Topic: Regulatory Studies

Space Privatization—from Cato to the BBC

In the premier issue of BBC Knowledge, the Cambridge University astrophysicist Martin Rees makes several provocative arguments about manned space flight. They are:

  • The completion of the International Space Station (ISS) comes with a price tag of $50 billion, with the only profit being the cooperation with foreign partners.
  • There is no scientific, commercial, or military value in sending people to space.
  • Future expeditions to the Moon and beyond will only be politically and financially feasible if they are cut-price ventures.

He concludes that fostering good relations with other countries is insufficient justification for the expenditures, and that NASA should move aside and allow the private sector to play a role in manned space flight. The cost of these activities must lessen if they are to continue, and that will only happen with a decrease or removal of government involvement. Rees observes that only NASA deals with science, planetary exploration, and astronauts, while the private sector is allowed to exploit space commercially for things such as telecommunications. However, there is no shortage of interest in space entrepreneurship: wealthy people with a track record of commercial achievement are yearning to get involved. Rees sees space probes plastered with commercial logos in the future, just as Formula One racers are now.

Those ideas may sound radical, but not if you’ve been following the work of the Cato Institute. As long ago as 1986, Alan Pell Crawford wrote hopefully that “space commercialization … is a reality,” and looked forward to the country making progress toward a free market in space. The elimination of NASA was a recommendation in the Cato Handbook for Congress in 1999.

Edward L. Hudgins, former editor of Regulation magazine, wrote a great deal about private options in space. In 1995, he testified before the House Committee on Appropriations that the government should move out of non-defense related space activities, noting the high costs and wastefulness incurred by NASA. In 2001, Hudgins wrote “A Plea for Private Cosmonauts,” in which he  urged the United States to follow the Russians (!) in rediscovering the benefits of free markets after NASA refused to honor Dennis Tito’s request for a trip to the ISS. Hudgins testified again before the House in 2001, this time before the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. He noted that since the beginning of the Space Age, NASA has actively discouraged and barred many private space endeavors. This effectively works against the advancement and expansion of technology, while pushing out talent to foreign countries who court American scientists and researches to launch from their less-regulated facilities. In “Move Aside NASA,” Hudgins reported that neither the station nor the shuttle does much important science. This makes the price tag of $100 billion for the ISS, far above its original projected cost, unjustifiable.

Michael Gough in 1997 argued that the space “shuttle is a bust scientifically and commercially” and that both successful and unsuccessful NASA programs have crowded out private explorers, eliminating the possibility of lessening those problems. Molly K. Macauley of Resources for the Future argued in the Summer 2003 issue of Regulation that legislators and regulators had failed to take into account “the ills of price regulation, government competition, or command-and-control management” in making laws for space exploration.

We welcome the BBC and the Astronomer Royal to the cause of private, entrepreneurial exploration of the cosmos.

Hat tip to Michael Gough and Diana Lopez.

DoJ Trustbusters to Attack Google?

C|Net’s Charles Cooper reports today that Department of Justice trustbusters are considering a comprehensive antitrust attack on Google.

Sources who have provided testimony to the government say a departmental debate revolves around whether antitrust regulators should challenge Google’s proposed revenue-sharing deal with Yahoo, or go for the whole enchilada–and haul Google into court on broader charges related to its dominance in search advertising.

C|Net’s Declan McCullagh speculated earlier this week about how Google would fare under an Obama administration:

[Obama’s] technology campaign platform pledges to “reinvigorate antitrust enforcement” and “step up review of merger activity.” He complained to the American Antitrust Institute that “the current administration has what may be the weakest record of antitrust enforcement of any administration in the last half century.” If the Bush administration’s current antitrust probe of Google, coupled with this week’s apparent threat of a federal lawsuit, amounts to a “weak” record, imagine what antitrust true believers in an Obama administration might do. (A three-way split of Google into search, applications, and display ads, anyone?)

I’m not sure whether structural separation is on Google’s near-term horizon, but Washington, D.C.’s parasite economy will make its move.

New at Cato Unbound: Responsible Drug Use

What would we do without drug prohibition?  Well, we’d probably have to think for ourselves, make informed choices about drug use, and behave responsibly.  A scary thought.

But in a sense, we already have to do these things, because prohibition has completely failed at keeping illegal drugs out of American life. Making wise decisions is already important, and prohibition hasn’t changed much about the need to be informed and responsible.  Prohibition has, however, encouraged a great deal of misinformation about drugs, harmed our civil liberties, promoted violence, wrecked the usual market safeguards that apply to consumer goods, and made the most dangerous drugs more prevalent.

After admitting that “just ban them all” is not a viable answer, the next step in getting past drug prohibition is the search for sensible ways to interact with psychoactive drugs.  The real choice isn’t between prohibition and a final drug binge that wipes out America once and for all.  It’s between prohibition and individual responsibility – a responsibility that might mean saying “no,” but could sometimes mean saying “yes.”

This isn’t an easy message to sell, but two people have been trying for more than a decade, and their efforts have been extraordinary.  They are the pseudonymous authors Earth and Fire Erowid, who together maintain the Erowid.org drug information archive, the largest and most often visited drug information site on the Internet.

They are also the lead authors at Cato Unbound this month, and they’ve produced a remarkable essay criticizing drug prohibition, encouraging free inquiry, and insisting that sound drug policy begins with individual choice and individual responsibility.

No Dice, Pickens!

Last Thursday on public radio’s Marketplace Morning Report, Bob Moon interviewed billionaire T. Boone Pickens about his highly self-publicized energy plan, which centers on using wind power to replace a portion of the natural gas used to create electricity, and then using that replaced natural gas to power cars. As it happens, Pickens has invested in a big way in windmills and is extremely well placed to profit from an increase in the use of natural gas-powered vehicles. But the part that bothers me most isn’t the fact that a billionaire is running a propaganda campaign in an effort to rig the regulatory structure to force consumers to buy what he sells – though that bothers me plenty. The part that bothers me most is the mixture of toxic nationalism and egregious economic illiteracy in the ads Pickens is airing to plump for his plan. Which brings us back to Moon’s interview with Pickens:

Moon: Let me ask you to respond to something that Will Wilkinson of the Cato Institute said in a commentary on Marketplace the other day. Here’s some of his criticism of you:

Will Wilkinson clip: He’s leaning hard on our worst nationalist impulses. What he’s really saying is, why buy the things you need from dangerous foreigners when you could be paying more to buy them from rock-ribbed Americans, like T. Boone Pickens.

Pickens: It’s more than me. I mean, this is about America. This isn’t about Boone Pickens and whether Pickens’ wind farm makes money or whatever happens to it. But I mean, here with $700 billion going out of the country, and let’s say that we could cut it in half – $350 billion in the United States, can you imagine how that would multiply for jobs here. I’d much rather that gonna $350 billion was being used here than to give some for foreign oil.

Allow me to point out that Pickens’ reply is nonsense. He continues to insist on characterizing mutually-beneficial exchange across borders as hundreds of billions of American dollars “going out of the country.” But, in a nutshell, the reason Americans bought all this oil from abroad was that they had no way to get more energy bang for their energy buck. Unless the prices of domestic energy sources decline relative to that of foreign oil, shifting domestic consumption to energy from domestically-produced sources will  require Americans to pay more for energy–leaving them less for everything else.

This is not a recipe for multiplying jobs. Rather, it would leave less money in the economy to start new businesses and to expand successful ones. This is a recipe to make ordinary American consumers poorer and energy corporations, like the ones Pickens owns, richer. If Pickens was making sense, the implication would be that Americans would be better off if we “in-sourced” everything. T. Boone Pickens, meet David Ricardo.

Either one of the world’s wealthiest men doesn’t understand elementary economics, which clearly tells us that his plan will make Americans poorer, or his plan is not really “about America.”

Here’s my July 31st Marketplace commentary on Pickens. And here’s Cato’s Jerry Taylor in March debunking “energy independence.”

New European Regulation Belongs in the This-Can’t-Possibly-Be-True Category

According to the Irish Times, European Union bureaucrats in Brussels have decided that people no longer should be allowed to eat cakes, tarts, and other treats entered in baking competitions. American bureaucrats love to concoct senseless rules, but can anyone think of a regulation in the United States that matches this gem?

New EU regulations have banned the consumption of cakes and confectionary entered at country fairs and agricultural shows immediately after baking competitions.

The chairman of Mayo County Council, Cllr Joe Mellett, said the new rules were the “death knell” for the Irish agricultural show.”

When you see things like this it’s no wonder the people voted No to the Lisbon Treaty. This will be the end of the traditional baking competition at local shows across the country, therefore impacting on local revenue. It’s just ridiculous.”

Under the rules adjudicators of bakery sections in local shows are only permitted to taste the traditional favourites such as apple tarts or cheese cakes. Once the judging is over, the produce must be immediately destroyed. As a result, only bite-sized versions of the cakes will be entered in shows…

…Mr Mellett, one of the founding members of his own local agricultural show in Swinford, said he “could not believe” the latest EU directive.

“Honestly, when I saw this first I thought it was something to do with April Fools’ Day. I just couldn’t imagine someone sitting down and coming up with this rule.”