COVID-19 Response

It seems to me….

If we can provide even a few months of early warning for just one pandemic, the benefits will outweigh all the time and energy we’re devoting.  Imagine preventing health crises, not just responding to them.”  ~ Nathan Wolfe[1].

Following my last posting regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, I received a response from a reader asking if I believed the world’s economy to “be strong enough to withstand the onslaught of an ancient microscopic organism that fights to live”.  While hopefully not being overly technical, a virus is not alive and therefore cannot be killed.  It is a nucleic acid molecule in a protein coat only able to reproduce within the living cells of a host.  Given time, the human body normally produces enzymes that chemically modify viral genetic information rendering it unable to produce new virus particles.

Again, by definition, the world economy will survive – but that also was not what actually was being asked.  The question is what will be the overall economic impact of the virus?  But the magnitude of that potential impact seems to increase each day given the still exponential daily increase in new cases being reported.  The longer it takes for the infection rate to be controlled, the worse the outcome.

In addition to any possible economic impact, events of this significance normally result in some long-term political and societal consequences.  These types of changes typically are not necessarily immediate and possibly quite subtle but can effect greater long-term changes than those on the economy.  Being unknown, these aspects are the most troublesome.

In the U.S., a revolt against big government invariably follows the expansion of the state.  The bailouts during the financial crisis contributed to the rise of the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street protests.  Going back further, the rise of Goldwater Republicanism, which eventually came to power in the form of Ronald Reagan, was in part a revolt against Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs.  Historically, politically motivated responses to similar social, economic, or other challenges have included military action, not always warranted, as a distraction used by unpopular leaders to remain in power.

Unfortunately, the real extent of COVID-19 infections in the U.S. still remains unknown due to the lack of testing kits and analysis capability.  The actual infection rate most likely greatly exceeds those so far identified.  The U.S. was very unprepared for such an emergency and we now are paying the price.

While supporting the economy is extremely important, who is able to rationalize minimizing national economic degradation at the cost of human lives?  I consider myself fortunate in that I am not responsibility for making that decision.  If I did, a national lockdown would last for quite some time.

Initial response to most viral occurrences is normally somewhat cavalier as anywhere between 10,000 and 80,000 normally die, mostly the elderly or chronically sick, every year from seasonal influenzas.  Skeptics apparently fail to understand basic math – fatalities from COVID-19 are about 20 times higher than normal rates.  Additionally, infection rates are significantly less for seasonal varieties due to vaccine availability and herd immunization unavailable for COVID-19.  Consequently, infection rates, and therefore ensuing fatalities, will be substantially higher.

Viral epidemics are difficult to control since as many as half of disease transmissions occur prior to when symptoms appear.  They cause disruptions to work, living situations, schools, daily routines, and everyone experiences additional strains and stresses.

COVID-19 virulence greatly exceeds normal yearly viral occurrences and healthcare facility resources have been stretched or exceeded in numerous locations.  There are insufficient quantities of personnel, facilities, medications, medical devices such as ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPEs): masks, gloves, gowns….  Though there were numerous warnings about the probability of a pandemic occurrence, there was a serious lack of adequate preparation.

These are trying times for businesses from Main Street to Wall Street[2] and considerable time will be required prior to a return to normalcy.  Many businesses having once shut their doors, will never have another opportunity.  The virus has hit multiple industries resulting in an escalation of layoffs across the country.  A Federal Reserve official warned the unemployment rate could reach 30 percent in the coming months – considerably higher than during the 2007-2009 recession.

Not all industry sectors are being affected evenly.  While many are either experiencing layoffs or closures, for some it presents an opportunity.  Those industry segments experiencing the greatest difficulty are food services, hospitality, and transportation.

Food services are our second-largest private employer with 15.6 million workers.  Many workers are unemployed as restaurants have been mandated to only provide takeout or delivery service.  Many restaurants have closed to follow stay-at-home guidelines or cannot afford to pay their workers.  Of those remaining open for takeout orders, it is unknown how successful they will be.

About 4 million hospitality workers are expected to lose their jobs as lodging locations are experiencing unprecedented cancellations and closures.

Transportation is also impacted.   About 750,000 airline employees are possibly affected as carriers reduce flights, park hundreds of planes, cut corporate pay, and request employees to volunteer for unpaid leave.  Trains, buses, and commuter transportation have announced similar reductions.

Those considering it an opportunity include some manufacturing companies who are retaining employees but converting resources to produce PPEs and other item in short supply.  Some designated as “essential services” are hiring.  Amazon announced plans to hire 100,000 new employees, CVS 50,000, and Walmart about 150,000.  Additionally, supermarkets, grocery stores, and delivery services have announced similar planned employment increases.

Food delivery services have increased by 72 percent, weapon and ammunition sales by 70 percent, and pizza sales by 53 percent[3].

Some work-related effects will be permanent.  Companies have required about 88 percent of employees to work from home and 97 percent have canceled work-related travel[4].  70 percent plan to make more effective use of technology.  It will be interesting to see what additional adaptation occurs or what percent of workers revert to prior work practices when the threat is past.

Financial inequality primarily affects the least wealthy who always are the most negatively impacted by any type of economic or social impact: they have been the most distressed by this pandemic.  COVID-19 has once again shown the inadequacies of current U.S. healthcare and welfare safety nets:  78.8 million (24 percent) of those employed lack sick leave.  27.5 million (8.5 percent) do not have health insurance.  Only 23.1 percent of unemployed workers are eligible for unemployment benefits.  Schools and already inadequate childcare facilities were suddenly closed without any provision for children whose parents still have to work.  Supposedly highspeed Internet bandwidth has in many areas been insufficient to support the increase in stay‑at‑home workers and students.

Local infrastructure may be particularly at risk.  Continuity of municipal services such as electricity, water, and trash collection must be ensured.  Paramedics and EMTs are also frontline providers but many EMS personnel are now under quarantine threatening a collapse of the 911 system.

Hospitals and healthcare facilities unable to accommodate the increased demand for services are being forced to triage patients.  The New England Journal of Medicine[5] laid out an ethics framework for resource allocation decisions with recommendations favoring those with better prognoses, prioritizing healthcare workers needed to take care of future patients, and additional consideration for people who do not have COVID-19 diagnoses.  Regrettably, medical personnel will likely need to make such decisions if resource scarcity continues to worsen.

Policies dismissed or strongly criticized by Republicans during the financial crisis of 2008 were now endorsed by the Senate where they now have a majority approving emergency assistance by a vote of 96 to zero.  It is unknown how beneficial the $2 trillion pandemic aid package passed by Congress will be.  Also unknown is how it will ultimately be paid for though now is a good time to borrow since with current interest on a 10-year U.S. Treasury note at 0.75 percent, investors are loaning money to the federal government at a loss after accounting for inflation.  When the economy is threatening to come to a stop, it admittedly is not the time to worry about government debt levels.  The U.S. GDP to national debt ratio was already extremely high and this could easily push it over 150 percent.  Hopefully, politically motivated solutions will not jeopardize already limited health and social welfare programs.

As for the original question, the U.S., as well as much of the world, is now in a significant economic downturn.  At a time when it is most needed, there has been a decline in U.S. leadership upon which the world has depended since the end of World War II adding to the uncertainty.  Nationally, unprecedented levels of debt accumulation across all economic sectors: national, corporate, and personal; will take time to unwind.

It remains premature to predict the full extent of the virus’ eventual impact.  An early lack of screening in the U.S. allowed the coronavirus outbreak to spread largely undetected for weeks and, consequently, the New York City area may suffer a worse outbreak than Wuhan, China, or the Lombardy region in Italy with other U.S. metropolitan areas now appearing to be on a similar trajectory.

While much has been learned about COVID-19’s virulence, its overall impact will depend upon the duration until it is brought under control.  If it can be controlled within the next month or two, social and economic recovery could be relatively rapid.  It still remains unknown whether COVID-19, similar to other coronaviruses, will be seasonal; diminishing during the warmer summer months only to reappear when the weather turns cooler.  If so, it will provide valuable time to develop treatment and vaccines prior to its reemergence.

Additional future pandemics can be expected.  There are numerous guides and recommendations for personal preparation but as COVID-19 has clearly shown, most people neglect to do so until feeling personally threatened (and then resort to panic buying and hoarding).  Governmental pandemic preparation places extraordinary and sustained demands on public health and healthcare systems and providers of essential community services.  While the U.S., as well as most other countries, have attempted to plan and to increase capacity for global pandemic response, those preparations have been clearly demonstrated by COVID-19 to have been totally inadequate.

Optimistically, this will serve as a sufficient wakeup call and result in more adequate preparation in the future.  I’m admittedly skeptical – we will wait and see.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] Nathan D. Wolfe is a U.S. virologist who was the founder and Director of Global Viral and the Lorry I. Lokey Visiting Professor in Human Biology at Stanford University.

[2] Not Business As Usual, The Skimm, dailyskimm@morning7.theskimm.com, 24 March 2020.

[3] Coronavirus Economic Impact Report, Yelp, https://www.yelpeconomicaverage.com/yelp-coronavirus-economic-impact-report, 24 March 2020.

[4] COVID-19 Effect: Majority Of Organizations Have Encouraged Or Required Employees To Work From Home, IT Next, https://www.itnext.in/article/2020/03/20/covid-19-effect-majority-organizations-have-encouraged-or-required-employees-work, 20 March 2020.

[5] Emanuel, Ezekiel J., MD, PhD, et al.  Fair Allocation Of Scarce Medical Resources In The Time Of Covid-19, The New England Journal of Medicine, https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMsb2005114?fbclid=IwAR1kA7VMtv-G6ZX1N-xl1yMpqS_bOGosIk9ySNbhCGcUWkj7UNUuL9J-2MQ, 23 March 2020.

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Coronavirus Impact

coronavirusIt seems to me….

If we can provide even a few months of early warning for just one pandemic, the benefits will outweigh all the time and energy we’re devoting.  Imagine preventing health crises, not just responding to them.”  ~ Nathan Wolfe[1].

Shortly following the coronavirus’s (SARS-CoV-2) initial appearance in China, I was asked if it might provide sufficient impetus to push the already fragile U.S. economy (and consequently the rest of the world) into a substantial downturn.  I responded that while it was a possibility, I did not believe it would be based on projections at that time but if there was any significant increase in mortality or it reached pandemic levels in southeast Asia or Africa, that could possibly change.  This reassurance was at least partly based on initial reassuring signs that the strict control measures in Hubei province appeared to be working[2] as reported infections in the province had seemingly slowed.  A better idea of what could be expected emerged relatively quickly over the next couple of weeks.  I obviously was overly optimistic.

While it still remains too early for any reliable estimates on the projected economic impact of COVID-19, it will likely be quite severe.  A virus outbreak similar to this is a rare occurrence so it is difficult to predict the economic impact of any such event.  It quickly became obvious there would be some effect since many geopolitical and macroeconomic events impact equity markets performance – empirical evidence suggests a negative correlation between a virus outbreak and stock prices.  The only question was how extensive it might be.

Rather than remaining a local epidemic, COVID-19 is now a global pandemic.  There have been several epidemics since 1970 and global markets typically reacted negatively primarily out of fear that economic growth would be weakened due to the uncertainty surrounding spread of the virus.  Fortunately, past epidemics have shown that pessimistic sentiment is normally relatively brief.  For pandemics, which occur much less frequently, there is much less recent historical information on which to base any projection.

An additional consideration as to why it is difficult to predict any economic impact is that the current U.S. expansion cycle is now over 130 months into the longest such expansion cycle in U.S. history.  The previous longest expansion cycle (1991–2001) lasted 10 years – 120 months; the average since 1854 is only 40 months.  Another recession is obviously overdue and could occur at any time.  The only question is when.  It is becoming increasingly apparent that COVID-19 will likely be sufficient to drive it over the edge.

Forecasting just when a recession, defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth, will begin is notoriously difficult but as a downturn nears, major indicators normally provide clearer warnings.  There are a variety of economic models judging a range of data spanning economic conditions, financial markets, and gauges of underlying stress intended to predict the probabilities of recession.

Economic risks had appreciably increased over the last 6 months of 2019 with economists estimating there was roughly a one in three probability of a recession beginning sometime in 2020.  Since the U.S. stock prices were record-high in addition to positive hiring momentum, recession immanency fears were relatively slight.  Primary concerns were due to lingering trade war uncertainty and pullbacks in corporate investment.

Based on the baseline forecast of many economists, the recommendation was for continued, albeit slower, economic growth.  It was felt that there were sufficient risks to warrant a more cautious investment strategy due to the possibility of more adverse outcomes.

That, of course, is now history.  We are now well into a significant economic downturn.  How extensive the impact will be, depends on the virus’s severity, mortality rate, and duration.  COVID-19 delivered a sudden major shock to an already faltering system.

Much more is now known about COVID-19’s virulence.  Its death rate based on the latest figures is about 3.4 percent which is substantially higher than that of the seasonal flu which only kills about 0.1 percent of those infected.  While about 80 percent of the cases reported are relatively mild, around 15 percent of patients older than 80 have died with about 1 percent more fatalities for men than women.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and the vast majority quickly recover.  For some, especially older adults over 60 and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness including pneumonia.  Nearly 40 percent of patients who’ve been hospitalized in the U.S. fall between the ages of 20 and 54 and about half admitted to an ICU were under the age of 65[3].  It still is not known why children seem not as severely affected by the disease as adults.

It still has not been fully determined if this COVID-19 is either less or more dangerous than other infectious diseases.  Influenza, whether it is either seasonal or an emerging strain like H1N1, can infect millions of people but kill a relatively low portion of its cases, about 0.1 percent.  Pandemic coronaviruses like SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), and this novel strain from China are far more severe.  SARS only resulted in about 8,000 confirmed infections but had a significantly higher fatality rate.

COVID-19 has far surpassed SARS in terms of known infections, but current mortality rates appear to be much lower than that of SARS which resulted in a 9.6 percent fatality rate.  COVID-19 is considered relatively highly contagious with an R0[4] between 2 and 2.5.  As of now, it only has a case-fatality ratio of 2 percent:  COVID-19 is therefore about 20 times as deadly as influenza.  Infections could continue to spread in part because the disease is infectious during its incubation period of between one to 14 days, and possibly longer, even if there are no sign of symptoms.

Four other coronaviruses are endemic, meaning permanently present in the global population.  They all cause common colds (though each can cause pneumonia and death in rare instances).  Because these human coronaviruses are so mild, they don’t have names beyond their four-character designations: OC43, 229E, HKU1, and NL63.

COVID-19, like influenza, spreads via close contact and over short distances; physical separation to some degree makes sense – quarantine, which has been used since the middle ages, remains one of the most viable ways to control outbreaks.  An average person with COVID-19 passes it to between 1.4 and 2.5 other people.

The impact on global commodity prices was virtually zero during the SARS epidemic but with the total number of deaths from COVID-19 having now far surpassed that from SARS, the commodity price and demand impact is likely to be larger today especially now that China consumes around half of the world’s commodities (about 19 percent of the global economy).

Stocks around the world have been negatively impacted due to concerns about how great an influence it will have on the global economy.  China will probably be economically more affected by COVID-19 than it was in 2003 by SARS since China’s consumers now play a bigger role in the country’s economy than they did back then.  China has also been experiencing slowing growth resulting from the trade war with the U.S.  The shock to China’s economy could therefore be considerable.

As the effects of the coronavirus pandemic hit the job market, the damage looks likely to be much deeper and longer lasting than seemed possible even a week ago.  A high percentage of hospitality, entertainment, and food service companies have announced significant employment reductions though several have indicated they will attempt to continue paying employees even while they are closed, though often for fewer hours of work than normal.

That cushion is not unsustainable for any extended duration.  Most small businesses do not have the financial buffer to pay workers for very long without any source of incoming revenue.  While larger public companies may have access to cash, they also have shareholders who want executives to watch the bottom line.  An economic forecasting firm said it expected the unemployment rate to rise to 6 percent by mid-2021, up from 3.5 percent in February 2020.  Some unemployment predictions exceed 20 percent.

Congress passed an initial relief package last week that would provide paid leave, enhanced unemployment benefits, and free testing as well as food and health care aid for the 24 percent of U.S. civilian workers who lack any sort of paid sick leave[5].  If employees in those categories skip work because they’re feeling ill or because their children’s schools have closed, they miss paychecks.  If they go to work sick, they risk spreading the virus to their coworkers and customers.  Unfortunately, the measure fails to cover a relatively large number of those workers.

The Economic Policy Institute, a progressive research group, estimated that the outbreak could eliminate three million jobs by summer.  The U.S. economy could shed as many as one million jobs in March alone because of layoffs and hiring freezes related to the coronavirus.  The scope of layoffs will help determine how badly the outbreak will damage the broader economy.  If companies largely retain workers, the downturn could be comparatively shallow and the rebound relatively swift but after people lose their jobs and spending power, damage could rapidly escalate.

COVID-19 already has had a significant short-term effect on China’s economy.  The government limited travel in and out of the region where the outbreak began preventing tens of millions of Chinese citizens from celebrating the Lunar New Year holiday.  Typically a busy travel season, this slashed holiday outings and shopping.  The holiday’s usual weeklong factory shutdown, including export manufacturing industries, was also extended by an extra three days.  School openings were postponed after the holiday until further notice.  And tour groups traveling either domestically or overseas were suspended.

For China, a 100-200bps of broad reserve requirement ratio (RRR) cuts in the first quarter should be expected taking the nation’s rate of expansion down to 4-5 percent.  If not of extended duration, the drag on earnings could be relatively modest; only a 5-10 percent utilization rate decline at tech supply chain firms in the first quarter relative to prior consensus expectations.  That would correspond to a 1-2 percent hit to earnings for the full 2020 year.  Overall, earnings growth for China should be about 7-8 percent in 2020, about 200-300bps less than would otherwise have been expected.  For 2020 as a whole, repressed demand should drive a recovery with an expected impact of around 50bps.

Globally, a possible short-term benefit could result from declining oil, metals, and construction material prices.  E.g., China’s crude-oil consumption has declined by 20 percent consequently weakening prices.

The speed with which the virus was able to spread was much more rapid than China’s top-down authoritarian political system was initially able to respond to.  Local healthcare facilities were at first overwhelmed and reluctant to take any action until directed to by the central government thus permitting the virus to spread unconstrained.  The extreme measures then taken very likely appreciably mitigated even greater impact from the virus.

Pandemic disease is arguably one of the greatest threats to global stability and security we face but investments to contend with such outbreaks have declined to their lowest levels since the height of the Ebola response in 2014 with U.S. federal dollars cut by over 50 percent from those peak levels.  This lack of focus and relative decline in funding is dangerous given the steady stream of global reports suggesting that transmission of potentially deadly zoonotic diseases, where pathogens move from animals to humans, is rising at an alarming rate.  Some attribute a significant amount of this to climate change with warmer climates everywhere extending the life cycles of mosquito-borne diseases and allowing them to reach higher altitudes and more temperate latitudes.

The occurrence and spread of contagious diseases can be anticipated to occur with heightened frequency and speed due to increasing population densities, global warming, and travel.  Since most infectious diseases originate in non-humans, rather than only waiting for the next pathogen-caused pandemic, researchers are actively establishing epidemiological networks to detect potential microbe mutations prior to their transfer to human hosts[6].  Some networks such as Global Viral Forecasting (GVF) have established programs in Africa, Southeast Asia, and southern China – locations where wild animals and humans closely intermix – to gather and test blood samples for possible biohazards.  As clearly demonstrated by SARS-CoV-2, current early detection networks still remain insufficient to detect emerging pathogens sufficiently early to prevent widespread dispersal.

Seventeen years after SARS, the global community is more tightly connected and interdependent.  There is some remaining prospect, though starting to appear less probable, that the outbreak will peak by early spring.  If so, economic impact from the outbreak could be limited to the first quarter.  At stake is not only the health of thousands of people but also significant parts of the world economy especially including trade, manufacturing, travel, and tourism.

There isn’t any indication of how extensive this decline will be but all signs are increasingly dire.  Based on recent economic downturns, if there is a major downturn, full recovery will likely take several years.  It has been rather obvious that the U.S. economy was primarily a stimulus funded façade based on deficit spending.  Recovery could be further impeded as the GDP to federal deficit ratio is dangerously high and any additional tax reductions or stimulus spending will only push that ratio more out of balance threatening future financial viability.  There is a limit to how much even a nation such as the U.S. can afford without long-term repercussions.

While more is being learned about COVID-19, it remains undetermined how long this pandemic will last.  It therefore remains too early to forecast what the overall global economic impact from COVID-19 might be.  We will have wait to see what the future holds.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] Nathan D. Wolfe is a U.S. virologist who was the founder and Director of Global Viral and the Lorry I. Lokey Visiting Professor in Human Biology at Stanford University.

[2] Gunia, Amy.  The First Signs Are Emerging That China’s Coronavirus Containment Could Be Working, Time, https://time.com/5781133/china-coronavirus-infections-slowing/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=the-brief-pm&utm_content=20200211&xid=newsletter-brief, 11 February 2020.

[3] Severe Outcomes Among Patients With Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) — United States, February 12–March 16, 2020, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6912e2.htm?s_cid=mm6912e2_w#contribAff, 18 March 2020.

[4] Medical researchers measure the contagiousness of a virus by determining its basic reproduction number, or R0.  This number measures how many people are likely to be infected by one sick person.  It is calculated via factors including how it is transmitted and its infectious period.

[5] Desilver, Drew.  As Coronavirus Spreads, Which U.S. Workers Have Paid Sick Leave – And Which Don’t?, Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/03/12/as-coronavirus-spreads-which-u-s-workers-have-paid-sick-leave-and-which-dont/, 12 March 2020.

[6] Walsh, Bryan.  Virus Hunter, Time, 1 November 2011, p34.

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Ideological-Based Opposition To Facts

It seems to me….

Science is the father of knowledge, but opinion breeds ignorance.”  ~ Hippocrates[1].

A growing number of scientists, policy makers, and technical specialists both inside and outside the government allege there have been concerted administrative efforts to suppress or distort scientific analyses by federal agencies so as to bring these results in line with administration policies.  There are many political, policy, and cultural issues that divide partisans but scientific truths should not be among them.

Many of our elected politicians are seemingly either under-educated or in denial of basic facts, scientific reality, and objective truth.  Many oppose even the pursuit of facts and attempt to restrict what scientists can research, publish, or even discuss.  Funding is being reduced for research and science education at a time when much of our planet is at risk of widespread habitat loss, pollution, and climate change.  Everyone, not only the scientific community, must defend facts, objectivity, and scientific independence and integrity.  Everyone benefits from investment in scientific research, public education, and infrastructure but our national commitment to those vocations has declined in recent years.

Federal and state governments since the 2016 national elections have increasingly attempted to restrict science research, education, and communication through such means as censorship and funding reductions in an attempt to destroy data, twist studies, and remove scientists from advisory boards[2].  And it is not only politicians, politically conservative media outlets disproportionately amplify opposition opinions selectively chosen to justify their predetermined conclusions ignoring, such as for climate change, 97 percent of inconvenient scientific evidence.  There frequently is an attempt to rely on ideologically based political expediency rather than facts when considering legislation.  Basic facts should never be subject to political interpretation.

While politicians do not necessarily have a sophisticated understanding of science, they should at least make an effort to understand the goals which science pursues though most social effects of technology can never be fully understood until it is widely available – it is a double-edged sword with both beneficial and detrimental effects.  Only those that fully understand the technology, who understand what it can and cannot do, are qualified to make decisions about its larger health and social effects – and that is primarily scientists and technologists.  Technology is beneficial only when subordinated by higher virtues such as those associated with ethics and politics but that is extremely difficult for someone without a background in a field to determine.

Six-in-ten Americans (60 percent) say scientists should play an active role in policy debates about scientific issues[3].  Public confidence in scientists is on par with confidence in the military and exceeds the levels of public confidence in other groups and institutions, including the media, business leaders, and elected officials.  86 percent of Americans say they have at least “a fair amount” of confidence in scientists to act in the public interest.  This includes 35 percent who have “a great deal” of confidence, up from 21 percent in 2016.  Most Democrats (73 percent) believe scientists should take an active role in scientific policy debates.  By contrast, a majority of Republicans (56 percent) say scientists should focus on establishing sound scientific facts and stay out of such policy debates.

Today, only four in 10 (40 percent) people reported a great deal of confidence in the scientific community[4] though most U.S. adults, about seven-in-ten (73 percent) say science has had a positive effect on society; only 3 percent say it has had a negative effect and 23 percent say it has yielded an equal mix of positive and negative effects[5].  Many of those who saw mostly positive effects cited medical advances (56 percent), technology and computerization (23 percent), and environment (14 percent) while those who saw mixed effects mentioned concerns about scientists and scientific theories.  Overall, many people hold skeptical views of climate scientists (39 percent) and genetically modified (GM) food scientists (19 percent) but a larger share expressed trust in information from medical scientists (55 percent) than information from industry leaders, the news media, and elected officials.

People holding anti-scientific views do not accept science as an objective method that can generate universal knowledge.  Generally, the less people know, the more they are opposed to scientific consensus.  The Dunning-Kruger effect states that the less competent a person is at something, the smarter they think they are.

Anti-science positions at the federal level can have far-reaching results as they can affect the way science is taught in schools.  While the formation of curriculum is done at the state and local levels, federally funded programs have the effect of promoting anti-science education and opening critical discussion of accepted scientific conclusions.

Science skeptics understanding of politics and technology frequently leads them to assume that all technology requires some form of regulation and that the introduction of new technologies represent a threat to human dignity, natural limitations, or the things that define us as human[6].  They believe the development and use of technology must be politically regulated, that institutions must be set up that will discriminate between those technological advances that promote human flourishing and those that pose a threat to human dignity and wellbeing.

Skepticism regarding numerous scientific pronouncements is equally prevalent among both liberals and conservatives though each reacts to different issues dependent upon their respective political ideology.  Conservatives in the U.S. seem to be engaged in a war on science and some have recently expressed concern about the rise of populist antagonism influenced by experts.  While conservatives frequently reject well-established findings on climate change or evolution, liberals similarly reject facts regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs), nuclear power, genetic engineering, or evolutionary psychology.  Some from both extremes oppose vaccination.  Regardless of what doubters might believe, opposition stems from politics – not science.

The unfortunate truth about the overall state of science and technology in the U.S. is that it is worse than it appears.  Far fewer college students are choosing to study science, and most advanced degrees in science and engineering are being awarded to foreign-born students.  Sadly, many foreign students now reject U.S. universities as entry into the U.S. became increasingly difficult following 911.  Foreign-born students in the past frequently would decide to stay and start companies here in the U.S. after receiving their degree but that no longer is true.  Many now return home to China, India, or elsewhere as they are discouraged by overly restrictive immigration policies and see greater opportunities for themselves in their home country.

Everyone benefits from investment in scientific research, public education, and infrastructure but our national commitment to those activities has declined in recent years.  Increased research funding is essential but not likely to happen while conservatives are able to block such investment.  Multinational corporations, the real power in Washington, only want to cut taxes on their activities and income.  Without sufficient oversight, so-called “discretionary spending” could be drastically reduced impacting just about everything most people consider vital.

There is no better indication of the U.S. government’s myopia than the decline in funding for research.  A recent report in Science notes that for the first time since World War II, private funding for basic research now exceeds federal funding.  Research and development topped 10 percent of the national budget in the mid-1960s; it is now less than 4 percent.  And the Senate’s version of the tax bill removed a crucial tax credit that has encouraged corporate spending on research, though the House-Senate compromise version will probably retain it.  All this is happening in an environment in which other countries, from South Korea to Germany to China, are ramping up their investments in these areas.  A recent study found that China is on track to surpass the U.S. as the world leader in biomedical research, artificial intelligence, supercomputing, and other vital areas.

Basic innovative research resulting in economic progress is initially largely dependent upon federal funding but that is now endangered by political motivation, the ramifications of which are concerning – increased Congressional protection for scientific integrity is necessary given what has been happening[7].  Federally funded scientific and technological processes must be free from political, ideological, and financial conflict.

In July 1945, Vannevar Bush addressed a report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt arguing that basic research needed to become a priority supported by the federal government.  As an engineer, businessman, and government administrator, Bush recognized that each of three worlds – academia, industry, and government – plays a vital role in promoting scientific innovation.  Crucially, he said, the government’s role should be to provide the guiding vision for basic research, seed the related effort, and sustain its pool of talent.

Bush’s report led to the establishment of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and its legacy ultimately carried over to another federal agency that would become known for innovative research and development: NASA (succeeding the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NACA, in 1958), which landed humans on the Moon.  Following celebration of the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing, it is timely to reflect upon the current research landscape and the enduring role of federal support and direction.

Given the prevailing political environment, change will be difficult.  Hopefully, the majority of voters in the 2020 election cycle will be sufficiently aware of the need for change and elect candidates favoring progressive policies.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] Hippocrates of Kos was a Greek physician often referred to as the “Father of Medicine” in recognition of his lasting contributions to the field as the founder of the Hippocratic School of Medicine.

[2] Fischetti, Mark.  Government Attempts To Silence Science Are Revealed In Detail, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/government-attempts-to-silence-science-are-revealed-in-detail/, May 2019, p88.

[3] Funk, Cary, et al.  Trust And Mistrust In Americans’ Views Of Scientific Experts, Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2019/08/02/trust-and-mistrust-in-americans-views-of-scientific-experts/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=8e7813e8d6-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_08_02_03_07&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-8e7813e8d6-400092341, 2 August 2019.

[4] Funk, Cary.  Mixed Messages About Public Trust In Science, Pew Research Center, www.pewinternet.org/2017/12/08/mixed-messages-about-public-trust-in-science/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=af1a7f5267-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_01_09_Internet&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-af1a7f5267-400092341, 8 December 2017.

[5] Thigpen, Cary Lynne, and Cary Funk.  Most Americans Say Science Has Brought Benefits To Society And Expect More To Come, Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/08/27/most-americans-say-science-has-brought-benefits-to-society-and-expect-more-to-come/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=ff7e544bad-Internet-Science_2019_11_18&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-ff7e544bad-400092341, 27 August 2019.

[6] Tabachnick, David E.  The Politics And Philosophy Of Anti-Science, Nipissing University, https://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/SPT/v9n1/tabachnick.html, Fall 2005.

[7] Hagel, Chuck.  Stop Suppressing Science, Scientific American, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-executive-branch-must-stop-suppressing-science/, January 2020, pp11.

Posted in Anti-Science, China, China, Denial, Dunning-Kruger, Education, Environment, Germany, Germany, India, NACA, NASA, NASA, National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Science, Science Skeptic, South Korea, Technology, Vannevar Bush | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Disrupting The International Order

It seems to me….

Since World War II, the rules-based international order created and maintained by the United States has benefited peoples around the globe and none more so than Americans here at home.”  ~ Mac Thornberry[1].

We are fortunate to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history.  It’s been decades since the last war between major powers.  More people live in democracies.  We’re wealthier, healthier, and better educated with a global economy that has lifted more than a billion people out of extreme poverty[2].

Over the past 70 years, the U.S. has underwritten international stability and prosperity by leveraging the capacity and willpower of the American people; a global network of bilateral and multilateral alliances; the gradual expansion of human freedom; and a global institutional architecture that has encouraged trade, growth, and the incorporation of rising powers.  Now the foundations of that U.S.-led global order are themselves at risk in this more challenging environment where many of our closest allies, including Japan and Australia, increasingly see the U.S. in decline.

Historically, by backing global institutions, the U.S. made itself and the world safer and more prosperous.  The last time the U.S. turned inward was after World War I and the consequences were calamitous.  At home, it tends to produce intolerance and to feed doubts about the virtue and loyalties of minorities.  It is no accident that allegations of anti-Semitism have once again infected the bloodstream of U.S. politics for the first time in decades.

The dreams of a new international order following the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the cold war never materialized and instead have given way to the pursuit of hyper-capitalist globalization, shaken by a deep financial crisis, income inequality, political instability, and threats of Muslim extremist terrorism.

The U.S.-led international order following the end of World War II in 1945 was built not only on U.S. power but on U.S. credibility.  Words matter because no country should ever need to resort to military force to prove it is willing to deliver on its promises.  But now, the reality is that U.S. allies, who have long depended on the U.S. for their security, are starting to doubt whether they can trust the U.S. to have their backs.

The condition of the new international system today is that its creator, upholder, and enforcer has withdrawn into self-centered isolation.  Trump has quickly destroyed the alliances and agreements which formed the foundation of the world order that resulted in an unprecedented period of global peace and prosperity extending from the end of World War II until present.  The second great supporter and advocate of the open, rule-based world, Europe, has not been able to act assertively on the world stage with any clear vision or purpose.  And in this period, China, Russia, and a host of smaller, illiberal powers are surging forward to fill the vacuum.

Democracy is facing its biggest crisis in more than a decade with the number of countries suffering net declines in political rights and civil liberties rising to nearly twice the number seeing improvement over the past 12 years[3].  Now, for the first time since the World War II, many of the major and rising powers are simultaneously embracing various forms of chauvinism[4].  Like Trump, leaders of countries such as Russia, China, and Turkey embrace a pessimistic view that foreign affairs are often a zero-sum game in which global interests compete with national ones making for a more dangerous world.

Current international challenges present a prime opportunity for neofascist conservatives to tilt the balance of global power toward conservative nationalism and away from the old liberal democratic order.  Trump’s actions indicate he is eager to do just that.  More people are willing to try to tolerate rising autocracies due in part to elected governments struggling to address new challenges: global migration, technological advances, transnational terrorism, international economic unrest….  Most of the world’s most developed countries still remain highly committed democracies; including Japan, Canada, France, Australia, and Germany; but are likewise facing internal challenges.

Perhaps worst of all, and most worrisome for the future, young people facing diminishing opportunities who have little memory of the long struggles against fascism and communism, may be losing faith and interest in democracy.  The very idea of democracy and its promotion has been tarnished contributing to a dangerous apathy.

The U.S. has recently begun withdrawing from its historical commitments promoting and supporting democracy.  At the same time, the world’s leading autocracies, China and Russia, have seized this opportunity not only to step up internal repression but also to export their malign influence to other countries, some of which are increasingly copying their behavior and adopting their disdain for democracy.  A confident Chinese President Xi Jinping recently proclaimed that China is “blazing a new trail” for developing countries to follow.  It is a path that includes politicized courts, intolerance for dissent, and predetermined elections.

Trump needs to realize how his policies will unfold in the context of other countries’ jealous nationalism.  Disengaging will not cut the U.S. off from the world as much as leave it vulnerable to the turmoil and strife that the new nationalism engenders.  If global politics are further sullied, the U.S. will be morally impoverished and its own anger will grow possibly trapping Trump in a vicious cycle of reprisals and hostility.  He hopefully will abandon his dark vision.  For the sake of our country and the world, he urgently needs to reclaim the enlightened patriotism of the Presidents who preceded him.

It is unfortunate that Trump’s election and the conditions accompanying it – a growing rejection of science and evidentiary fact, extreme political tribalism, the rise of conservative nationalist movements around the world, and a populist reaction to immigration and free trade – may offer final and conclusive proof that there is nothing exceptional about the U.S.

The largely successful foreign policy of the Obama administration was constantly criticized by right-wing extremists for having wisely refrained from exercising the military option they routinely advocated.  There admittedly were significant failures; e.g., drawing a “red line” and not reacting when it was crossed; but the U.S.’s international favorability rating significantly improved above what it had been under his predecessor but has subsequently dramatically declined.

Perhaps the greatest damage that Trump has done is to U.S. soft power.  He openly scorns the notion that the U.S. should stand up for universal values such as democracy and human rights.  This repels the U.S.’s liberal allies, in Europe, East Asia, and beyond.  It emboldens autocrats to behave more sordidly.  It makes it easier for China to declare U.S.-style democracy passé and more tempting for other countries to copy China’s autocratic model.

The idea that things will return to normal after a single Trump term is too sanguine.  The world is moving on.  Asians are building new trade ties, often centered on China.  Europeans are working out how to defend themselves if they cannot rely on Uncle Sam.  And U.S. politics are turning inward: both Republicans and Democrats are more protectionist now than they were before Trump’s electoral triumph.

For all its flaws, the U.S. has long been the greatest force for good in the world, upholding the liberal order and offering an example of how democracy works.  All that is imperiled by a President who believes that strong nations look out only for themselves.  By putting “America First”, he makes it weaker and the world worse off.

Recent changes in U.S. foreign policy are likely to hasten a return to the instability and clashes of previous eras as the U.S. is no longer willing to support an international alliance structure, no longer seeks to deny great powers their spheres of influence and regional hegemony, no longer attempts to uphold liberal norms in the international system, and no longer is willing to sacrifice short-term interests; e.g., in trade; in the longer-term interest of preserving an open economic order.

Republicans persist in viewing the world from the past trapped in a perspective where the U.S.’s primary adversary remains the Soviet Union failing to recognize that Russia is now only a second-rate power.  In 2012 John Huntsman was the only Republican Presidential candidate that acknowledged the new world order – none have since.  While there certainly will be areas of friction, our primary foreign policy emphasis should be Southeast Asia – especially the rising influence and affluence of China.  Now is the time to recognize that political shift and reach cooperative agreement with nations in that area rather than risk competition and possible future conflict.

The Global Peace Index[5] for 2018 released by the Institute for Economics & Peace indicated that the prospect for global peace had gone down for the fourth year in a row.  That refugees and internally displaced persons now account for nearly 1 percent of the world’s population; about 68 million people.  It found that conditions in the U.S. have declined for two consecutive years and now are at the worst level of any time since 2012 partly resulting from the political instability caused by partisan politics.  The U.S. earned the maximum (worst) possible score in incarceration, external conflicts fought, weapons exports, and nuclear and heavy weapons.

One of the most important foundations of the historic international order remains the capacity and willpower of the U.S. to lead.  Militaristic hawks assume that every crisis in the world can and should be solved by a vigorous assertion of U.S. power, preferably military power, believing failure to do so demonstrates passivity and weakness.  It should not be only utopian dreamers who fail to understand why international disagreements are frequently resolved only though armed conflict.  Overreliance on military strength undermines our security, imposes unnecessary costs, and forces all Americans to incur additional risks.   As such it then becomes a problem, one that only we can solve.

That’s what I think, what about you?



[1] William McClellan “Mac” Thornberry is a U.S. politician serving as a Republican Congressional Representative from the Texas Panhandle.

[2] Obama, Barack.  Speech in April 2016.

[3] Abramowitz, Michael J.  Democracy in Crisis, Freedom in the World 2018, Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2018?utm_source=Fareed%27s+Global+Briefing&utm_campaign=96eef8a281-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_01_16&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6f2e93382a-96eef8a281-85658801, 2018.

[4] The New Nationalism, The Economist, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21710249-his-call-put-america-first-donald-trump-latest-recruit-dangerous, 19 November 2016.

[5] Global Peace Index 2018, Institute For Economics & Peace, http://visionofhumanity.org/app/uploads/2018/06/Global-Peace-Index-2018-2.pdf?utm_source=Fareed%27s+Global+Briefing&utm_campaign=5acf1bf2d9-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_06_13_07_58&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6f2e93382a-5acf1bf2d9-85658801, June 2018.

Posted in Australia, Barack Hussein Obama II, Canada, Canada, China, China, Donald Trump, France, France, Germany, Germany, Global Peace Index, Globalization, Institute for Economics & Peace, international order, Japan, Japan, Japan, Jon Huntsman, Obama, Russia, Russia, Soviet Union, Soviet Union, Trump, Turkey, Turkey, World War I, World War II, Xi Jinping, Xi Jinping | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Road To Space

It seems to me….

The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever.”  ~ Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky[1].

The U.S. has announced plans to return to the Moon by 2024 but there are reasons to be skeptical primarily due to Congress potentially refusing to fund what some might consider a political stunt.

Space exploration continues to enjoy wide support as the U.S., along with numerous other nations, has announced a number of new space initiatives.  The emerging space race is driven by a potent mix of economic, technological, and geopolitical imperatives[2].  Additionally, there are possible fortunes to be made from lunar ventures.  Space-based businesses currently contribute $350 billion to the global gross domestic product, a figure projected to jump to $1.4 trillion by 2040.  There’s intense speculation about fortunes to be made from mining the Moon for rare-earth metals used in electronics manufacturing but with current spacecraft limitations, any such fortune is quickly canceled by the billions of dollars it would cost to ship goods between Earth and the Moon.  The downside of private development is that space programs are exceedingly expensive with burn rates of billions of dollars prior to being able to recover any of that investment back from paying customers.

A large majority of Americans (65 percent) describe NASA’s continued involvement in space exploration as essential; (72 percent) also believe it crucial that the U.S. continue to be the world leader in space exploration; only 27 percent say it is not important[3].  This opinion is shared equally across generations and among members of each political party.  Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (70 percent) are more likely than Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (59 percent) to say NASA must continue playing a role in space exploration.  Only 33 percent believe private companies will be capable of ensuring sufficient space exploration progress without NASA’s involvement.  Republicans (41 percent) are more likely than Democrats (28 percent) to believe private companies would be able to ensure adequate progress.

While the U.S. has now announced plans to create a military Space Force, most American do not wish to see militarization of space – only 36 percent of Americans approve while 60 percent disapprove.  U.S. military veterans are more evenly split on this idea but more disapprove (53 percent) than approve (45 percent).

As the sole U.S. civil space program, NASA is ostensibly devoted to science and exploration instead of national defense and has been defined by collaboration, not competition most notably in its partnerships with Russia and other nations on the International Space Station (ISS), which has served for decades to defuse geopolitical tensions.  Any jingoistic stance, however, could possibly isolate the U.S. from future international collaborations in off-planet ventures.

While a majority of Americans (58 percent) said in a 2018 survey that human astronauts are essential to the future of the U.S. space program, less than one-in-five describe sending human astronauts to the Moon (13 percent) or Mars (18 percent) as top priorities for NASA.  Americans are more likely to rate these goals as “important but lower priorities” (45 percent and 42 percent, respectively), or to say they are not important or should not be done at all (37 percent and 44 percent).

About six-in-ten (63 percent) say one of NASA’s top priorities should be using space to monitor key parts of Earth’s climate system.  About four-in-ten said other top priorities should include conducting basic scientific research to increase knowledge of space (47 percent) and developing technologies that could be adapted for other uses (41 percent).

Half of Americans think manned space exploration will become routine during the next 50 years but even if space travel does become commonplace, more than half of Americans (58 percent) say they would not be interested in going.  People who aren’t interested cite a number of concerns including that it would be either too expensive, dangerous, or that their health or age would not allow for safe travel.  Among the 42 percent who would be interested, the most common reason is that they want to experience something unique.

The rapidly increasing number of orbiting hazardous space-debris objects creates a significant probability for collision.  This cloud currently contains more than 34,000 pieces larger than 10 centimeters across orbiting the Earth with an average speed of about 36,000 kilometers (22,270 miles) per hour.  It includes about 2,000 active and nearly 3,000 dead satellites in addition to fragments of rockets and other human-made objects.  Companies such as SpaceX and OneWeb plan to launch tens of thousands of additional satellites over the next few years likely to create an even greater threat to space missions and astronauts.  Just 13 percent of Americans say they have a great deal of confidence with about half (51 percent) say they have either very little or no confidence that private space companies will minimize the amount of human-made space debris that they put into Earth’s orbit.

With numerous nations having announced plans to send missions to the Moon, all are targeting a similar surface location: the south pole, which is as close to a fertile crescent as exists on the Moon.  The south pole of the Moon has some harsh conditions including temperatures as low as -233 Celsius (-388 Fahrenheit).  The area is heavily cratered, and the Sun barely grazes the horizon, scarcely illuminating the surface.  It is favored because spacecraft orbiting the Moon have detected low-density water frost on the floor of some of the south polar craters cast in permanent shadow, regions known to be very cold and able to trap water and other volatiles which could be used to sustain humans and for food production.  Water ice has also been detected at the lunar north pole although most deposits are found in the southern polar region.

Existence of water is critical to the success of permanent manned outposts as it can be broken down into oxygen to be used as atmosphere for crews and hydrogen, which, recombined with the oxygen, can make rocket fuel.  Launching water and rocket fuel off Earth for deep-space missions is considerably more difficult and labor-intensive than carrying it up from the Moon, where the gravity is one-sixth that of Earth, and then parking it in lunar orbit.

Other alternative outpost locations possibly exist.  Researchers have identified pits on the Moon which are likely lava-tube skylights, geological doorways to underground tunnels that were once filled with lava or possibly might be associated with isolated underground cavities.  If they do indeed provide access to lava tubes, skylights could be advantageous for human lunar exploration.

An underground lava-tube network might offer a much larger habitat capability for future Moon explorers providing protected corridors free of temperature swings, space radiation, micrometeorite bombardment, and sandblasting from rocket engines of landing or departing spacecraft.  These also would be in perpetual darkness where cold could trap ice similar to the permanently shadowed regions at the south and north poles.

NASA receives only a relatively low budget allocation.  The agency’s funding peaked in 1966 at just over $5.9 billion, the equivalent of $47 billion in 2019 dollars, more than twice what it gets today.  After Pence announced the 2024 target for a return to the Moon, the Trump Administration requested an additional $1.6 billion outlay, a figure not yet approved by Congress.  Even if approved, it would still be well short of the $5 billion annual supplement many believe necessary to facilitate a possible 2024 Moon landing.  Unfortunately, strong public support for such a funding commitment does not appear to exist at this time.

When returning to the Moon, NASA plans to this time permanently stay.  The exploration program, code-named Artemis, comprises several phases geared toward long-term occupation.  Transition to the private sector dominating low Earth orbit is the first of a five-stage plan by NASA to spur competition and innovation.

NASA’s primary hopes in the space race rest on the Space Launch System (SLS) currently under development.  It will be the largest rocket ever built; the SLS and its associated Orion spacecraft are critical backbone components of NASA’s future in deep space with the first integrated launch of the system possibly this year around the Moon and a crewed mission in 2023.

A key component of establishing the first permanent U.S. presence and infrastructure on and around the Moon is the Gateway, a mini-International Space Station lunar orbiting platform to host astronauts farther from Earth than ever before.  The Gateway also will be assessed as a platform for the assembly of payloads and systems; a reusable command module for lunar surface and vicinity exploration; and a way station for the development of refueling depots, servicing platforms, and a sample return facility.

After its initial flight, NASA hopes to begin annual flights to lunar orbit starting in 2023.  All but one of the eight planned missions in NASA’s latest flight manifest will be dedicated to assembly of the lunar orbit Gateway.  Various pieces of the future habitat will be hitchhiking on each Orion flight.  The first assembly mission, EM-3, will carry a power and propulsion module with a pair of huge solar panels to supply electricity to power the module’s ion thrusters.  The two following Orion flights will bring habitation modules, built in Europe and Japan, and bolt them to the propulsion module.  At least one unmanned cargo ship will resupply the station in 2024.

Initially, Gateway will make the Artemis missions more difficult and expensive than the Apollo missions, but in the long run it may be as affordable or even less costly as Orion is designed to be reusable.  Gateway will be expandable, with multiple docking ports for international or private partners to attach modules to conduct experiments and stage lunar landings.  Gateway will fly what’s known as a near-rectilinear halo orbit, a series of elliptical circuits that can be adjusted with a relative puff of propellant, opening all parts of the Moon to landing and exploration.

There also are numerous private systems under development.  Elon Musk claims the SpaceX Dragon may be ready to take a crew of astronauts to the ISS within the next six months.  Although SpaceX’s biggest rocket, the Falcon Heavy, does not have the propulsive power of the SLS, at more than 5 million lb. of thrust, it’s the most powerful engine currently flying.  In late June, SpaceX announced that as early as 2021, it will launch the Falcon Super Heavy rocket with 10.8 million lb. of thrust topped by a stainless steel, 180-ft. orbiter called Starship with room for 100 passengers.  That’s 17 times the size of the Orion which only has room for four to six astronauts.  It’s the Super Heavy, not the existing Falcons, that Musk believes will get humans past the “flags-and-footprints” model of the Apollo era and toward a more permanent presence on the Moon and, later, Mars.

But there doesn’t have to be any space race, international cooperation often works far better than competition.  The U.S. has 15 partner nations working on the ISS: Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan, and Canada have all contributed modules and astronauts from 18 countries have flown aboard the ISS.  With mounting tensions between the U.S. and Russia, space-station collaboration has been an effective pressure-release valve, especially when crews have to face problems together.

In a world facing borderless threats like climate change and emerging diseases, that kind of cooperation will be increasingly important and space is a good way to build trust.  Collaboration between the U.S. and Chinese space programs, however, is for now effectively prohibited by a 2011 spending-bill clause, known as the Wolf Amendment, out of concern for technology transfers that could compromise national security.  Technically, NASA could cooperate with China on civil projects that have no military applications, but practically, there is too much dual use in any space technology ever to clear that hurdle.  Given today’s political reality, a space race with China, rather than a space partnership, has political utility in the U.S. in the same way the competition with the Soviet Union did 50 years ago.

Europe, a key partner in NASA’s exploration efforts, is leading the push for a multinational “Moon Village” and is working with Russia on a lander.  India also intends to put a lander and rover (along with a NASA-built instrument) at the lunar south pole[4].  Japan, a regular U.S. partner in space science, is pursuing a lunar lander as well.  Israel has already made one landing attempt with help from NASA’s deep-space communications network and may soon make another.  In the context of a return to the Moon, a similar degree of cooperation with China would be valuable except that, as stated above, Congress has placed severe restrictions on NASA’s ability to collaborate with the Chinese.

This stance will most likely be self-defeating as it reinforces the impression, eagerly promulgated by China and Russia, that the biggest threat to the peaceful use of outer space is really the U.S.  To ensure that our nation’s values are enshrined in space governance, the White House and Congress must together reduce needless barriers to engagement with China and other potential competitors, ideally through reinvigorated U.S. diplomacy within the framework of existing U.N. treaties and committees.  Collaboration, not conflict, is the sustainable path forward to the Moon and beyond.

There are many financial benefits of space exploration based on decades of evidence that technology first developed for space travel often has terrestrial applications.  It is estimated that every dollar so far invested in the U.S. space program has resulted in a doubled return in benefits.  From a scientific benefit, it would be possible to construct observatories or a large radio telescope on the lunar far side shielded from earthshine and earthly radio emissions that would be more powerful and see farther than telescopes on either Earth’s surface or orbiting it.  It also would be possible to use lunar regolith and abundant silicates to build a large solar farm able to beam power back to the Earth.

Perhaps the greatest justification is the limit as to how long single-planet species are able to survive: living off the planet is probably a very good strategy.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky was a Russian and Soviet rocket scientist who along with the French Robert Esnault-Pelterie, German Hermann Oberth, and American Robert H. Goddard is considered to be one of the founding fathers of modern rocketry and astronautics.

[2] Kluger, Jeffrey.  Dueling Superpowers, Rival Billionaires.  Inside The New Race To The Moon, Time, https://time.com/longform/race-to-the-moon/?utm_source=time.com&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=the-brief-moonrace&utm_content=2019072011am, 29 July 2019, pp24-36.

[3] Johnson, Courtney.  How Americans See The Future Of Space Exploration, 50 Years After The First Moon Landing, Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/07/17/how-americans-see-the-future-of-space-exploration-50-years-after-the-first-moon-landing/?utm_source=Pew+Research+Center&utm_campaign=cd0ae36fd2-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_07_19_01_38&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_3e953b9b70-cd0ae36fd2-400092341, 17 July 2019.

[4] Editors.  The U.S. Should Go Back To The Moon – But Not On Its Own, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-u-s-should-go-back-to-the-moon-but-not-on-its-own/, July 2019, p8.

Posted in Artemis Project, Canada, Canada, China, China, Congress, Democrat, Democratic Party, Elon Musk, European Space Agency, Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, India, International Space Station, Israel, Japan, Japan, Japan, Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, Mars, Moon, Moon Village, NASA, Pence, Regolith, Republican, Republican Party, Russia, Russia, Soviet Union, Space, Space, Space, Space, Space Launch System, SpaceX, Trump | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Rational Approach To World Trade

It seems to me….

Trade plays an important role in empowering our nation, growing its economy, creating domestic jobs, and enhancing American competitiveness in the global chain of commerce.” ~ Charles Boustany[1].

Many people, especially politicians, rather than admitting that we have transitioned to a post-industrial society, would apparently prefer to attempt to turn back the clock to a time that no longer exists. Not only is that world now gone, it is highly doubtful if given the option that most people would wish to return to it. Instead, we must fully embrace the new opportunities now open to us. It will admittedly entail social adjustment, some of which will be stressful for those encountering difficulty making those changes though the transition can be more easily facilitated through expanded availability of education and training.

Rather than acknowledging the facts, many politicians, both Democratic and Republican, pander to the electorate telling them it is someone else’s fault – that “others” are to blame. We admittedly are living in trying times but then, that has always been true throughout all of history. Global trade has recovered since the financial crisis of 2008 but has not resumed its pre-crash rate of growth in either the U.S. or Europe as many economists had anticipated. Now, over 10 years after that crisis, it is apparent many of the basic conceptions regarding globalization have changed.

The debate over globalization and manufacturing frequently typically ignores some of the more important aspects of the issue. When manufacturing companies return to the U.S., it primarily is high-end manufacturing. Compounded by the economic and demographic changes taking place today, automation, advanced robotics, and software-driven technologies have initiated a new era.

Globalization had its moment but could already be in decline being steadily replaced by its successor: a new age driven by advanced robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and additive manufacturing (3D/4D printing) which could dramatically lower production costs as those capabilities become more prevalent throughout the manufacturing process. Shortening of supply chains in both distance and number of nodes will, in turn, reduce the volume of global trade as fewer countries and factories are involved in the production process.

As part of China’s and other nation’s economic growth, an increased percentage of goods being produced in those locations are now also being consumed there as the developing world gains a larger consumer class. The world is moving from a model of globalization to regionalization with increasing trade between neighboring countries in Europe and Asia. As automation gains traction, the trend away from globalization may quicken as processes such as additive printing and AI favor local production.

The global manufacturing sector had a tumultuous decade. Large developing economies vaulted into the first tier of manufacturing nations, a severe recession choked off demand, and manufacturing employment fell at an accelerated rate in advanced economies. Still, manufacturing remains a vital source of innovation and competitiveness making outsized contributions to research and development, exports, and productivity growth. Volatile resource prices, a looming shortage of highly skilled talent, and heightened supply-chain and regulatory risks create an environment that is far more uncertain than prior to the 2008 recession.

The traditional understanding of goods as distinct from services dates back to the Industrial Revolution when the advent of manufacturing created advanced economies and raised the standard of living for millions of people. But that dynamic reversed with the dawn of the Information Age. Last year, the services sector, a broad category of the economy that now includes financial services, media, transportation, and technology, accounted for 67 percent of U.S. GDP. E.g., the software industry’s impact on the country’s GDP is massive, accounting for some $1.4 trillion in services, nearly 3 million jobs directly, and an additional 10.5 million indirectly[2]. In an economy where farming and manufacturing as a proportion of total economic activity are in decline and services is rapidly ascendant, necessary workplace skills are being redefined.

The fact that goods increasingly need services to function is redefining common conceptions of what constitutes global trade. If traditional service sectors like finance, entertainment, and telecommunications have already experienced their digital revolutions, a number of major industrial sectors represent the next frontier of the U.S. economy’s ongoing transformation to a predominantly service-centered web of activity.

Once economists, companies, and policymakers embrace this paradigm shift in trade, they will be better equipped to deal with the further inevitable hybridization brought by AI and machine learning. And the U.S. economy will benefit as it will create jobs, bolster a number of sectors, and make the goods and services we rely on more efficiently.

Now, Trump has used the nonsensical pretext of national security to justify import tariff increases in order to circumvent World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. North America’s economies can withstand this folly but the rules-based system of global trade, which relies on goodwill between countries, may prove to be more fragile.

Trump’s claim that it is China who is paying his tariffs is equally total nonsense: tariffs are paid by the consumer. Additionally, the impact of tariffs is usually felt disproportionately by the poor and middleclass as they spend a larger share of their income on imported goods such as food and clothing.

Tariffs are a totally inappropriate method to address trade disputes. Trump squandered much of the leverage potentially available for use against China when he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) where he would have gained strength through combined pressure with other nations. Additionally, the Bilateral Investment Treaty (B.I.T.) between the U.S. and China, in the final stage of agreement under President Obama, would supposedly have resolved a number of additional disputed issues. Any remaining grievances would preferably have been addressed by filing a complaint with the WTO.

If the Chinese government agrees to end government cyber-theft of industrial technology, policymakers should make it clear to the Chinese that the U.S. would end its tariffs. This would include the Chinese policy of requiring U.S. firms to transfer technology to Chinese partners as a condition of doing business in China as well as the Chinese practice of taking technology directly from U.S. firms through cyber-espionage and other illegal methods. When then-President Barack Obama met Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 and showed him evidence of such activity by the People’s Liberation Army, it was ended. But that agreement did not cover theft by state-owned enterprises and private firms. Negotiations should cover all forms of technology theft.

High-end manufacturing requires different employee skills than adequate in the past. Five years from now, over one-third (35 percent) of skills now considered important in today’s workforce will have changed. With the avalanche of new products, new technologies, and new ways of working, workers are going to have to become more creative in order to benefit from these changes. Almost 65 percent of the jobs elementary school students will be doing in the future do not even yet exist. Many of those job categories will require a college degree but, counterproductively, the rising costs to attend college is increasingly preventing many students from attending. If the U.S. is to remain a major world power, the new minimal standard for educational attainment must become K-16.

It must be accepted that the basic nature of manufacturing and world trade has substantially changed over the last ten years. It is time to cease fighting yesterday’s battles and better prepare for the world in which we now live. A trade deficit is normally not a problem, the primary issue of national competitiveness is actually being waged over innovation, something that seems to be totally misunderstood by most U.S. political leaders – an area in which the U.S., while still competitive, is in danger of being rapidly surpassed.

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] Charles William Boustany Jr. is a U.S. Republican politician, physician, and former Congressman from Lafayette, Louisiana, who served as the U.S. Representative for Louisiana’s 3rd Congressional district.

[2] Forrest, Conner. Software Industry Boosts US GDP By $1.14 Trillion, Grows Economy In All 50 States, TechRepublic, https://www.techrepublic.com/article/software-industry-boosts-us-gdp-by-1-14-trillion-grows-economy-in-all-50-states/, 27 September 2017.

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Tomorrow’s Challenges

It seems to me….

“Life is divided into three terms – that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future.” ~ William Wordsworth[1].

I recently received a response related to something I had written. While not the entire comment, the following text indicates the primary aspects of what was said. The anxieties are factual and shared by many. As such, the concerns deserve to be addressed:

I think the resources on this earth are finite. We should try to limit growth as much as possible, show responsibility towards the poor on this earth by acknowledging that they have a birthright to clean air, clean water as well as some land and work. By helping the poor rather than exploiting them, we may contribute to peace on this earth. All the earth’s resources should be recycled, so as not to be wasted. The pollution of our planet has to be stopped!”

The writer is absolutely correct and I totally agree with everything stated. That said, I also believe there is much more that needs to be considered. It has been observed that predictions are difficult and those about the future even more so[2]. Regardless, being the fool that I am, let me rush in and state what I think related to our future alternatives.


Everyone understandably aspires to a quality lifestyle and it is unethical to set limits as to what is attainable. Still, many futurists suggest that basic resource limitations will restrict what is achievable to a significant population subset. This has been a relatively common topic, frequently in science fiction[3], but fails to consider future expansion capable of providing an essentially unlimited source of necessary materials; it has been predicted that the first trillionaire will be a person who mines the asteroids[4].

Economic and population limitations were extensively analyzed in a 1972 report commissioned by the Club of Rome[5] – and have since been proven to be totally erroneous. Any similar type of Malthusian catastrophe, while plausible, remains purely speculative. While such weltschmerz is relatively common, there isn’t any justification to believe population or resource limitations will ever force a return to subsistence-level conditions as a result of population growth outpacing agricultural production or resource availability. Such constraint predictions are based on what currently exists or is known and fail to consider future developments or possibilities. While such resource limitations will most likely be overcome, this does not imply that overall quality of life will comparably improve indefinitely.

This should not imply these predictions were inaccurate at the time they were made – they quite understandably simply did not make allowances for the unknowable. One lesson from the past is that the future will not progress linearly and therefore cannot be predicted. While resources on Earth are finite, there isn’t any reason for that to remain a limitation in the future. Even so, reuse and elimination of waste should be mandated. At the end of every year, and even more so at the conclusion of a decade, prognosticators make their forecasts, which all of us continue to read though they have been shown to be substantially less than accurate. All limitations are constrained primarily only by our imagination – everything remains impossible until accomplished[6].

It also does not mean we will necessarily prefer or even like some of the personal accommodations necessitated in response to resource limitations. Any innovative advance has the potential for both good and bad. E.g., dietary preferences will most likely have to change such as to accommodate a substantial reduction or possibly even total elimination of animal-based food items. Housing will be predominantly smaller-sized multi-family vertical units with single family dwellings being very uncommon. Very few people will own personal vehicles. Reservations will be required to visit national parks or wilderness areas. Etc.

While considering myself to be fairly realistic (depending upon one’s personal beliefs), I readily admit to basically being a technology optimist and believe advances in technology and connectivity are driving breakthroughs in human creativity potentially producing numerous opportunities in essentially every area. That said, I do not believe in utopianism and will not pretend that someday all will be better. Still, almost everything is actually better now than in the past – healthcare, nutrition, opportunity… but it is part of being human that new concerns have risen to replace other traditional ones. Global warming, economic inequality, human migration, resource scarcity, over population, pandemic…. As each disease or condition is cured or alleviated, human mortality will encounter a different battle to fight. There always will be tradeoffs in everything that might occur.

Consider basic facts. The most recent years have in all probability been the best years in human history[7]. A smaller share of the world’s populace is hungry, impoverished, or illiterate than at any previous time. A smaller proportion of children die while infants. The proportion disfigured by leprosy, blinded by diseases like trachoma, or suffering from other ailments has also fallen. Since 1990, the lives of more than 100 million children have been saved by vaccinations, diarrhea treatment, breast-feeding promotion, and other simple steps.

As recently as the 1960s, a majority of humans had always been illiterate and lived in extreme poverty (less than about $2 a day). Now fewer than 15 percent are illiterate and fewer than 10 percent live in extreme poverty. Every day, the number of people around the world living in extreme poverty declines by about 217,000[8]. Every day, 325,000 more people gain access to electricity. An additional 300,000 gain access to clean drinking water. After thousands of generations, within another 25 years illiteracy and extreme poverty will optimistically have essentially disappeared.

Our planet has been extremely fortunate to have been spared any subsequent asteroid impact event similar to the one slightly less than 66 million years ago that resulted in the worldwide climate disruption that was the main cause of the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, a mass extinction in which 75 percent of all plant and animal species including all non-avian dinosaurs on Earth becoming extinct. Now, science and technological advances have become the greatest threat to our survival. The probability of a catastrophic, or possibly even extermination, event is rapidly increasing. It consequently has become essential to establish self-sufficient colonies off-planet to insure our survival as a species.

Many of the threats we face; e.g., global warming or socio-economic imbalance; are well understood and solutions are dependent upon us finding the will and determination to make possibly unpopular corrections prior to when they become overwhelming. Reconciliation of other potential threats, including many not currently understood, will be at least partly dependent upon luck. Artificial intelligence (AI) and gene modification are the only two mentioned here but there are many others. Part of the problem is that while humans have evolved intellectually, there has been a notable lack of comparable social progress. Additionally, science and technology advance exponentially but humans only think linearly. We have now reached what is euphemistically termed “the second half of the chessboard”:

The wheat and chessboard problem (sometimes expressed in terms of rice grains) is a mathematical problem expressed in textual form as: If a chessboard were to have wheat placed upon each square such that one grain were placed on the first square, two on the second, four on the third, and so on (doubling the number of grains on each subsequent square), how many grains of wheat would be on the chessboard at the finish?[9]

It is only when one reaches the second half of the chessboard that the power of exponential growth with each progression from one square to the next exceeds our comprehensive abilities. The rate and pace of change in technological advancement in the world today has reached that point where each technological advance builds on all the others that have preceded it further accelerating the rate of future additional changes.

AI is possibly the greatest threat to our survival that we must eventually face. It also represents the greatest opportunity and advancement in history; it is difficult to imagine our species’ long-term survival without it. Nature does not care whether the development of advanced intelligent is either carbon or silicon based. We most likely are just a necessary evolutionary step in the development of that higher intelligence. That said, I would not be surprised if resolution of the Fermi Paradox[10] was related to the inevitable catastrophic development of AI by other advanced civilizations.

All technological development is a two-edged sword able to cut both ways. Fire can keep us warm or burn down our house. Yes, there is an associated threat with AI but we must accept that its development is inevitable. It therefore is a risk we must live with and must in some way mitigate out of awareness regarding that threat. We must likewise accept that it is a capability that will greatly enhancing our opportunities for long-term survival if used wisely.

The natural process of evolution has not ended. Modern humans, Homo sapiens, originated in Africa sometime between 200,000 and 100,000 years ago but even without any extenuating circumstances, we, and all other life, would continue to evolve as much in the next 100,000 years as we have in the past. That languorous pace, however, is about to change dramatically due to development of gene modification capabilities such as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats).

While human germline genome editing is currently considered unethical, it has the potential to transform medicine enabling not only treatment but also prevention of many diseases. The thumb in that dike can only be held for so long. Once approved for medical purposes, it will be difficult to prevent still additional genome changes or enhancements. It is difficult to predict where the path might lead but evolution is about to takeoff at a supersonic pace.

Human speciation would most likely not result from habitation elsewhere within our planetary system though it most likely would eventually occur if we expand to other star systems. Some genetic adaptation or genetic expression changes might result from prolonged living in different gravitational environments, while possibly adequate to preclude return to Earth’s surface, but would most likely not be sufficient to result in reproductive incompatibility.

Much remains to be done and will admittedly not be easy. The future remains fraught with significant challenges and potential for disaster. There also are unlimited opportunities and potential for change. Hopefully, the worthier path will be selected rather than some compulsory choice between alternate undesirable options.

There definitely is much that is negative in the world but regardless of nostalgia for the past, not many would willingly trade what we have now to turn back the clock to a previous age. We, in general, are experiencing improvements in longevity, literacy, prosperity, peace…. Much could still be improved but no one should judge the state of the world on headline negativity – it is bad news that is newsworthy, not the good. We tend to ignore facts based on statistics – people fear tornadoes which kill only a hundred people every year; considerably less than the flu or asthma which kill thousands.

I agree with concerns for our planet but do not believe we can prevail over our narrow nationalistic concerns except from the perspective of space where it becomes inescapably apparent that there are NO visible demarcations dividing us into separate nations. That all of us are in reality only one people. That this is all one planet and what happens in one location affects all of us.

While many potential threats can never be totally eliminated, they frequently can be appreciably mitigated. Fortunately, most of the time, that is sufficient. The primary value of such considerations is that they tend to identify those issues which can be addressed prior to their becoming overwhelming. While all of this is possible, the question is whether there is sufficient time to accomplish what is necessary. Much is dependent upon adequate funding for basic research and whether a sufficient number of people will major in STEM areas to perform the necessary research and development.

What will the future be like? It most likely will be fairly similar to how we live today – in other words; very much the same – only very different….

That’s what I think, what about you?


[1] William Wordsworth was one of the founders of English Romanticism and one its most central figures and important intellects.

[2] Bohr, Neils. “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”

[3] E.g., John Brunner’s book Stand On Zanzibar addressed many of these sociological tendencies.

[4] Tyson, Neil deGrasse. “The first trillionaire in the world will be the person who mines asteroids.”

[5] Meadows, Donella H., et al. The Limits To Growth, Club of Rome, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Limits_to_Growth, 1972.

[6] Heinlein, Robert A. “Everything is theoretically impossible, until it is done.”

[7] Kristof, Nicholas. Why 2017 Was the Best Year in Human History, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/06/opinion/sunday/2017-progress-illiteracy-poverty.html?smid=tw-share&utm_source=Fareed%27s+Global+Briefing&utm_campaign=1a0eb7f366-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_01_09&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6f2e93382a-1a0eb7f366-85658801, 6 January 2018.

[8] Roser, Max. Our World Is Changing, Oxford University, https://ourworldindata.org/?utm_source=Fareed%27s+Global+Briefing&utm_campaign=1a0eb7f366-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_01_09&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6f2e93382a-1a0eb7f366-85658801, (current).

[9] Wheat And Chessboard Problem, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wheat_and_chessboard_problem, 4 January 2020.

[10] Fermi Paradox, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fermi_paradox, 14 February 2020.

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