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Inheritance: A Sin Against an Efficient Market

With the exception of theft, inheritance might be the most inefficient economic transaction that humanity has devised. Consider this: with both theft and inheritance, the recipient of wealth does not have to create any amount of economic benefit in order to be rewarded. At best, the heir receives compensation for effectively doing nothing (being born). At worst, the thief receives compensation for doing something harmful (injuring someone during a robbery). Both transactions serve as examples of how the free market naturally creates pockets of inefficiency: rewarding individuals who haven’t economically earned a reward. Both are problems, but only theft is actually addressed as such.

Though certainly not deserving of criminalization, the problem of inheritance does demand action. If unchecked, the inefficiency it creates will continue to generate negative ripple effects throughout our economy and social unrest within our culture.

Before discussing inheritance’s harmful effects, it is useful to understand its development. The problem of inheritance was nurtured by the advent of money. Under a barter-based economy, wealth was passed-on in the form of physical goods, animals, or land – things that are naturally harder to store, transfer, and maintain. On top of that, it was more difficult to pass on the income–generating properties of these goods because the activities that create further wealth (e.g. turning commodities into finished goods, running a farm, developing land, etc.) require a certain amount of ability and business acumen – traits which, unlike wealth, cannot be transferred to an heir.

With money, the impediments to wealth transfer and the skill requirements for additional wealth creation are sharply lessened. The lines of numbers in modern banking computer systems require no maintenance to store, nor effort to transfer. Moreover, a large wealth management industry now exists, the sole purpose of which is to turn big pools of money into bigger ones, without the owners of them having to lift a finger. The result of these innovations is self-sustaining dynastic wealth on a large scale, such that many fortunate families than thrive in grandiloquent fashion from birth, never burdened by the necessity to create any semblance of economic benefit.

In this way, the fears of one of America’s greatest self-made titans of business, Andrew Carnegie, have been realized. Carnegie, who ascended to the pinnacle of prosperity atop an empire of steel, was, and remains to this day, one of the foremost creators of amassed fortunes, as well as one of their most cogent critics.

In his messianically titled book, The Gospel of Wealth, Carnegie plainly laid out the ills associated with dynastic wealth and provided a plan for its proper dispensation. Notably, he called inheritance an “improper use” of one’s fortune and argued that the act of passing riches onto heirs only serves to tarnish the morality and character of those who receive it. “The parent who leaves his son enormous wealth,” Carnegie wrote, “generally deadens [his] talents and energies… and tempts him to lead a less useful and less worthy life than he otherwise would.” Carnegie’s assertions have been born out by studies.[1]

The undermining of an individual’s enterprising spirit is but one of the harmful effects of inheritance. Unfortunately, its worst effects are not rendered upon isolated individuals, but rather upon entire economies and cultures.

In an economy where inheritance is unchecked, significant inequality of wealth and income is more likely. With such polarity, businesses have significantly reduced incentives to produce a diverse array of goods and services. For instance, if only a small portion of the population has most of the disposable income, while the rest has very little, producers will make goods or provide services on a smaller scale since relatively few people or families can actually compensate them for their work, and a small population of wealthy people can only consume so much. As a result, mass-market innovations that push costs down and production yields higher will occur much more slowly or not at all. Employment opportunities will be sharply reduced, economies will be prone to more and longer spells of reduced activity, growth will slow or cease altogether.

History is fraught with examples of this type of inequality-induced malaise. In Europe, the “Dark Ages” was a period of economic and cultural stagnation that lasted for hundreds of years. During this time, a limited cadre of lords and kings commanded most of the wealth and land, while most people had nothing. In America, before the Civil War, a slave-owning aristocracy in the Southern States controlled a vast amount of land and human lives. From their plantation perches, the slavers idly watched as their economy was vastly outperformed by the free-labor North – a fact that contributed greatly to the South’s eventual defeat.

Cultural languishing often haunts a country that has sluggish growth and significant inequality. In an economy where most of the disposable wealth and income is passed down within select families, a sense of unfairness could become pervasive. If people believe that one’s economic future is more determined by fate rather than by work, a lethargy of mind and body – not dissimilar to that seen in countries during periods of Communist rule – may follow on a grand scale. This sense of unfairness could later cause social unrest to the point of violent revolution.

The potential ills of inheritance-bolstered inequality are clear. As such, policies to mitigate inter-generational wealth transfer and to ensure an efficient market should be enacted. Here are a few that should be considered:

  1. Stronger Estate Tax: The Estate Tax is a tax assessed upon the transfer of the property of a deceased individual to his or her heirs. In order to mitigate the inefficiency caused by inheritance, the current tax rates on estates should be increased ­– perhaps from the current top rate of 40% to the 2001 rate of 55%, if not higher. By doing so, we would also unlock other benefits, like the promotion of market-driven philanthropy – as wealthy individuals find creative ways to distribute their wealth in order to avoid taxation upon their death.
  2. More Robust Gift Tax: The Gift tax is assessed upon transfers of property made during one’s life and was created to prevent individuals from avoiding the estate tax by transferring all of their assets before death. Its rate should be increased to match the proposed changes to the Estate Tax.
  3. Generous Exemption Level: Before enacting any reforms regarding inheritance, it is ironically imperative that generous protections for it be put in place. Just as high wealth and income inequality can stymie economic expansion, so, too, can too little. By ensuring that relatively large fortunes can continue to exist across generations, we incentivize the creation of luxury goods and services that could help to spark innovation throughout the economy. Thus, a lifetime exemption of $5 million on gifts and estates (recurrently adjusted for inflation) should be implemented, with taxes only being assessed on the value of property transferred beyond the exemption level.
  4. Elimination of Investment Income Subsidy: Surprisingly, large inheritances and income inequality are actually subsidized by current government policies because income earned by selling stocks or collecting dividends is taxed proportionally lower than salaries or wages. Since most amassed fortunes are comprised of investments, this means that wealthy families often pay a smaller portion of their income in taxes than poor or middle-class ones. By eliminating the current tax subsidy for investment income, we would reaffirm in our laws what we already know from our lives: that a dollar earned by wage or salary is worth no less than a dollar earned by investing or stock trading.

Just as welfare can breed indolence and economic stagnation, so, too, can wealthfare. By enacting laws to limit the inefficiency that is created by inheritance and inequality, we make ourselves a stronger nation economically and culturally.

 

Let’s Regulate Guns Like Cars

When the Manchin-Toomey background check bill was defeated in the Senate, two weeks ago, gun-control advocates were upset. They shouldn’t be. If it had passed, it would have merely paid lip service to the memory of those lost at Sandy Hook Elementary, while doing little to actually mitigate gun violence.

The “Loophole” that the bill claimed to close by requiring backgrounds checks for private sales at gun shows and online, far from being a gigantic breach, was really nothing more than a tiny crack: According to a comprehensive survey of 18,000 prison inmates conducted by the Bureau of Justice, less than 1% of criminals actually attain weapons in these ways.[1]

However, those that sent the bill down to defeat don’t have a whole lot to be proud of, either. Their reasons for rejecting the measure – that it was ineffective and would impose too much of a burden on gun sellers – were both misguided and simply wrong. Just because a law probably would not catch that many criminals does not make it a bad one – it still catches criminals. And the NICS (National Instant Criminal Background Check System) backgrounds checks that the bill would have required private sellers to complete are hardly an imposition. According to the FBI, who is jointly responsible for performing the checks and solely responsible for maintaining the database of individuals barred from gun purchases, a person who requests the instant background check via phone or an online system can almost always expect to receive a response within a few minutes and are required by law to receive one within three days. Unfortunately, facts like these have never been worth much in Washington.

Even more unfortunate is that what’s been forgotten in the all too familiar media and political frenzy over “who won” and “who lost” in the wake of the bill’s defeat are the stories and memories of real families and individuals whose lives have been shattered or ended by firearms. Their anguish demands attention.

Now that we are back at square one, the question we must confront is: “Where do we go from here?”

Fortunately, there is an alternative that is both new in terms of the perspective that it would require, yet entirely familiar in terms of the regulatory structure it would implement. Most importantly, this alternative would take into account a simple truth that many advocates of gun control – both Republican and Democrat – seem to ignore: that in order to reduce gun violence, we have to change the nature of our relationship with guns.

Guns In America: Forever In Our Hearts, Easy To Get In Our Hands

America loves guns. We own more than any other nation – between 270 and 310 million of them[2] – and a great many of us count ourselves as owners – almost 35% of households.[3] The founders of our nation enshrined gun ownership within its founding document. Most importantly, we have some of the loosest laws governing the purchase and possession of firearms.

The central law that regulates gun purchases within the United States is the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993, which created the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). Under this law, the criminal and mental history of anyone seeking to buy a gun from a licensed firearms seller is reviewed before any purchase. Without this federal provision, any individual, regardless of their background, could purchase whatever gun they wish from any retailer in thirty-five states, provided they are at least 18 years of age to buy a rifle or a shotgun or 21 years of age to purchase a handgun or military-style assault rifle.

Some states have implemented their own laws to complement federal law. In Minnesota, for instance those seeking to purchase a handgun or assault rifle must first receive a permit to purchase one. To apply, one only need fill out a form at their local police station that asks for age, address, driver’s license information, and a physical description and then wait for an additional week while a more comprehensive background check is completed. Assuming there is no issue, an individual can then purchase whatever gun they wish – no training or prior experience required. Many counties and cities have also implemented additional regulations.

Lost in the legal shuffle of numerous overlapping laws from an overwhelming number of sources is a sense of sanity. How can we even begin to reform laws that lack any semblance of uniformity? How can we expect our political representatives to do anything, when we don’t understand the laws that we currently have?

In order to restore that missing sense of sanity, we fortunately don’t have to look too far for a solution. That’s because we have, for a very long time, been regulating in a simple, effective, and uniform manner another device that kills more people per year than a gun.[4] And just as millions of Americans turn to this device every day for convenience, we should turn to it now for legislative guidance: the car.

A Common Device Provides a Clear Path Forward

Over 68% of Americans held a driver’s license in 2010 and many more, though they lack one, have a good understanding of what it takes to get one: You have to be a certain age, you have to take a training course during which you learn about safety and practice driving, and you have to pass written and performance-based tests to prove that you’re qualified. Moreover, when someone purchases a vehicle it must be registered to the owner.

Most Americans readily understand and wholeheartedly accept the purpose of these restrictions: If anyone wants to use a device that can put others at risk, then it’s not too much to ask that someone be mature enough to use it, get trained on its use, prove that they’ve been trained, and then register the device so that they can be held responsible for any harm that might be done with it.

We expect these restrictions for a device that has the potential to kill. We should also expect the same restrictions for a device that is designed to kill.

Fortunately, given citizens’, the States’, and the Federal Government’s experience with automobile regulation, its legal framework could be easily applied to firearms. Perhaps like this:

  • All adults would be required to have a state-issued license if they wish to purchase, possess, or use a gun beyond the age of 18.
  • Citizens can get a license as early as 16; Children can still use firearms privately under adult supervision.
  • Knowledge, safety, and handling training would be required before a license would be issued.
  • Written and performance based tests would have to be passed before a license would be issued.
  • A comprehensive background check to screen out criminals and the mentally ill would be required before a license would be issued.
  • Regular re-licensing would be required with or without testing per the States’ discretion.
  • If a licensed holder commits a crime or their mental status changes, their gun license would be liable to be suspended or revoked.
  • Additional training and testing would be required in order to purchase, possess or use pistols, assault weapons, or other deadlier firearms or certain tactical accessories.
  • Upon the initial purchase or transfer of a firearm, it would have to be registered to the owner.
  • Any sale or transfer of a firearm to an unlicensed individual would be a crime.

Familiar Framework, New Benefits

If applied in this fashion, this regulatory framework would unlock numerous benefits for both gun-owners and non-owners, alike.

  1. Improved Regulatory Clarity: By using an already commonly understood regulatory framework, Americans’ awareness of the law and the consequences of violating it would increase dramatically. Moreover, by establishing a simple legal baseline across all states, it would allow for increased cooperation amongst legislative, advocacy, and law enforcement entities at all levels of society and government.
  2. Easily Customizable: With a common regulatory foundation, other states could readily augment the laws with additional statutes that suit the needs of their residents. New York, for instance, could implement stricter training requirements or magazine size restrictions, whereas Texas could add open-carry provisions. The states would still be able to serve as our laboratories of democracy.
  3. Reduced Gun Violence: With very few exceptions, the studies of gun-violence have been unequivocal: more gun laws mean fewer gun deaths.[5][6] This new network of laws would help to further reduce fatalities in several ways:
    1. Better Training: Some of the most tragic cases of gun violence occur inside the homes of families with children. If adults were required to receive training on gun storage and handling, fewer toddlers might be maimed or killed after playing with a firearm that was mishandled by their parents. Additionally, if more citizens were trained in proper firearm self-defense techniques, they would be better equipped to protect themselves, thus potentially reducing the number of defenseless crime victims.
    2. Fewer “Bad Guys With Guns”: By criminalizing any transfer of firearms to unlicensed individuals, we directly undermine the way in which the vast majority of criminals attain guns. We could better deter those who might provide guns to criminals and more effectively punish those who do.
  4. Greater Law Enforcement Efficacy and Safety: Through the registration of firearms, law enforcement officers would have a ready means of tracking and prosecuting the sources of firearms used in criminal activity. Additionally, cases of domestic homicide with a gun might be more quickly solved once the murder weapon was discovered. Also, with a record of gun registrations on-hand, on-duty officers would be better prepared to approach a potentially dangerous situation with the foreknowledge that a gun might be present.
  5. Cost-Effective: Because the regulatory infrastructure would largely already be in place (DMV offices, trained employees, license-making equipment, etc.), implementation of the new laws would be relatively quick and cheap. The already existing private network of qualified firearm trainers and practice ranges could be certified to conduct the required safety and training courses. Once in-place, licensing fees could cover the operational costs of the legislation. Over time, we might reap additional time and monetary savings in our judicial system due to a reduction in gun-related crimes.
  6. Stronger Gun-Culture: By establishing reasonable hurdles to gun ownership and ensuring an adequate level of training and experience, we would instantly imbue the act with a greater aura of responsibility and prestige. In fact, this new regulatory framework would do much more than our current set of laws to create the well-armed and well-trained citizenry that gun advocates hope to foster. In so doing, it would honor the 2nd Amendment by respecting its prefatory statement that has too often been forgotten:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”

An Unfortunate Fact

Tragically, the great irony of any gun control laws that we might pass, including the ones that I have proposed, is that they would likely do very little to prevent the type of horrific events that motivate their passage. The black swan type crimes that indelibly etch the names of quiet places in our minds – Sandy Hook, Aurora, Tucson, Columbine – were committed by perpetrators that did not respect lives or laws. And so, unless we implement the most draconian of measures that have been proposed by those on the extreme ends of the gun control debate – measures, for instance, that would criminalize the sale or possession of handguns and assault rifles or laws that would mandate the placement of armed guards in all schools and public venues – we will have to find other means to address the ills that drive these individuals to massacre innocent lives.

But, with reasonable laws, we certainly can do something to deter family members from passing guns onto gang members – guns that helped to murder 11,078 people in 2010.[7] With reasonable laws, we certainly can do something to prevent firearms from getting into the hands of the mentally disturbed – 19,392 of who committed suicide with a gun.[8] With reasonable laws, we certainly can do something to encourage greater knowledge of gun safety – knowledge that may have saved some of the 114 children that were unintentionally killed with their parents’ guns.[9] We have the legislative means at our fingertips. Will we use it?

And so, ultimately, we yield ourselves to the devil’s arithmetic: How many minutes of waiting in line will we stomach in order to keep a child alive? How much money would we spend to save someone we will never know? How many bullets in a clip do we really need, if fewer meant mitigating a massacre? With the mathematics of morality, our choices really are that simple.

In Rush to Protect Alleged “Bullying” Victim, We Are Really Protecting Our Own Insecurities, While Letting True Bullies Off the Hook

Last October, social media was swooning over a YouTube video showing La Crosse, Wisconsin, news anchor Jennifer Livingston responding to a private letter she had received from a viewer. The letter reprimanded Livingston for her weight and urged her, as a public figure, to address it in order “to promote a healthy lifestyle.” The full text of the letter read:

Hi Jennifer,

It’s unusual that I see your morning show, but I did so for a very short time today. I was surprised indeed to witness that your physical condition hasn’t improved for many years. Surely you don’t consider yourself a suitable example for this community’s young people, girls in particular. Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain. I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle.”

After reading the private letter on air, Livingston proceeded to use her own bully pulpit to first publicly shame the letter’s author and then went on to deliver a sermon about the social ills of bullying.

If this is bullying to Ms. Livingston, then I envy her. The bullying that I remember was stubborn and incessant, cruel and uncaring. Bereft of cause and ignorant to reason, it was solely intended to break someone down at every level – to shutter any sense of personal self-worth – to debase those things that make someone different and special. You did well on that test? Then you suck at sports and have no friends. You’ve got acne? You’re ugly. You like theatre? You’re a faggot.

In this light, by simply labeling her critic as a “bully,” Livingston stretched reason and willfully over-simplified the situation. Since when do bullies put their attacks in the context of community improvement or urge someone to be a better role model? The bullies I knew were, more often than not, mirror images of the hurtful labels they attempted to append to others. They cared less about addressing a serious societal problem; instead, they perpetuated one.

Could the letter writer’s tone have been softer and his words more thoughtful? Absolutely. But was he a true bully? No. Merely pointing out an objective truth – that each of us have habits that are deleterious to ourselves and to others and that the world would be a better place if we addressed them – is not bullying.

In the weeks following her on-air editorial, Ms. Livingston parlayed her public reproach into numerous national television appearances, including stops by The Today Show and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Meanwhile, after his name was publicly revealed on Facebook by Ms. Livingston’s husband, the author of the private letter was submitted to the type of truly malicious bullying that Livingston had sermonized against. It seems severely misguided that Ms. Livingston and her husband attempted to stop “bullying” by abetting it.

Ultimately, however, the problem with Ms. Livingston’s response wasn’t that it tacitly, if unintentionally, devalued and then facilitated true bullying, it’s that it reinforced a precedent that has disturbingly manifested itself in American culture –a precedent whereby the perpetuators of a inconvenient problem attempt to deflect the blame for it by attacking those who point out its existence.

It’s the same thing that happened when our society began to tackle another significant public health problem: smoking. Now, however, our culture’s relationship to smoking has dramatically changed. For instance, it’s not too hard to imagine that if Ms. Livingston regularly smoked on air there would have long ago been uproar over how she was promoting an unhealthy habit that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and sapped the quality of life of countless more. Sound familiar?

Ms. Livingston had an opportunity to address a troublesome, but not insurmountable issue – obesity – which she admitted has doggedly plagued her for her entire life. Instead, she deflected the problem by choosing to conflate a concerned citizen’s critique with bullying.

Just imagine how much more inspirational her editorial would have been if she had also pledged to tackle her obesity for her own good, the good of her family, and the good of her community – and then allowed the public to slowly see her measured improvements as she gradually and steadfastly progressed toward a healthier lifestyle.

Instead, when Livingston was sent a private letter, she responded with a public shaming that was wildly disproportionate to the criticism she received and ignored her own obesity – an issue which she acknowledged is incredibly important.

The public’s rush to “defend” Livingston likewise seemed to be more about ignoring our own insecurities than about protecting her sense of self-worth. By defending Livingston, we subconsciously suppose that we, too, can erect a wall around our own anxieties and thus continue to deflect a pair of inconvenient truths: Not only is America fat and getting fatter, but we’re also ignorant of that fact. And, what’s worse, this ignorance isn’t unintentional; rather, it’s wanton and deliberate: We know we’re fat, but many of us are too fearful to face it or too uneager to do anything about it. We can pull the rug over our eyes for a time, but, pretty soon, that rug’s simply not going to be big enough.

America’s Oil Boom Offers Incredible Opportunity

by Ross Pomeroy

At the height of Manifest Destiny in the mid 1850s, hundreds of thousands of Americans courageously trekked across the country’s uncharted expanse of fertile plains and pristine forests en route to California. The Gold Rush was at its peak and the promise of a new life out West was too tempting for many to ignore.

“Westward, ho!” they said back then.

Now, the saying might be “North Dakota, ho!”

With the Bakken rock formation resting below its surface, North Dakota is sitting on a gold mine… of oil. Reports estimate that 11 to 18 billion barrels of oil could be extracted from the Bakken formation.

Just a few years ago this might not have been true, but recent innovation has brought forth techniques such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling. The oil that was once out of man’s reach, locked in shale deposits buried deep underground, is now able to be harvested. According to National Public Radio:

Two years ago, America was importing about two thirds of its oil. Today, according to the Energy Information Administration, it imports less than half. And by 2017, investment bank Goldman Sachs predicts the US could be poised to pass Saudi Arabia and overtake Russia as the world’s largest oil producer.

America’s new oil boom has rapidly transformed small towns such as Williston, North Dakota. In Williston, unemployment is below 2% with as many as four thousand more jobs available. In addition, rent for small apartments is as high as $1,000 per month and wait lines at Walmart are as long as thirty minutes.

0701-fracking_full_600.jpg

Though this new oil rush is an undeniable boon for the economy, there are consequences that should be considered. Hydraulic fracturing is a relatively new beast and we have yet to fully understand the environmental ramifications of utilizing the technique. Groundwater contamination, excessive water use, and human-caused earthquakes are a few of the legitimate concerns about fracking.

But despite the aforementioned environmental worries, the American people should embrace the country’s oil boom and allow fracking to continue. However, we must accept that oil mining and production requires sensible regulations and oversight from a bolstered Environmental Protection Agency. In this “oil rush” endeavor – one that is so vital to our nation’s economy and energy security – the EPA and the oil companies can work as partners to the benefit of all.

In addition, steps must be taken to ensure that fracking is performed responsibly and efficiently in order to protect groundwater supplies. Surely we can all agree that the amount of water required to fracture a well – as much as seven million gallons – is a tad exorbitant. Well-drillers must find ways to recover and recycle this “fracking fluid” mixture. They also need to work in unison with the EPA and the scientific community to discover ways to safely frack without risking groundwater contamination.

Americans must also recognize that the current oil boom will not last forever and thus take steps to prepare for a future without oil. High fuel efficiency standards are an excellent start. This will ensure that America’s new found wealth of oil is not squandered due to wastefulness. In addition, Oil companies benefiting from the boom need to be taxed. These tax revenues should be re-invested not into subsides for clean energy technologies, but into research and development that will advance these technologies to a point where they don’t require subsidies. By pairing the oil boom with investments in research and development, we can ensure that the clean energy technologies of the future will be ready to take the mantle from the carbon-based energy technologies of today.

The United States cannot turn away from the tremendous opportunity offered by this new oil boom, but we cannot blindly “drill, baby, drill” either. Congress must put forth legislation that responsibly addresses America’s modern abundance of oil.

Ford’s View on Transportation a Refreshing Look Forward

by Ross Pomeroy

“Ive been involved with the auto industry my entire life… And for most of those years, I’ve worried about, how am I going to sell more cars and trucks? But today I worry about, what if all we do is sell more cars and trucks? What happens when the number of vehicles on the road doubles, triples, or even quadruples?”

Bill Ford, great-grandson of Henry Ford, tendered this thought-provoking notion at the beginning of his talk at TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) 2011. After musing about his childhood, college life, and early experiences working at his great-grandfather’s company, Ford focused in on a very pressing matter.

“The freedom of mobility that my great-grandfather brought to people is now being threatened.”

With the human population expected to rise from 6.8 billion now to 9 billion by mid century, a 32% increase, a planet more crowded with people won’t be the only problem humans face. According to Ford, the number of cars on worldwide roadways is projected to rise from 800 million now to 2-4 billion by 2050, potentially a 400% increase.

“This is going to create the kind of global gridlock that the world has never seen before,” Ford said.

And we’ve already witnessed gridlock. Last summer there was a seventy-four mile traffic jam in China that lasted for eleven days.

“It’s clear that the mobility model that we have today simply will not work tomorrow,” Ford contended.

So how do we prepare for this eventuality?

“The answer to more cars is simply not to have more roads,” Ford asserted.

Ford insisted that a blend of additional public transportation, better designed roadways, and a more integrated system (i.e. Hong Kong’s Octopus) are all good ways to start, but the real answer is to build a smart, interconnected transportation system where cars talk to each other.

Intelligent Transportation Systems
have been in the works for years, and the possibilities are plentiful:

  • Cars could warn you about upcoming traffic, construction, or road conditions
  • Cars could use real-time data to guide you on the best route to your destination
  • Public transportation systems could be better synced
  • You could reserve a parking spot in advance instead of searching for one upon arrival
  • After an accident, your car could immediately notify emergency services

Weeks ago, we witnessed intelligent transportation at its most rudimentary level. The closing of Interstate 405 in Los Angeles was expected to bring about “Carmageddon.” But because drivers were informed about the situation in advance, the traffic apocalypse never materialized.

Bill Ford’s vision of a smart transportation system is a refreshing look forward. It is a project of grand-scale that is worthy of government and private investment. Implementing Intelligent Transportation Systems will create jobs, decrease travel costs, reduce dependence on foreign oil, save lives, and allow us all to spend more time with our friends and family and less time stuck in traffic.

My only concern with this system is that the talking cars will probably not be as funny the ones that Pixar introduced us to…

This piece was originally posted to Real Clear Science.

End of Shuttle Program Only a Temporary Setback

By Ross Pomeroy

While space shuttle launches are often momentous occasions, my viewing of last Friday’s liftoff of Atlantis was a somewhat hollow experience because it heralded the end of an era of American spaceflight. Over forty years have passed since America won the race to space, and now it seems as though we are ceding that victory.

NASA is now focused on nurturing private companies as they construct their own space vehicles. It’s strange to see the agency that landed a man on the Moon take such a backstage role, but budgets are tight, and the current attention of Congress doesn’t seem to extend past partisan bickering.

Polls show that Americans are sad to see the end of the shuttle program. Despite the program’s estimated $200 billion cost since 1981, over 63% of Americans according to a CBS News survey say that the space shuttle program was worthwhile. In addition, 48% of those polled were “disappointed” by the end of the program versus 16% who were “pleased” (33% did not care).

For those of us who are “disappointed,” our reasons for that disappointment vary. To me, it seems that $200 billion since 1981 is a small price to pay for a program that dared us to dream and united us all. (Especially since we have spent over $1 trillion on war since 2001.)

The space shuttle program wasn’t perfect. There were mistakes and tragedies along the way. But there’s nothing easy or routine about breaking the bond of gravity and venturing boldly into the great beyond.

Thanks to the shuttle program, the private entities taking up NASA’s charge will begin with a plethora of lessons learned.  Now, it’s their time to shine – and they better… they have big shoes to fill.

It is my hope that one day, as we gaze in amazement as an American steps onto the red sands of Mars for the first time, we will look back on Friday’s final liftoff of Atlantis as only a minor setback.

This article was originally posted on Real Clear Science.

GM Salmon Debate About More Than Just Fish

By Ross Pomeroy

There has been a lot of talk about salmon recently. In case you haven’t heard, the conversation revolves around an amendment approved to the agricultural appropriations bill which prohibits funding for Food and Drug Administration approval of genetically modified salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies, a private company based in Massachusetts.

The principal concern of activists who supported the amendment was that the genetically modified salmon would escape their holding pens and interbreed with wild populations. At first glance, this seems to be a valid argument. The genetically modified salmon grow much faster than natural breeds and could potentially overtake wild populations if they make it into the ecosystem. It was largely due to this argument and the small amount of facts available when the story first broke, that I reserved judgement on this matter.

But last week, in an article by Ron Bailey, Reason weighed in.

As it happens AquaBounty’s fish are not bigger; they just grow faster. In any case, recent research [PDF] has found that genetically modified fish are actually at a selective disadvantage to wild fish. Similarly, another recent study reported that genetically modified coho salmon fared badly against wild ones when it comes to reproduction.

 

To make the risk even lower, AquaBounty salmon are sterile triploids, that is, instead of having the usual two sets of chromosomes, their fish have three sets. In addition, the company has devised a process that make essentially all of their fish females, so there are no males available to supply sperm even if the fish were fertile. Finally, the company plans to raise their biotech salmon in freshwater tanks in Panama. Panama has no salmon, and if the fish escape into the tropical waters they will die from the heat.

OK, the second paragraph does sound a little like Jurassic Park (we all know what happened there), but genetically modified salmon are not dinosaurs; and this is real life, not a movie.

As Alex Berezow, editor of Real Clear Science, wrote earlier in the week, this debate truly comes down to “votes and money.” The elected officials who co-sponsored the amendment all come from states with huge stocks of wild salmon and large fishing industries. Ideology reigned supreme.

Now some of you may be thinking, “Why should I care? What’s the big deal about a fish?”

This isn’t just about fish. This is much bigger than fish.

Over the past few years, politics and science have become more and more entwined. The blame doesn’t belong to one side or the other; activists from both ends of the partisan spectrum have infused their dogmatic political beliefs into a realm where they truly do not belong. Look at what has happened to climate change. Once thought to be consensus, the issue has now become so divisive that it’s on the same level as moral issues such as gay marriage or abortion. Climate change, like those topics, is just one of those things that you don’t bring up, unless you’re ready for a fight.

The only remedy is a return to reason. When it comes to science, ideas should reign, NOT ideology.

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

Ideas, not ideology

By Mike Steffan

There is a cavalier attitude in the way politicos approach, critique and defend ideology.  It is at once a dead horse beaten beyond its life and yet it has also been jockeyed into its own derby of worn-out political buzz words.

We, too, have mistreated this skeletal thoroughbred—using it as the basis of this blog to justify the premises of our posts.  We do so without fully considering the depth at which ideology pervades society.  But we wish to make amends.

Ideology, at its most basic level, is an attempt to explain the world.  It desires to bring order, often violently, upon an existence so vast and complex that it can be known as nothing other than chaos.  Centuries’ worth of violent war over competing ideologies gives a historical clue as to the impacts of a nation-state driven by ideology.

On another level, however, ideology has become the newest and most insidious bogeyman haunting American politics.  Politicians are quick to denounce the “ideologues” in power without looking themselves in the mirror first.  This is not to say that ideology shouldn’t be carefully purged from American politics (it should be) but rather that simple criticism falls short of what is needed to let go of ideology and its temptations.

Therefore, if ideology is indeed the festering wound that has decomposed American politics from within and from without, how do we avoid succumbing to its temptation?  I believe by letting go of the desire for truth.

What then, if not ideology?

Here’s an idea humbly submitted for your judgment: the next time you come across an idea and would like to share your own, approach ti with a radical humility.  Approach it by sharing your thoughts as nothing more than mere possibilities—not as truths only daring to be challenged.

In other words, resist the temptation of ideological “truth”-claims.  Resist the urge to be a purveyor of “truth”, and give in to the hopeful idea that here is a limit to what we can know and understand as our “truthful” existence.  I am not attempting to be barking moral orders from my ivory tower.  Rather, I want to express just how important it is to maintain humility.  (But not necessarily self-doubt)

Ideology is the opposite of hope; it is resentment par excellence, the very antagonist and breakdown of effective politics.  Radical humility, on the other hand, allows for compromise.  Not of values or morals, but of ideas that will benefit the country.

If we are to reject the current state of an American politics hell-bent on ideology and the stalemate it produces, then we must too reject the same everyday causes of gridlock: a lack of inherent value bestowed upon oppositional viewpoints because of ideological conflict.

Too long, didn’t read?

Progress isn’t always painless, and until we humbly submit our ideological worldviews to the guillotine that is political cooperation, we will just have to settle for politics as usual.

 

A Diverse Exceptionalism for a Diverse America

By Ross Pomeroy

American Exceptionalism, the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other nations, seems to be the topic du jour.  This is likely because we now have a president who doesn’t take this concept for gospel.

In the past weeks and months, I have disregarded all but a select few of the articles written about American Exceptionalism.  This is partly because I believe that the subject is being overanalyzed, but the primary reason for my indifference is because the vast majority of these articles don’t say anything unique.  Most of them simply argue that one side believes in it and upholds it, and the other doesn’t.  This absolutism is wrong.  There is not a single brand or owner of American Exceptionalism.

This point is hammered home when one considers the concept’s unique history.  A Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, a noted writer and political thinker who famously penned Democracy in America, is widely thought to have first introduced the notion of American Exceptionalism.  (That’s right, a Frenchman thought up American Exceptionalism.)  The concept, however, was widely disregarded in American culture until the 1920s, when the American Communist Party began widely using it in their campaigns and literature.  American Exceptionalism certainly appears to have a diverse upbringing.

And if its upbringing is so diverse, why not its meaning?  Why can’t American Exceptionalism mean something slightly different to everyone, as long as we all can agree that at its core, it speaks to the greatness of our country?

I think we all can believe in that.

America is a bright shining light for the rest of the world; but we must remember that it is a light that must be cared for, and sometimes replaced.  I believe in American Exceptionalism, but the brand in which I believe is not absolute.  Our nation is the finest on the planet, but we can always do better.  It is this brand of Exceptionalism that led us to suffrage for women, to rights for all workers, and to a presidential election where we finally looked beyond race.

America is not complete; it is a work in progress; there are things that we can still learn.  We must always remember that, as Americans, our most exceptional qualities are our open minds and our kind hearts.

Star Power is Coming Down to Earth

by Ross Pomeroy

I like thinking about the future – perhaps it’s the “Trekkie” in me.  I like to believe that new, revolutionary technologies are on the horizon and that I will live to see them. I’m not merely talking about the next iteration of the iPhone.  I’m talking about technologies that will take humanity to a higher plane.  Technologies that won’t simply help some of us live altered, more advanced lives, but those that will help all of us live healthy and happy lives.  All of us.

One such technology that peaks my interest and stokes my optimism is nuclear fusion – literally, the power of the stars.  It has the potential to be the ultimate energy source – estimates show that there exists about 30 million years of fusion fuel on Earth.  One gram of this fuel, a mix of two isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) and lithium (to create the tritium), produces as much electricity as ten tons of coal and creates no pollution (the byproduct is helium).  We all know what a controlled fusion reaction can do; we can see the greatest example of it in our bright blue sky.  The Sun perpetuates all life on Earth.

We also all know what an uncontrolled fusion reaction can do.  The first hydrogen bomb, named “Ivy Mike,” was detonated by the United States in 1952, creating a mushroom cloud over 100 miles in diameter, and a blast 6,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.   Needless to say, the unrivaled ability of fusion to both perpetuate and extinguish life is one of the greatest paradoxes that mankind had ever confronted.

For over fifty years, scientists have striven to control a fusion reaction with limited success.  (The most noteworthy achievement occurred in 1997, when the Joint European Torus (JET) created 16 megawatts of fusion energy in a reaction that lasted for less than a second.)  However, within the next decade, controlled fusion may be within mankind’s grasp.

A tokamak fusion reactor.

Fusion vs. Fission

Nuclear fusion is the process by which two or more atomic nuclei join together to form a larger nucleus.  Our current nuclear power plants use fission, the breaking apart of nuclei.

Unfortunately, nuclear fission creates toxic waste throughout the mining, refining, converting, enriching, and powering processes.  In addition, the uranium and plutonium used for fission are very limited resources and are highly sought after by terror groups who seek to use them to create weapons of mass destruction.

On the other hand, nuclear fusion uses two isotopes of hydrogen and fuses them together, creating helium, a free neutron, and tons of energy (much more than fission).  Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Milky Way Galaxy and helium is a harmless byproduct.

The Future

Currently, there exist two main roadblocks to creating and maintaining the fusion reaction: First, it requires immense heat (150 million degrees Celsius, to be exact), and, second, it demands a massive magnetic force, like the one found in the center of a star.

Despite these tremendous requirements, work towards fusion energy continues.  The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) is currently being built in southern France.  On target for completion in 2018, the giant plasma reactor, or “tokamak,” is intended to show the feasibility of fusion power, paving the way for fusion power plants.  The estimated $16.5 billion dollar cost of the facility is being split by the European Union, India, Japan, People’s Republic of China, Russia, South Korea and the United States.  The level of cooperation between member nations is truly inspiring.

Even more promising work is occurring in the United States.  In 2009, after twelve years of construction, the National Ignition Facility was completed in California at a cost of $3.5 billion dollars. Scientists have plans to test Laser Inertial Fusion Energy (LIFE) by the end of 2012.  The NIF believes that a successful test will pave the way for fusion power plants by 2020.

Fusion, the energy of the stars, has long resided solely in the heavens above.  But within the next twenty years, it may finally be within the grasp of mankind.

Inside the LIFE chamber.

Learn More

http://www.iter.org/

https://lasers.llnl.gov/

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S6BLFdBfgfU