The Bread and Circuses of Space Exploration

(This is a re-write of a much earlier post of mine on Medium.)

I’m going to write something shocking here that I need to prepare you for first. Bear in mind that this comes from a total sci-fi geek – I have, at various times in my life, owned not only a toy phaser, but a tricorder and communicator to boot. I have seen every episode of Star Trek ever made (really) and love Battlestar Galactica. I can have an informed discussion about the relative merits of visions of the future embodied by the Foundation series, the Culture, or the Hegemony of Man. I love this stuff.

Yet any way I approach it, one conclusion seems inevitable: manned spaceflight is mostly a waste of resources, and we should put a stop to it. Hear me out.

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Four boring ways to regulate Big Tech

For a couple of weeks a while back, there was a brief bubble of media personalities pressing the case for “breaking up” Big Tech. In a current events cycle dominated by news of Russian hacking, institutions under siege, “fake news” and the like, the GAFA companies’ ascent to global dominance is now seen by some as a precursor to an episode of Black Mirror, rather than the sunny tech-optimistic future we all enjoyed in the mid-aughts.

But when you get into the details of what such a “breakup” might actually entail, things get murky very quickly. What would breaking up Google or Facebook actually look like? Amazon is not AT&T; Google is not Standard Oil. A breakup based on, say, geography is nonsensical on face for an internet company. Moreover, these consumer-facing companies are dominant mostly on the basis of consumer choice, not simply lock-in, like a Microsoft Windows/Internet Explorer sort of scenario. (No one uses Google Maps because Apple Maps just isn’t accessible. Google’s product is just demonstrably superior.) In any case, public support for breaking up Big Tech isn’t very high anyway.

Instead, a more practical, and probably effective, approach to protecting consumers, citizens, markets, our political system and society at large would be through plain, old, boring regulatory action, both through existing statutes and feasible new ones. Here are four possible ways to do that.

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Generational perspective

The impending arrival of our daughter has me pondering a lot of big things that anxious fathers-to-be have for ages on end. Chief among them is that I – we – have no idea what the future will hold. This has gotten me thinking about how my parents probably felt the same when they sat where we do today, and likewise, their parents before them.

I was born in 1981 when my parents, both Boomers, were in their mid-30s. I did a little digging to get a glimpse of what the world, as viewed through a consumerist lens, looked like when each of our generations of the Reeves clan came into the world.

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Postal Banking

In most of the developed world today, as well as a fair swath of middle-income and developing countries, you can walk into any government post office and after posting a letter or buying stamps, also deposit money into a savings account that is safe, secure, fully insured, and most of all, free.

“Postal banking” is a phenomenon that most Americans today don’t recognize, but in much of the world, it’s almost the definition of mundane. In the UK, Germany, Japan, South Africa, Korea, India, the Netherlands, China and France, just to name a few, the national postal system also offers basic financial services. Depending on the country, these range from no-frills savings accounts to checking and bill-paying services, to more sophisticated stuff like small loans, money transfer and forms of insurance.

Postal banking is an old idea whose utility for America has returned. We should bring it back, updated for the 21st century. It represents a big solution to two major problems Americans face today: first, and most importantly, low-income communities are seriously “underbanked.” The FDIC finds that over a quarter of Americans either have no access to the banking system or must obtain financial products outside of it (ex. payday loans). Second, the U.S. Postal Service has been teetering on the edge of crisis for years, as legal strictures imposed by Congress starve it of funds and the overall volume of mail decreases. Postal banking would go a long way to restoring its stability.

With large swaths of low-income Americans feeling shut out of the economic growth story happening in much of the country, reviving postal banking should be one part of any progressive agenda to build greater economic resilience and strengthen the social safety net.

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A year at the shelter

When we moved to NYC last year, I had a hard time adjusting to life in the big city. Soon after we got here, I discovered a homeless shelter that was reasonably easy to get to (right down the 6 off Canal Street), and began volunteering there for a few hours every week. It’s now been a little over a year since I started, and the New York Rescue Mission has become one of the two or three things besides our little apartment and work that I most associate with NYC. It’s a part of my life here now. I want to say a few things about it.

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You should be paying attention to North Carolina

Here’s something I believe that most people don’t: North Carolina is one of the most important, and certainly interesting, places in America right now.

There are certain stories and trends that the national media routinely misses because it’s so hyperfocused on what’s happening in the big coastal metros. This isn’t an “elite mainstream media” criticism – it’s just a function of where their readership is concentrated and where most of their reporters and correspondents are based. North Carolina’s evolution is one of these stories.

North Carolina has now sustained for many years one of the country’s fastest economic and population growth rates. Job growth is high, and like a lot of places, unemployment is today at a 16-year low. North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida are growing faster than anywhere East of Texas right now. In fact, throughout the East, the arc from Raleigh to Atlanta is the biggest major growth story happening. The northeast is stagnant or emptying out, the Rust Belt is hollowing, and those big western states seeing lots of growth, like Utah, Nevada and Idaho, are starting from a much smaller base. If NC, SC and GA were one state, it’d be the California of the East, and it would be growing faster than the real one.

You may have heard about how the Old North State is sort of a mess, politically speaking, right now. I’ll get to that here in a second, but for now, the important thing to remember is this: the North Carolina General Assembly as seated today does not reflect the will of the electorate. The General Assembly is currently deeply skewed by a partisan and racial gerrymander compounded by deliberate legislative action designed explicitly to disenfranchise poor and minority voters and over-represent rural whites. What’s more, these are all fairly recent developments, not legacy stuff. Here’s how it went down:

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