Ask the wonks: On asteroid mining, concealed-carry laws, and Lawrence Lessig

April 24, 2013

Last week, we asked you to submit any burning questions you had for us. This week, we try to answer. Topics include Lawrence Lessig, asteroid mining, the future religious make-up of the United States, and the effects of concealed-carry laws.

Feel free to submit more questions in comments — we'll try to do a post like this once a week or so. And don't feel the need to make them all wonky! We love giving relationship advice, for instance. 

Q: Is Lawrence Lessig right?

A: In general, yes. Specifically? I think Lessig errs in seeing money as the primary ill in American politics. I'd argue that that our worst problems are driven by the catalytic interaction of party polarization and a political system designed for consensus. That said, money in politics is a big problem, Lessig's written the very best book on the subject, and so yes, Lawrence Lessig is right, and people should listen to him. You can read my review of his book here. -- Ezra

Q: So, is it really worth it to have political parties? What are the awesome benefits the population gets from having a system in which two or more parties spend most of their time trying to defeat their opponents, instead of legislating?

A: The question, I think, is what's the alternative? Political systems without the option — either in law or in practice — for multiple political parties tend to be corrupt dictatorships. Systems where only one party is politically viable — think some big cities — often end up having corrupt and sclerotic party machines, as there's little electoral competition to keep the incumbent honest and accessible. The things a party does as part of "trying to defeat their opponents" are often really valuable!

The more viable alternative is multiparty systems. But these are, in general, less different than you might think. Multi-party systems end up featuring electoral coalitions between disparate parties. Our system features that, too, it just happens within the tents of the major political parties -- think of the union between social conservatives and business conservatives in the Republican Party, or between moderate, fiscally conservative Democrats and populist liberals in the Democratic Party.

The better question, in my view, is whether we should have a more parliamentary system, in which majorities are better able to wield power. But that's a question for another day. -- Ezra

Q: Could the economics of mining asteroids ever work? Or would a successful mining operation destroy the value of the trillion dollar platinum coin, triggering a global financial crisis?

A: In theory, asteroids are chock-full of useful metals. Planetary Resources estimates that a 30-meter-long asteroid could contain $25 billion to $50 billion worth of platinum at today's prices — or about 1 million kilograms. Not too shabby.

Of course, you have to subtract how much it costs to actually mine the space rock and bring those metals back to Earth. That's where the economics get tricky. NASA thinks it will cost $1 billion to harvest just 2 kilograms of material from an asteroid by 2021. Assuming that's all platinum, this would yield about $97,400 at today's prices. We're still a ways off from making a profit.

But let's say NASA or a private company like Planetary Resources keeps plugging away and finally figures out how to mine that 30-meter-long asteroid with 1 million kilograms of platinum and bring it all back. Here's another issue: That's about five times as much platinum as was mined on all of Earth in 2011. The market would crater and the price would collapse. Yikes. So that again changes the calculus.

Happily, none of this would matter for U.S.-issued platinum coins. Thanks to a loophole in current law, the U.S. Treasury is allowed to mint as many coins made of platinum as it wants and can assign them whatever face value it pleases. The value of the coin is independent of the value of the underlying metal. So future presidents could still mint trillion-dollar platinum coins to avoid a debt-ceiling crisis — asteroid mining or no. --Brad

Q: What if any is the correlation between passing concealed carry laws and an increase in accidental gun shootings/deaths?

A: There’s unfortunately not much research that looks specifically at accidental gun deaths and concealed carry law — and even the research on the overall effect on concealed-carry laws on crime is a hotly debated area of research.

In 2000, economist John Lott published research finding that the laws reduced homicides by 8 percent and aggravated assaults by 7 percent. Researchers at the National Academy of Sciences tried to replicate that study in 2004 — and couldn’t. They also found methodological flaws in the Lott analysis. “While the trend models show a reduction in the crime growth rate following the adoption of right-to-carry laws, these trend reductions occur long after law adoption, casting serious doubt on the proposition that the trend models estimated in the literature reflect effects of the law change,” they wrote. -- Sarah

Q: The U.S. debt is somewhere around $16.8 trillion and the GDP is around $15.1 trillion. That's a ratio of approximately 110% but we refer to it as being around 73%. How is this ratio calculated if not by dividing debt by GDP?

A: When calculating the debt-to-GDP ratio, we only count debt held by the public, or total debt minus debt held in trust funds or other government entities. The logic is that promises the government makes to itself are both easier to keep and renege on than regular debt. Debt held by the public is currently around $11.9 trillioncompared to the $16.8 trillion total debt, which accounts for the ratio disparity you mention. -- Dylan

Q: What will Congress look like in 50 years? (i.e., will a younger generation of Members lead to less gridlock?)

A: That should be 10 or 15 years after the singularity, so it will presumably be full of robots. Though I could also see the argument that that's thinking too small and it will really be full of physical projections of the intelligences we keep secured in the cloud. There'll still be a lot of gridlock, though. -- Ezra

Q: So, what will religion demographics be in America by 2050 if current trends continue?

A: Let's assume no singularity just yet. Some of the most provocative work on this topic has come from Eric Kauffman, Vegard Skirbekk, and Anne Goujon. They've argued that America's future is going to be much more religious and possibly more conservative.

Why? Two big reasons. First, non-religious people tend to have fewer children on average — about 1.5 children per woman in the United States, compared with a national average of 2.1. Second, immigration is slowly making the country more religious, with Hispanic Catholics expected to make up a larger share of the population in the next three decades.

Back in 2008, the authors published some projections (pdf) suggesting that Hispanic Catholics would grow from 10 percent to 18 percent of the population by 2043. Protestantism would steadily decline. Secularism would grow slowly but then hit a plateau by mid-century. Hindu and Muslim populations would grow from a small base (thanks to immigration and high birthrates) and Judaism would decline (blame low birthrates).

But bear in mind, demographic predictions are insanely tough, particularly when we're slicing up subgroups like this. As Megan McArdle pointed out recently, the Census Bureau has had trouble projecting the precise racial composition of D.C.'s population just a few years ahead of time. Fair warning. --Brad

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