Thursday, November 18, 2010

Matt Yglesias and Engineering

Yglesias:
The real problem with overspending on defense, by contrast, is that the defense establishment competes for people with civilian sectors of the economy. The guys who are building these cool military exoskeletons, for example, are obviously very talented. And the supply of talented engineers isn’t all that elastic. When they supply their talents to defense-related projects, the civilian economy is starved of talent.
While I admit, my cool, defense related job has starved the civilian community of my daring and copious engineering talent, I have to say that it seems very blind to assume that no engineer that works in the defense industry is making a real, quantifiable contribution to private industry. Defense research spending (or it's brother, the academically-geared NIH spending which could be lumped into a "government research spending) accounts for a huge number of genuine, beneficial innovations, both incremental and breakthrough. Part of the reason for this is because things that work really well for soldiers, like the ability to use a satellite tracking system to know their location and altitude anywhere on Earth, also happens to be really handy for boats, cars, hikers, etc. But the other part of this is that a private corporation simply can't afford to lose money on 19 out of 20 ideas. If I had gone to the CEO of my last company, a private engineering firm that specialized in designing the guts (ductwork, piping, and electrical lines) of buildings, and said to him "Duane, I've got an idea, supported by some cutting edge science, that would save 30% of the electrical bill for a building. All we need to do is set up a basic metallurgical shop and mix the following ratios of ores." I would have been laughed at.
However, if I take that same idea, packaged in a "white paper" to the Navy Research Lab or DARPA, and the idea seemed sound, they're likely as not to throw a $500k bone my way, and in a year they might have a new product, Wallerite, that has the mechanical properties of aluminum ductwork but the insulative properties of foam board insulation. In which case, the government would buy a ton of it at cost (via Bayh-Dole) and I wouldn't make a lot of money off that...but then companies like my former one would spec that super ductwork in their designs and courtesy commercialization efforts (also funded by a STTR), I might make billions. Now, for every 1 engineer that makes Wallerite and really does some good, we do get 19 engineers working on the F-35, the biggest boondoggle in military acquisition history. Nevertheless, if the government were to cut the $500k out of the Defense budget that I would need to develop Wallerite, then not only does the world (and environment) miss out on my cutting edge new ductwork material, but the national economy loses a lot of potential revenue (and tax dollars). Or, as Tony Stark says in the first Iron Man movie:
Tell me, do you plan to report on the millions we’ve saved by advancing medical technology or kept from starvation with our intellicrops? All those breakthroughs, military funding, honey.
Later in his post, Yglesias drops a weird doozy
The Manhattan Project involved a huge proportion of the world’s finest scientific minds and rightly so. But undertaking that kind of civilian to military brain drain all the time can be very harmful.
I think he's misrepresenting the Defense Budget if he blankets it under "military" brain drain.
That all said, I am in favor of cutting the Defense budget. Only, let's not cut the research budget (I admit bias), instead, let's cut back on unjustified empire-building in faraway countries where the locals despise us.


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