Thursday, August 19, 2004

Not So Simple

Like other groups of highly educated individuals of superior intelligence, professional scientists tend to be more liberal than the American average—a fact documented in many places, for example, the Bell Curve. Whatever their political proclivities, however, scientist are not given to yelling and hooting. Indeed, as I can testify from many years of personal experience as a technical editor, it is very, very difficult to get a scientist to make an unguarded, unqualified statement, even when the facts warrant it. These folks have grown up in a system in which nobody has a right to an opinion, and every published utterance must be vetted in advance by well-informed critics who are often professional rivals. Meanwhile, the economic situation of scientist also encourages cautious speech. Those who best know what they are talking about work for businessmen and politicians who generally don’t know very much at all. Telling the truth in an asylum run by the patients requires continuous tact and, as the man said, abeunt studia in mores, i.e. you get used to it. All of which makes the current political activism of the science establishment all the more remarkable. The most recent issue of SCIENCE (13 August) is a case in point. The issue features a special section on the hydrogen economy that Bush has promoted as a pat answer to energy and environmental problems associated with global warming. The clear message of the issue is that the hydrogen initiative is politically useful but crucially flawed.

Hydrogen power may have a role in the fairly distant future, but it is hardly a panacea. Hydrogen has to be generated by processes that require energy and produce carbon dioxide. If we make hydrogen by burning coal, we’ll have to figure out how to somehow sequester the resulting CO2 to make net progress towards carbon emissions reduction. Carbon sequestration is a monumental technical problem. And producing hydrogen promises to be a very expensive proposition. Meanwhile, hydrogen presents many other technical challenges. To mention one simple but hard to solve problem: hydrogen is very light. Storing enough hydrogen to power a car for 300 miles of operation would require a fuel tank eight times larger than a normal gas tank even if the hydrogen were pressurized to 10,000 pounds per square inch. There are other options: liquefying the hydrogen or absorbing on in carbon nanotubes or hydrides but nobody knows if these techniques are practical or affordable.

Even if the hydrogen option pans out, it isn’t rational to pursue it in lieu of other measures against the looming problem of global warming. As Donald Kennedy wrote, “Our attention is deflected from the hard, even painful measures that would be needed to slow our business-as-usual carbon trajectory. Postponing action on emissions reduction is like refusing medication for a developing infection: It guarantees that greater costs will have to be paid for.”

Note: The articles in SCIENCE aren't available on line without a subscription.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The Earliest Stages of Withdrawal

It’s a commonplace by now that the most ignorant and thoughtless segment of the electorate decides American elections, thus guaranteeing the juvenile tone of our political campaigns. One simply has to talk baby talk to babies. It also seems to be an invariable rule that the most pressing issues of the day may not be the subject of public debate in an election year. How else explain the remarkable silence that met Bush’s proposal to remove the bulk of our troops in Germany, Japan, and Korea? In itself, the Iraq imbroglio may well prove to be of marginal importance; but overturning the fundamental basis of world politics is definitely going to make the cut in the nth edition of R.R.Palmer. Indeed, what may turn out to be the most important consequence of the invasion of Iraq could well be the impetus it gave for a thoughtless and spasmodic redefinition of the foundations of American foreign policy.

In principle, I’m not unhappy with the general idea of reducing our garrisons in Europe and Asia; but I recognize, as apparently the administration does not, that much more is at stake than a cheap fix for our imperial overstretch. There are so many consequences. For example, in the short term, pulling the troops out of Germany may be a way to punish a recalcitrant ally. That seems to have been the principle rationale when the idea was first floated six months ago. Over even the middle term, however, the absence of a substantial American presence is likely to lead to a more independent and assertive Europe, exactly what sets this administration crazy. The Germans may have liked the economic benefits of the permanent occupation, but golden fetters are still fetters. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Earth, a stand down in Korea and Japan may have analogous effects. I don’t happen to be very worried about the North Koreans in this regard—they would be obliterated if they attacked the South whether or not we have a couple of extra divisions there—but the de facto lessening of American military guarantees may well lead to Japanese rearmament, not because of North Korea but because of China. I guess the administration figures it has plenty of time to adjust to this development since it would take Sony a good three months to come up with nuclear weapons. But the military consequences of withdrawal may not be the most important issue.

More by accident than design, the continued presence of American forces in Europe and Northwest Asia has worked out very well. The Americans weren’t threatening, not only because of our general benignity but because it was perceived that we were never strong enough to actually occupy or dominate Western Europe or Japan or to actively threaten the Soviets or China. That made us tolerable to our enemies who knew we wouldn’t get aggressive and welcome to our allies who benefited hugely from a geopolitical system frozen in place for forty years. Which is a large part of the reason why the industrial world has been willing to subsidize our economy. They were getting value for the money. Things are fixing to look different. We ought to be thinking about that. We ought to be thinking about a lot of things. We aren’t.

Monday, August 16, 2004

A Promising Fact

When little Portugal found a route to the Indies and therefore a source of enormous wealth, it’s leaders realized they had a problem. Their monopoly, though recognized by Spain and the Pope, was not backed up with demographic and financial strength at home. They were like a frail grandmother trying to cash a winning lottery ticket in a very bad neighborhood. As narrated in the first volume of Donald Lach’s Asia in the Making of Europe, they did a remarkable job in preserving their advantage; but the penetration of their markets by the Dutch, French, and English was inevitable because their cannonballs and pamphlets could only do so much against the more numerous cannonballs and longer pamphlets of their rivals.

The Portuguese case casts some light on the struggle over intellectual property rights, one of the great themes of contemporary economic history. The Vasco da Gamases (Vascos da Gamas?) of our time are American and European tech outfits, especially pharmaceutical firms, that are trying to extend their temporary monopoly on crucial inventions to maintain competitive advantage in the face of the disparity of size and potential power between the Western nations and Asia. The cannonball part of this program revolves around using the temporary military and political preponderance of the United States to enforce an unrealistically strong system of intellectual property rights on a mostly unwilling world. The Portuguese precedent suggests the limitations of this sort of arm-twisting. Threats and bribes produce a lot more lip service and evasion than compliance. Pamphleteering doesn’t necessarily work any better.

As with any justification of property rights, the defenders of intellectual property run up against a serious problem when they attempt to justify perpetual ownership. John Locke explained the claim of a person over his land by supposing that the proprietor mixed his labor with the land he worked, but this sweat equity rationale fails to explain why the children and grandchildren of the pioneer should maintain their rights without a further investment of effort. In the case of technological research, it makes a lot of sense that the agencies that spend the time and effort to discover and market new drugs or devices be rewarded for a time because that prospect encourages others to undertake fresh research. Why it is either right or beneficial for a firm to keep its monopoly into a second or third generation is far more problematic. Indeed, at some point, the ability to continue squeezing profits out of old discoveries results in a disincentive to innovate—why should the greyhounds keep on running if they can actually catch the rabbit?

Of course very few are promoting the notion that intellectual property rights should be perpetual. Keeping a monopoly as long as it is likely to remain profitable suffices, though the recently proposed extension of the term for copyrights, a boon for the grandchildren of novelists, shows how long that can be. In this issue, the struggle over the mores or lesses does matter, however, especially in the case of efficacious drugs where the dogged defense of intellectual property rights serves the larger purpose of keeping medical costs artificially high.

The Portuguese eventually lost; and the imperial power gradually turned into an inexpensive vacation destination; but that declension hardly harmed the world as a whole. Similarly, a rational revision of the rights of intellectual property would probably hurt the bottom line of Big Pharma, but it might well benefit most people if ways could be found to reward innovators who do an especially good job of giving away their productions once the cost of discovery has been amortized. Anyhow, rights and wrongs aside, it’s hard to see how intellectual property rights can be successfully maintained, let alone expanded, in the face of the underlying realities of power. And the 3-dimensional Xerox machine hasn’t even been invented yet.