New Horizons, Prediction Markets, and other Links

This morning, the New Horizons probe had its closest approach to Pluto.  It’s pretty cool that human ingenuity has gotten to the point where it’s possible to launch a rocket, and then 10 years later get it within a couple thousand miles of a (dwarf) planet orbiting ~6 billion kilometers away from us. But keeping with this blog’s theme, this doesn’t seem very libertarian! Isn’t this a big waste of money and resources for the government to be sending probes to Pluto?  Well, yes, obviously.

 - Public Domain Photo from NASA

This picture of Pluto cost $650M

It’s arguable that we can receive some positive externalities from government backed science research (Wonkblog, random Stanford undergrad’s honors thesis), and NASA is a pretty good representation of that.  New Horizons is part of NASA’s New Frontiers Program dedicated to exploring the Solar System (excluding Mars which is a separate program). But while there is merit to the argument that we should let the state fund science that has no practical application, I can’t shake the feeling that NASA could be spending those resources on some other areas clearly within their domain. Examples include developing a plan to thwart a catastrophic asteroid impact, permanent human colonies on Mars, making asteroid mining viable, etc. NASA says they are planning to send humans to Mars in 20ish years, but all I’m saying is that we just spent $650 million to shoot a rocket at Pluto where no human is planning to go, hopefully ever.

But hey, I’m not qualified to run the New Frontiers Program and NASA budget priorities are very complicated, so I assume they know what they are doing. Apparently they agreed 20 years ago that a Kuiper Belt exploration mission was the best thing to do, and here we are. So while I may gripe that we spent the equivalent of ~11 SpaceX Falcon 9 launches to get pictures of Pluto, the fact is that if we told the TSA their new purpose was to get people through security in <10 minutes, then halved their budget, and put half the savings towards paying down debt and half towards NASA, we could still send 3 more rockets to Pluto without issue or, we could launch over 30 Falcon 9 rockets.  NASA just isn’t the best example of the problem with big government. If you want that, just check out the Department of Defense which hasn’t been able to sustain an audit since 1995.

In other news, everyone who doesn’t know what a prediction market is should learn about them and then read about the huge potential for transforming information as we know it. I’ve learned about these markets from Professor Robin Hanson and you can find him at Overcoming Bias (also in the links list). Truthcoin is apparently an attempt to implement prediction markets through the block chain. Definitely has a lot of potential, but I’m not sure how it will work.  But the benefits are so great, I’m sure we’ll figure out the details.

Hillary Clinton has indicated her opposition to the Uber/sharing economy business model, calling the practice of using independent contractors “wage theft”. And while her aides have tried to spin it as “not having beef with Uber”, her opposition to clearly beneficial market disruption and increased flexibility in labor markets is troubling. Of course, as a presidential candidate, we wouldn’t really expect Hillary Clinton to run on any knowledge of economics, but in the meantime, I’d like to increase the political cost of espousing bad economic ideas by complaining bitterly about candidates who do it.

Whether or not you’ve been following the US Attorney’s Office ridiculous and overzealous gag order on Reason magazine to investigate internet comments (yes, really), you need to read how easy it was for federal prosecutors to do this. We can only guess how many times this has repeated itself without there being a big news story.

This episode of EconTalk with Alvin Roth (and mentioning my microecon professor Attila) was an eye-opening look at the benefits of exchange even if money isn’t present.

And on new libertarian logo? Could be ok. And also Sheldon Richman’s excellent post on incrementalism and libertarian strategy.

Worth plugging that if you like some of these links and discussion, several came from SlateStarCodex and the Rational Liberty reddit.  Definitely check them out.  There’s also a new comments system here using Discus, since comments never really worked anyway.

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  • PharLap

    As much as I’m fascinated by the New Horizons project, I am equally troubled by its commentary on the allocation of government resources. I’m not simply coming at it with a critical eye to be argumentative – I’m genuinely concerned from the perspective of a young scientist. As you said, while “[i]t’s arguable that we can receive some positive externalities from government backed science research…” it’s becoming more and more difficult to justify those expenses to the greater public – and even to our money-granting peers. Think about how this kind of argument applies to conservation research. While it may be easy for biologists to whole-heartedly embrace a need for understanding peregrine falcon hunting habits and ecology out of a transcendental respect for biodiversity, the tax-payers enabling the research might not agree. (Check out falcon history at Chimney Rock, CO in the 1970’s.) Thus, conservation funding has become notoriously competitive (synonym for nonexistent) – this despite the fact that we have arguably plunged head-first into the next major extinction event. And this is a conflict that is actually restricted to our atmosphere, rather than roughly 5 billion miles away!

    All that’s to say that I love Pluto as much as the next guy, but when the species that were the center of my undergraduate research probably won’t be around for my own children to see (, I’m a bit more concerned about what’s happening in Earth’s neighborhood.

    Since I mentioned tax-payers, I’ve got myself wondering just how NASA convinced people 20 years ago that funding a mission to Pluto was a good idea. As you pointed out, this is not as clearly within NASA’s domain as other proposed projects, unless of course NASA’s domain still encompasses playing anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better with the Cosmonauts.

    Transitioning to the Reason situation, isn’t there some element of good in this? (Or am I just playing devil’s advocate?) Particularly given the degree and frequency of violent threats against women made online, I feel as though I can breathe a tiny sigh of relief knowing that the ability to identify the source of such threats exist. (I believe I could tie in a little thing known as Gamergate here, but I don’t want to lose you to a fit of wordless frustration.) Now, this is a *tiny* sigh of relief because it only helps on the off chance that a woman feels legitimately threatened rather than just foully harassed. Based on the kind of crap guys say to girls online, whether disparaging a professional or – we can only assume – trying to woo them on dating websites, your guess is as good as mine as far as when the line indicating “legitimately” has been crossed. Keep in mind that popular exposé trend a while back where guys posed as girls on popular, reputable dating websites and were horrified by the tasteless violence that poured their way. I know this is entering the hairy territory of infringement on free speech, but let’s just suspend disbelief and pretend there’s some basal level of moral conduct operating here.

    As Reason states in the letter you linked, the publication prides itself on creating an open space that cultivates free speech – even when that means equal-opportunity receipt of mudslinging for all involved. This is a beautiful thing. Now let’s introduce bureaucracy. Given that the comments were assumed to be hyperbolic and represent zero intent, who would have shouldered the blame had someone rolled up to the judge’s office with a wood chipper? I can imagine the headlines now: Crazed Killer Posts Plan Weeks in Advance, Internet Community Does Nothing. (This has an eerily familiar ring to it…) The news would have eaten this up, and I have a feeling it wouldn’t have ended well for internet communities at large. (Mod: I swear I didn’t know! Lawyer: But didn’t he explicitly publish the exact murder plan? Mod: He did, but I didn’t think he meant it! Lawyer: You admit knowledge of premeditation, and you did nothing?! Irresponsibility abounds!)

    Coming at this from the perspective of someone working in a hospital, I can tell you this is exactly what would happen if a patient made a hyperbolic statement which was not taken seriously by his doctors and then acted on the statement. From what I gather, this is a huge factor in why medical insurance is so necessary (and so costly) for practitioners. It also contributes to the number of involuntary inpatient admissions in psychiatry. In the heat of an argument or a mental breakdown, a patient makes a statement about causing harm to himself or others. The doctor is then obliged to admit the patient, no ifs about it. There’s no “hyperbolic statement” clause. If you’re the medical professional, you must admit in this situation. Otherwise you’re responsible for the patient’s actions, no matter how hyperbolic the initial statement may have been. (Slate Star Codex wrote a fantastic piece exploring
    this issue.)

    So how does this blame game translate to the internet, where nothing you say will be taken seriously until you piss off a higher power? And at what point does the higher power get to interfere for individuals’ well-being, and at what point does it become meddling?

    • Michael Elgart

      Unfortunately, there is no positive element from the Reason situation. In this situation, not only was the target of the criticism (A) a famous and public person and (B) a government official, but (C) the threats were not what is considered “true threats”. See this post at Popehat
      As well as Popehat more generally

      The situation you describe would not have any of these factors and thus is entirely devoid of the actual reasons the US Attorney’s office deserves criticism. The government is supposed to have the investigatory and subpoena powers to look into actual criminal acts. The comments made at Reason were clearly protected political and hyberbolic statements but were treated as if they were criminal, and that’s exactly the problem.

      Next, hypothetical scenarios (“what if he DID attack the judge with a woodchipper!”) are not a sound basis for a criminal justice system. If they were, we should investigate every single person on the internet who has ever lost their temper arguing or joked about doing something to someone else. Depending on how common inside jokes are among friends that involve bodily harm (and whether you’ve played Call of Duty), this could be upwards of 90% of the population. And as to who would have shouldered the blame if someone had attacked the District Judge, I’m fairly certain the attacker would be to blame. Moreover, serial murderers and homicides by attackers who do not know the victim are not particularly common (several times more likely to be killed by suicide or car accidents). Not to say that prominent government officials are not targeted, but we take steps to protect those officials (like presidents), and we don’t waste time subpoenaing frivolous internet comments and issuing unconstitutional gag orders to media outlets.

      And we should not compare’s comment section to statements made by psych patients. They are totally different contexts, which is the whole point. And Slate Star Codex’s point in that was that many of those psych patients are totally safe and can go decades without another episode, but because we’re trying to make the rest of the world “feel safer” we keep the patients in the psych ward for a week even though it probably won’t help much. This is due to the “blame game” as you’ve aptly named it, but I think the point of that post was to show how it was not particularly rational. We should avoid adopting that same bad strategy to law enforcement, even if the NSA already has. We should push back against this bureaucratic tendency for law enforcement to cover its own ass and set up surveillance on everything or else we end up handing far too much power to federal prosecutors. And as the Reason situation shows, that power can easily go to their head.