: If the Mars project is a political ploy, why would it work? After all, Bush is not going to Mars himself (drat!). Well, look at what makes people popular? After all, it is popularity that gets people elected. There are clues if you look at the animal world. Creatures gain status by demonstrating their fitness, in a Darwinian sense. Human are affected by this, although not always in obvious ways. Status can be enhanced by visual and/or behavioral attributes. The males of some species are considered by their conspecific females to be more desirable mates, if they have bright colors. The presence of bright colors in a bird, for example, shows that the bird has a relatively low parasite burden. Behavioral attributes in birds include the quality of song or dance display. What visual clues are there to the fitness of humans? Facial symmetry is one; it is correlated with adequate nutrition and a benign intrauterine environment during gestation. What behavioral clues are there? A person who has behaviors that can compel others to follow along may seem to be a better mate. After all, group cooperation is the most important survival adaptation in humans.

If Mr. Bush is able to get NASA to go along with this scheme of his, it could be interpreted as a sign of leadership, thus enhancing his status. If so, I have a suggestion for him. This would be cheaper and would produce the same effect. Why not demolish the Washington Monument, and erect a 500-foot-tall statue of Priapus?