Economics

Something New

Two things happened yesterday. More than two really, but two relative to the scope of this thousand-word blog.

The first, was that for about the five hundredth Tuesday in a row, I failed to spend any time learning Spanish as I had committed to doing 10 years ago when I said I wanted to speak three languages before I turned 40.

I presently speak one. And that’s being generous. 

The second thing that happened was that Elon Musk built an entirely electric, esthetically cool sports car and put it on a privately built rocket called Falcon Heavy, the largest rocket since the entire United States used NASA to build the Saturn V.

Then he put a fake space man in a real space suit that he also built and shot it into outer space on a trip past Mars and took a selfie of his fake space man in his real space suit in his electric sports car attached to his space ship as earth shrunk into the dark abyss of outer space while the booster rockets landed safely back on earth to be reused later.

None of this is made up.

The only thing that was fake was the man.

Ten years ago, my money would have been on me speaking Spanish before we had a fake space man in a Tesla in a solar orbit beyond the Asteroid Belt. I’d have given pretty good odds too. And I would have lost.

To be fair, Musk probably didn’t really do any of that. And certainly not all yesterday.  The multiple companies he founded did though. And for the first time in a long time, a couple of my colleagues and I gathered around a television at work yesterday to marvel at something that wasn’t the output of a java-based application or an algorithm learning through recursive self-improvement to do something better than a person that a person has done for millennia.

We were marveling at something materially present. It was mass; atoms and molecules; energy, in unbelievable quantities demolishing the boundaries of physics that anchor us to the ground, blasting something 270 feet tall with the capacity to carry 70 tons past Mars.

The Tesla Bowie’s Starman. The dashboard display, read, “Don’t Panic.”

It was spectacular.

As I write this, two cars sit in my driveway. They’ve been there for 12 hours. For most of their existence those cars have sat in that driveway. Mine sits in a parking spot at work for another 8-10 hours during weekdays.

For at about 22 out of the 24 hours in any given day, that minivan and that dirty sedan sit still. The average car in America actually sits for 23 hours a day. Mine are relatively active in comparison to the rest of the species of American automobiles.

There are a little over a billion cars in the world. Collectively they contain 2.4 trillion pounds of steel. Bumper to bumper, that’s a traffic jam that could circle the earth 100 times. Or make it to the moon and back five times.

Not much has changed in the world of cars or even transportation.

For the first time since the industrial revolution, people travel back and forth to work using the same vehicles they used 100 years earlier. The highway system that they drive on was completed three decades ago, capped out at about 47,000 miles.

For frame of reference, we laid down 170,000 miles of railroad track between 1871 and 1900 using dynamite, mules and marginally literate immigrant workers.

In America, we spend $31,000 for every new car. And we buy 17-million of them a year. And they sit, collectively 23 hours a day, 44,000 year’s worth of time, in our driveways. We’re not any better at getting around. We’re more efficient. And more tolerant of waste and trapped capacity.

Air travel isn’t much better. The most popular commercial aircraft in America, the Boeing 737 turned 50 this year. The innovations we’ve had eliminated the need for pilots and enabled us to fit more people on them. But they’re the same plane.

We haven’t been capable of supersonic passenger flight for 15 years. We figured out how to do it the year after the 737 was launched. But we’ve lost the nerve. Or forgotten how. Or both.

As for manned space flight, we can’t do that any more either. At least not beyond low earth orbit, something accomplished 57 years ago, the year Roger Maris hit 61 home runs.

In America, and in the world as a virtue of our standing as world technology dynamo of the post nuclear era, it’s been a long time since we’ve done something world changing outside of a computer or a pharmaceutical lab.

We’ve figured out how to do the same things better. We’ve figured out how to make them more profitable and more efficient; less in need of humans to make them work. But not much new.

Depending on who you ask, anywhere between 30 to 45 percent of today’s workforce will be automated within the next 30 years. Technology eliminating jobs isn’t new. I don’t know anyone who shoes a horse. But I know a lot of mechanics. Because the old industry was overtaken by the new one.

And so goes the progress of man in a world where the pie is not fixed.

Somewhere a few scrolls down beyond the picture of the fake space man in the real electric car on my Twitter feed, a tweet with a few thousand re-tweets read the following:

“This is why I hate everything about Elon Musk. Looking for a project? How about some water for Flint, MI.”

Water for Flint. Where in 1970, GM employed 80,000 of the city’s 180,000 people.

Water for Flint, where today GM employs 5,000 people.

I don’t know how we break out of this funk. I don’t know if we’ve broken the system and fixed the pie. I don’t know if the end of American prosperity comes by way of optimization of profits and efficiency instead of the murderous hordes beyond the wall.

I know that Kevin Systrom made a company, Instagram,  that sold for a billion dollars that employed 13 people. That’s a tough way to run a society.

All capital. No labor.

Someone needs to start doing something that needs people.

I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know it’s something we haven’t seen yet.

And I also know that right now, there’s an electric car with a space man floating past Mars launched by a man that could have made more money than the next 10 generations of his family could ever spend by flipping stupid software companies in Silicon Valley if he wanted to.

But he didn’t.

And that’s new.

7 replies »

  1. Elon Musk gives me hope of our longevity. Yeah, his flamethrower is a little silly but when I punched the Tesla S while in “insane” mode I was thrilled. He had to show proof of concept for the heavy and what better way to do it than launching a sports car “made by humans” into orbit around the sun and mars. Flint doesn’t need Elon Musk. Flint needs a responsible government with a conscience. Human kind needs Elon Musk to show them how to dream big. Musk’s stated goal is to assure humans are an interplanetary species. Now that is a worthy goal because that will allow for our species survival.

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  2. Respectfully, I believe the Starman is playing David Bowie’s Space Oddity on loop. It is the first art in space. It was a beautiful thing to see. It felt like hope. To see such a big dream obtainable. Musk is a true visionary.

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  3. The peculiar thing about some of the negative comments is how they remind me of the comments made about the Apollo Program. Like they’re from the same playbook. Yet few people if any made the same comment about the Vietnam War back then, or the war in Afghanistan now, in terms of ending poverty and other social ills.

    Perhaps this is significant. I don’t know.

    What I do know is that Elon Musk is my hero. Wish I were young enough to go to work for SpaceX!!!!

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  4. “The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space is a 1976 book by Gerard K. O’Neill, a road map for what the United States might do in outer space after the Apollo … The book won the 1977 Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science.”

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  5. That whole Falcon Heavy thing was just plain AWESOME. To disclaim its majesty because we still have so much other real work to accomplish is a false choice.

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  6. I also committed to learning Spanish, or at least a little of it. I’m using Duolingo to help me, because it lets me go slowly, and will nag me if I forget to practice every day. I’ve been working on it for more than a year, and I’m not close to fluent, but I now understand a lot of the Spanish language signs I encounter, so that’s something.

    I’m glad Elon Musk’s rocket worked, but only a first step and there’s so far to go. His fake man doesn’t need to breathe or eat or poop, and won’t die of radiation poisoning. Let’s use that rocket to get us to the moon again and build a moonbase! We can use that to test out a bunch of the stuff we’ll need for a Mars trip.

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