Think Economically

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Maximum understanding, minimum average total cost.

News and analysis: Tampa has more than its share of poverty; Space elevator group LiftPort is back in business; Apple v. Samsung, ugh.

Republican political types are gathering in Tampa, Florida for the Republican Convention, and most people are talking about either the election, or about Hurricane Isaac. Not so many are talking about Florida’s still-depressed housing and job markets, or about the 25% poverty rate.

Part of being a society is deciding how we solve the economic problem–the problem of scarcity, and a big part of that is who gets what.

I don’t claim any particular insight into how we ought to do this: some people focus on fairness of process, and some people focus on fairness of outcome. In a broad sense, people seem to think both are important. Maybe a process is acceptable until it produces an outcome that is not, or outcomes are acceptable until it becomes clear how unfair the process is. Societies have to decide how to distribute goods; the consequences are ultimately borne by the societies as well.

So, we landed something on Mars, but it was super expensive. How could we make it cheaper? Well, in general, it’s much more expensive to provide energy over short periods of time. If we could get to space slowly, steadily, we’d be able to waste less. Enter the space elevator. After a five-year hiatus, LiftPort Group has launched a kickstarter campaign to raise funds to begin doing exploratory experiments again.

Yeah, so I can’t figure out how to embed Kickstarter video, as WordPress is apparently a little paranoid about embed codes. The link is here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/michaellaine/space-elevator-science-climb-to-the-sky-a-tethered/widget/video.html

A successful space elevator would drastically reduce the marginal cost of placing objects in space. When marginal costs get sufficiently low, you can get a “long tail” effect, where suddenly many things that would have been inconceivable due to high expense become possible. This kind of disruptive innovation has really incomprehensible implications.

In Apple v. Samsung, Apple was awarded $1.05 billion. Society faces a tradeoff between increased competition and protection of intellectual property, and in some cases, juries must decide which to favor. In this case, they sided with protection of intellectual property.

The optimistic take is that this will lead to a flourishing of innovation. I’m inclined to think it mostly means the value of patents will skyrocket, and people and firms will patent everything within sight just to make sure.

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