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325 pages, Hardcover
Published November 30, 2021
In a civilization where a belief in a Big God is effectively universal, there is a major advantage in the kind of things you can do collectively. In today's America, you can't be trusted to ride on an airliner with a nail file. How could you be trusted driving your own 1000-horsepower flying car? ... The green religion, on the other hand, instead of enhancing people's innate conscience, tends to degrade it, in a phenomenon called "licensing." People who virtue-signal by buying organic products are more likely to cheat and steal
Once I got near SFO, I had to refuel my rental car, return it to store, and drag my luggage onto the “airtrain.” This is a piece of Disneyfied transport engineering that appears to combine all the disadvantages of buses, trains, and roller coasters in one vehicle.
the long-run compound-interest effect on the economy as a whole is startling: without it our economy today would be twice the size it actually is. This is the closest we can come to measuring the effect of taking more than a million of the country’s most talented and motivated people and put them to work making arguments and filing briefs, against each other so their efforts mostly cancel out, instead of inventing, developing, and manufacturing things which could have made life better.
One of the main ill effects of regulation, at least in the United States, is a significant breakdown of the rule of law. Regulators are not elected and the regulations they promulgate are not subject to any significant check or balance. Last year Congress passed 138 laws; agencies published 2,926 new regulations. Federal courts handled about 95,000 cases; regulatory administrative courts a million. [...] Because of the all-encompassing breadth and specificity of the regulations and the clueless literality with which they are enforced, it is essentially impossible to run a productive business without breaking some of them.Later (I think in an Appendix), Hall shows a concrete example that kneecaps the flying car: detailed, unbendable regulations around side mirror requirements on passenger cars inhibit flying car development: side mirrors are super disruptive to aerodynamics. But regulators won't bend on accepting other options, like a camera-based system.
One of the more ironic regulatory pathologies that has shaped the world of general aviation is that most of the planes we fly are either 40 years old or homemade—and that we were forced into that position in the name of safety.
Nuclear power is probably the clearest case where regulation clobbered the learning curve. Innovation is strongly suppressed when you’re betting a few billion dollars on your ability to get a license to operate the plant. Besides the obvious cost increases due to direct imposition of rules, there was a major side effect of forcing the size of plants up (fewer licenses); fewer plants were built and fewer ideas tried. That also meant a greater cost for transmission (about half the total, according to my itemized bill), since plants are further from the average customer.
The Navy has over 6000 reactor-years of accident-free operation. It has built 526 reactor cores (for comparison there are 99 civilian power reactors in the US), with 86 nuclear-powered vessels in current use.Wow!
If you are a technologist working on some new, clean, abundant form of energy, I wish you all the luck in the world. But you must not labor under the illusion that should you succeed, your efforts will be justly rewarded by the gratitude of the people you have lifted from poverty and enabled to have a bright and growing future. You will be attacked, your work will be lied about by activists, demonized by ignorant journalists, and strangled by regulation. But only if it works.
[Imported automatically from my blog. Some formatting there may not have translated here.]
The disappointing answer to the book's title: still workin' on it.
But since I started reading the book a few days ago, I've kept my eye peeled for news. And it's pretty easy to find. A couple weeks ago, there was a Christopher Mims column in the WSJ: The Biggest Problem With Flying Cars Is on the Ground. (I.e., where are they going to land?)
But perhaps more sobering, from Reason's wonderful Katherine Mangu-Ward: Where's My Damn Flying Car?: An Update
Terrafugia, Inc., an MIT-born firm, has released a flight simulator for their model, the Transition. They're calling it a "roadable aircraft" because of niggling little details like the fact that you need a pilot's license to operate the vehicle. But it's a flying car. You can drive it to the airport, unfold the wings, and take off.
Only problem: that's from 2006. Terrafugia was taking deposits for delivery of the Transition in 2009. And you may have noticed: it didn't happen.
These days, Terrafugia has more modest goals: the SEEKER, "an innovative, electric, fixed-wing/VTOL hybrid aircraft designed explicitly for autonomous commercial aerial applications." Unmanned. Ho hum.
But back to the book: flying cars are only one of the areas the author, J. Storrs Hall, investigates. He's willing to believe they could happen, and considers a lot of the obvious constraints and objections: yes, flying is well within the capabilities of normal humans; yes, it's plausible there would be a robust demand for them; yes, there are no obvious technical gotchas. The big roadblocks are government over-regulation and the explosion of liability lawsuits.
But flying cars are only one example of a general problem. The concept behind nanotech was (essentially) thought up by Richard Feynman in 1959. K. Eric Drexler's 1986 book Engines of Creation (yes, I read it) told us all of the wonders just about to come… and then, meh. What happened? Hall has explanations there, too. Again, there don't seem to be any technical roadblocks, just misdirected government funding to organizations that don't seem very interested in doing anything revolutionary.
The book contains many other interesting technological wonders that could be ours, if only we'd get our act together. Some are (near-literally) blue sky. Worried about climate change? Hall doesn't mention my favorite solution, Artificial photosynthesis; instead he imagines billions of centimeter-sized diamond baloons filled with hydrogen, floating 20 miles up. They would contain mirrors that could be continually adjusted to reflect sunlight back into space: essentially a global thermostat. Cool! (Literally.)
Hall's stories are plausible and interesting. (He has an unfortunate hangup about the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, though.) And his observations sometimes overlap into mine: he likes the technologically-optimistic SF of Heinlein over the pessimistic drug-inspired dystopias of Philip K. Dick. (My own: Dick has 46 writing credits at IMDB; Heinlein has a mere 20. And a slew of those 20 are from the execrable Starship Troopers franchise.)
All in all, the book made me think about Deirdre McCloskey's insight: that the "Great Enrichment" of the past couple centuries was due to a shift in beliefs and moral norms that extended respect and dignity to commercial activity.
I can't help but wonder if what Hall calls the "Great Stagnation" is due to a similar shift in attitudes. And whether such a shift will turn into a "Great Impoverishment". It's unfortunately not implausible.