Saturday, February 16, 2008

Consequences with a Price Tag

Let us assume that our effort to shoot down one of our defective satellites, which will soon return to earth under the "forces of nature," is more than a pissing contest after the People's Republic of China shot down one of their own satellites in a missile test. According to a report by Jamie McIntyre of CNN, there is definitely a risk in letting our satellite fall naturally:

Pentagon officials argue the effort is worth the expense because of the slim -- but real -- chance that the satellite's unused fuel, 1,000 pounds of toxic hydrazine, could land in a populated area.

Because the super-secret spy satellite malfunctioned immediately after launch in December 2006, its fuel tank is full, and it would probably survive re-entry and disperse harmful, even potentially deadly fumes over an area the size of two football fields.

This is a risk worth taking seriously, probably more seriously than the chance that at least parts of the satellite may come down sufficiently intact that whomever finds them might learn a think or two out spy satellite technology. All this is more important than proving that anything the Chinese can do, we can do better.

The kicker in McIntyre report is that phrase, "worth the expense." This was covered by McIntyre's lead:

The attempt by the U.S. Navy to use an anti-missile missile to shoot down a potentially hazardous satellite will cost between $40 million and $60 million, Pentagon officials told CNN on Friday.

The missile alone costs almost $10 million, Lt. Gen. Carter Ham said at a Pentagon briefing. He declined to give an overall cost estimate.

This makes for quite a cautionary tale; but, in keeping with a recent theme I have been trying to develop, I am not that interested in it as a story of the capacity of our government (and its Department of Defense) for spending money as if it were going out of style (and, as we have recently seen with the recent preference for Euros, thereby pushing it out of style). Rather, I see this as a story about how little a role any "sense of reality" plays in the decisions we make, particularly when it comes to deploying new technologies, and our positively phobic attitude towards thinking about worst-case scenarios before committing to the actions we take. To try to put this in economic terms, in the "marketplace of ideas," the "currency of innovation" vastly overwhelms the "currency of risk assessment;" but, when we shift our attention from "socially-constructed currency" to any "hard values" based on resources we actually have, we need to assign a realistic price to every risk that can then contribute to assessing the "value of the innovation."

All this should serve to warrant why I am so jaundiced about all that reckless talk about innovation (particularly when it emanates from gatherings like the World Economic Forum), regarding it as the moral equivalent of Jonestown Kool-Aid. Necessity is the mother of invention, but we get so carried away by this proposition that we tend to disregard its corollaries. The first of those corollaries is that we innovate for the sake of satisfying needs, rather than for its own sake or because "it's the cool thing to do." However, this entails the second corollary, which is that an innovation is only as good as the price it entails for satisfying that need. When I accuse our government of spending money as if it were going out of style, what I mean is that we tend not to think beyond the first check we have to sign, rather than trying to evaluate how much we shall have to spend in total over how long a period of time. As a result we only begin to think about the down-side of the story when some highly undesirable consequence is staring us in the face; but at that time we discover that the horse has already been stolen from the barn.

Needless to say this is a world-view problem that goes beyond such domains as homeland security. Our avoidance of thinking about health care in terms of maintenance similarly embodies our fear of worst-case scenarios. For that matter thinking about the choices we have to make as voters also demands a sense of reality that shallow words like "hope" and "change" cannot begin to capture. Rather, they reflect our proclivity for what I have called "Secular Messianism;" and, as I have tried to demonstrate, that reflects a mind-set that is fundamentally infantile in nature. This is not to say that we can no longer grow up but that the conditions that promote growth are not there to stimulate our bodies and minds. Recently I suggested that the absence of those conditions could be attributed to "soma-induced journalism whose only task is to convince the rest of us that, as Aldous Huxley put it in Brave New World, 'Everybody's happy nowadays.'" Viewed in terms of that "war against the poor," about which I continue to warn, that journalism may be the strongest weapon being used against us; and that does not bode well for change or, for that matter, even the hope of change.

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