Defense and space; heading for the fiscal cliff

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View 753 Wednesday, December 12, 2012

12:12:12 12/12/12

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We’re still here, so if there is some apocalypse coming on 12/12/12 the probability is lower now than a few minutes ago. Of course it’s not possible for a probability to be less than zero.

Now we need to survive the end of the Mayan Long Count cycle later this month (there’s a bit of disagreement over which exact day and hour that will be, but it’s generally agreed that it will happen before Christmas).

And North Korea has launched a satellite into polar orbit. It isn’t clear what the satellite is. It is unlikely that it has much observational capability, but it might be useful in determining crop futures. Speculators have used satellite data to game the what and other crop futures market for decades, as have intelligence organizations. Of course the satellite might be a brick, since most analysts think the purpose of the launch was to demonstrate a North Korean ability to build and launch Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles with a range that includes targets in the US. In effect, if you can get something into orbit you can get something just about anywhere on the earth, although the payload size may vary, and re-entry vehicles aren’t simple and easy. Reentry at high velocity requires not only precision guidance, but also thermal protection. That’s one of the reasons that commercial space proceeds slowly.

Nuclear conflict analysis is an old game; it was one of the strategic analyses I was involved in as early as 1958. Deterrence works with rational enemies, but what if the other guy is crazy? “The mad general with a missile” was one of the scenarios apprentice strategic analysts had to work on. Just how mad is this general? How good is his control of the critical launch crew? Even if he’s willing to absorb the retaliatory strike, are his minions? And so forth. But of course the simplest answer to the madman with a missile is a system of several independent anti-missiles each with a reasonable probability of making a successful interception. Interception can happen boost phase – say from a ship offshore from the launch site – or midrange (as was Homing Overlay which did a physical intercept of a Minuteman launched from Vandenberg with an anti-missile launched from Kwajalein.

When the Council was asked to write a proposed space policy for the incoming Reagan administration in November and December of 1980, we had several papers on strategic defense, and during the Reagan years the US had a strong Strategic Defense Initiative program. Alas that wound down after the Cold War ended. The last part of SDI that I had anything to do with was the SSX proposal that General Graham, Max Hunter, and I carried to Washington in hopes of getting Vice President Dan Quayle, Chairman of the National Space Council, to fund. SSX was an X Project. X Projects are the way to develop new technology. Quayle wasn’t able to get funding for the full program, but he did manage to get DC/X built. DC/X was a scale model of SSX, and proved many of the SSX concepts. The SSX project is still what we need if we want access to space. But that’s another story. I am still a bit astonished at how current a lot of my old space papers are. In particular, How to Get To Space could be published tomorrow with very few changes. For that matter, The SSX Concept could be refurbished into a preliminary design introduction without a great deal of work. Ah well.

The point is that having access to space allows a number of strategic defense alternatives – and doesn’t involve going to war, sending soldiers out on deployment, killing tens of thousands of civilians, or costing trillions of dollars. I once said that if you wanted to go to space the simple way would be to give me a billion dollars and get out of the way. (I said I would also need a letter of credit for another billion, but I might not need that.) Of course that was in 1988 dollars. In those days I used to say that I could build a Moon Colony for about ten billion. Of course what I meant was not that I could do it, but I knew the people who could. The first part of that program would have been development of the SSX concept.

Those numbers are probably off – well, in 2012 dollars they certainly are – but multiply by 20 and we’re still at $200 Billion, less than the estimated cost of the Iraq War. Before we invaded Iraq I pointed out that for the $300 Billion it was estimated that the war would cost, I could make the United States independent of Middle Eastern Oil. We could then put money into the Navy and into Strategic Defense and let the Arabs, Russians, and Europeans negotiate over the oil; we’d be glad to refine as much of it as they wanted refined properly. Instead we poured blood and treasure into the desert sands, and we let the space program slide away.

Now North Korea is building ICBM, first a capability then an inventory. There are times when I get discouraged.

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We lost. They won. We need to get on with it. And apparently the next step is to go over the fiscal cliff in a game of chicken over “taxes on the rich” that, if fully implemented with all the trimmings the President wants, would pay about two weeks worth of the deficit every year.

The public thinks that the Republicans want only to protect the rich, and worse, a lot of people have been persuaded that once we soak the rich properly everyone will feel less tax bites, and equality with prosperity will descend like a dove upon the land. When it doesn’t happen that way, there will be another such narrative. Meanwhile, we can expand entitlements. Cell phones to the homeless. There’s a great idea. Just think what they can do with them. After all, those who have homes are not paying their fair share. They didn’t build those homes.

I have exaggerated, but that appears to be the current trend. And it is not at all clear whose interests the Republicans are trying to protect as we move closer and closer to much higher taxes for all. I would have thought that by now the Republicans would have on the House floor their proposal for extending the tax cuts, complete with some concessions to the Democrats; then pass that money bill (it has to originate in the House anyway) and send it up to the Senate. If we subsequently go over the cliff and everyone finds himself several thousand dollars poorer on January First, at least we can show what we tried to do.

As to what concessions they ought to make, start with the definition of “the rich”. The President proposes that everyone who makes $200,000 a year is “rich”. That seems excessive. Make that $10 Million. We can all agree that those who make that much are rich indeed. The amount of revenue this will raise will be disappointingly low but the revenues from any tax hikes tend to be disappointingly low. As the old song goes, “Folks got money scratch where they itch, so it’s not so easy robbin’ the rich, there’s more profit by far, from keep robbin’ the poor.”

The actual debate here is ‘distributism’. Just how large a discrepancy between rich and poor can a republic survive? The problem with socialism and social engineering is that the money goes to finance a huge bureaucracy which grows more and more powerful, and the power of government is more oppressive than ever was that of the rich upper class. The distributist notion is to divide excess wealth among all equally. That at least doesn’t build huge government bureaucracies, and gives the recipients some choice over what they do with their windfall gains. Small is beautiful, employee owned businesses are best – etc. And of course there are many variations on the theme. It’s best explained by one of its proponents. I’ve found this. I am sure that is much more (including of course some of the work of Chesterton and Belloc).

Of course at a much higher level there is the general argument against concentration of wealth because of its effects on productivity. Some economists have said that anti-trust legislation was a key issue in preventing the concentrations of wealth that Marx thought would be inevitable, and there is considerable evidence for that view. We can all agree that large monopolies – whether private or government owned – in key industries and services can devastate and economy and are often extremely unfair. One distributist notion is that by distributing the “surplus wealth” you prevent its concentration, and allow competition to take its course.

We have seen what happens when we concentrate all the wealth and means of production into the hands of the state. Of course a generation has grown up who never saw the effect of Communism, although in this hemisphere we are fortunate enough to have the examples of Chavez and Castro. (Fortunate for us to have examples; not so fortunate for those who live under those regimes.) And Chin remains in theory communist, although it seems to have relaxed a great deal of the state ownership. Whether it can prevent unbearable concentration of wealth in other hands – including that of the People’s Liberation Army – is another story.

One lesson of history is that power can be distributed but it cannot be destroyed. The United States was conceived as a nation of states, in the hopes that competition among the states would ensure the blessings of liberty. The tension between Hamilton who wanted to use federal power to create what we today would call infrastructure, and those who wanted to keep that power doled out among the states ran afoul of such causes as freedom of religion, and the anti-slavery movement. But note that as state power was destroyed it did not vanish. It fell into the hands of the general government which wielded it in federal interests.

Power can be checked only by other power. The King’s power was checked by the Feudal Lords. When the middle class and the kings banded together to destroy the feudal system, the king inherited far more power than he had under the feudal arrangement, and when the populist state took over from the King, it held powers the Kind never dreamed of. Universal conscription is one example. The Levee en masse of the French Revolution says it all:

"From this moment until such time as its enemies shall have been driven from the soil of the Republic, all Frenchmen are in permanent requisition for the services of the armies. The young men shall fight; the married men shall forge arms and transport provisions; the women shall make tents and clothes and shall serve in the hospitals; the children shall turn old lint into linen; the old men shall betake themselves to the public squares in order to arouse the courage of the warriors and preach hatred of kings and the unity of the Republic."

No king would ever have dreamed he held the power to do anything like that.

A democratically elected President has wider dreams.

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As to what happens when you let things run as they are, look at California. This can’t go on, but it’s great just at the moment:

California prison psychiatrists seem to be worth a lot of money: one couple made several million dollars in three years, and another (a graduate of a medical school in Afghanistan) is paid $800,000 a year in salary (including overtime) by the California prison system. Nice work if you can get it…

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