Monday, June 12, 2017
An internet meme was recently posted in the Facebook group March For Science, by a frustrated scientist looking for ways to counter nonsense. The meme claims that Mt. Etna has already put 10,000 times more CO2 into the atmosphere than all of the man-made emissions in history. That claim is not remotely true. Somebody just made it up, and put it on a photo of a volcano, and it has been shared thousands of times by people who don’t want to believe in science.
As readers of my blog know, I have been looking at data on global CO2 for a number of years. I recently researched natural CO2 emissions, and added those emissions to my chart of annual CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, cement manufacturing, and deforestation. Natural CO2 emissions are shown as the small purple bar at the top of the stacked-bar graph. Shown on the graph are CO2 emissions from natural gas, oil, coal, cement manufacturing, flaring, deforestation, and natural volcanism. Industrial emissions are from Boden et al, 2013, Deforestation is from Houghton, 2008, and volcanic emissions from Burton et al, 2013 and Lee et al, 2016.
Measurement of Volcanic CO2 Emissions
Measurement of CO2 emissions from volcanos is accomplished by surface observations, aerial surveys (including manned flights and drones), satellite observations and soil-gas surveys. A variety of methods are used, as described by Burton (2013). Direct measurements of CO2 concentrations are supplemented by measurements of SO2 or tracer gases, when the relative concentrations of CO2 and the other gases is accurately known. This process allows greater precision in CO2 determinations.
Volcanic sources of CO2 include eruptive events, point-source passive degassing from active volcanoes, diffuse emissions from active volcanoes, emissions from tectonic, hydrothermal, or inactive volcanic areas, volcanic lakes, and mid-oceanic ridges. Eruptive events are popularly believed to contribute greatly to atmospheric CO2, but in fact, these events are completely trivial.
Volumes of Volcanic CO2 Emissions from Eruptive Events
The largest eruptive event of the past 100 years was the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in Indonesia in 1991. That eruption was estimated to have released 50 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere (Gerlach et al. 2011, cited by Burton). The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo released only one-ten of one percent of the man-made CO2 emissions of 37 gigatonnes in the single year of 2009.
The volume of CO2 emitted by the four largest eruptions of the past 200 years is about 600 Mt of CO2, based on volumes of ejecta and the CO2 content of magma (Burton, 2013). An earlier estimate of the average volume of all eruptions of the past 300 years gives an annual CO2 volume of only about 1 Mt per year (Crisp, 1984, cited by Burton).
Total Volumes of Volcanic CO2 Emissions
Estimates of natural CO2 emissions have increased markedly over the past 25 years, from about 70 million tonnes per year to about 700 million tonnes per year. Newer work has recognized passive and diffuse CO2 emissions from inactive volcanoes and tectonically active terranes, and measured emissions from these sources. The current best estimate is 708 million tonnes per year, after adding in estimates for emissions from mid-oceanic ridges and the East African rift (Lee et al, 2016). By comparison, man-made emissions of CO2 (including deforestation) were about 37 gigatonnes (37,000 million tonnes) in 2009.
The Carbon Cycle
Natural processes which add and subtract CO2 from the atmosphere and oceans necessarily become balanced over geologic time. Natural processes which add CO2 include eruptive volcanism, passive volcanic emissions, diffuse volcanic sources, volcanic lakes, mid-oceanic rifts, onshore rifts and metamorphism of carbonate rocks. Natural processes which remove CO2 include the formation of limestone, by biologic and chemical processes, weathering of silicate rocks, deposition of land plants in bogs forming coal, and deposition of algae in anoxic marine environments, forming black shales. There is debate about the importance of tectonic subduction in permanently removing carbon from surface environments, and the volumes of carbon which might be permanently removed by that process. Although some of these processes are not well quantified, the volumes proposed are typically in the range of hundreds of million tonnes, far less than the gigatonnes of man-made carbon emissons.
Volcanic processes add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but far less than human activities. Eruptive events, such as the frequent eruptions at Mt. Etna in Italy, or the giant 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in Indonesia, add a surprisingly trivial amount of carbon to the atmosphere. On average, all modern eruptive volcanic events add an average of 1 to 3 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere each year. By contrast, quiet, passive outgassing and diffuse volcanic sources add about 540 million tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere each year. Mid-oceanic ridges and the East African rift add approximately 160 million tonnes more CO2. In all, volcanic sources add about 1.9% of the CO2 emissions from human sources, including deforestation.
Since this investigation began with an Internet meme, I decided to make my own, with a quantitative truthful statement and scientific references. Here it is.
Boden, et al, 2013, Global and National Fossil-fuel CO2 Emissions, in Global Carbon Atlas
Burton et al, 2013, Deep Carbon Emissions from Volcanoes
Discussion of CO2 flux from subaerial volcanic eruptions on page 332.
Total CO2 flux from volcanic sources: 637 mT per year, p. 341, table 6.
The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 was the largest volcanic eruption since 1912. That eruption produced ~50 Mt of CO2 (Gerlach et al. 2011). Individual eruptions are dwarfed by the time-averaged continuous CO2 emissions from global volcanism. The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo was equivalent to only 5 weeks of global subaerial volcanic emissions.
The average volume of eruptive CO2 emissions over the past 300 years was only 0.1 cubic kilometers, which suggests an annual rate of about 1 million tonnes of CO2 annually (Crisp, 1984, cited in Burton).
CO2 consumption from continental silicate weathering was 515 Mt/yr, (Gaillardet et al., 1999, cited in Burton).
Metamorphism accounts for the release of about 300 million tonnes of CO2 annually. (Mörner and Etiope, 2002, Carbon degassing from the lithosphere. Global Planet Change 33:185-203, cited in Burton).
Lee et al, 2016, Massive and prolonged deep carbon emissions associated with continental rifting, Nature Geoscience Letters, Jan.18, 2016.
Paper accounts for additional CO2 emissions from East African Rift, potentially bringing natural world CO2 emissions to 708 mT, an increase of 11% from previous estimates.
Houghton, R.A. 2008. Carbon Flux to the Atmosphere from Land-Use Changes: 1850-2005. In TRENDS: A Compendium of Data on Global Change. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A.
Marland, G., T.A. Boden, and R.J. Andres. 2008. Global, Regional, and National Fossil Fuel CO2 Emissions. In Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn., U.S.A.
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Psyche is a special asteroid. It is the crown jewel of the Solar System, the literal heart of the asteroid belt. Psyche is the only known pure iron-nickel asteroid, presumably the core of a former planet, ancestor to many of the asteroids. Without question, Psyche is the largest source of workable metal in space, and is therefore the key to mankind’s future expansion in space. The world’s space agencies should recognize the unique potential of this asteroid, and expect competition between nations and companies for this critical resource. Action by the UN may be necessary to establish rules for fair sharing of the resources on Psyche.
Iron from Psyche may be essential to constructing an artificial magnetosphere over Mars. An artificial magnetic field is believed necessary to re-establish the Martian atmosphere, liquid water, and warmth to make Mars suitable for human habitation.
Artist's conception of Psyche, with orbiter spacecraft.
Image Credit NASA
The Heart of the Asteroid Belt
The asteroid belt lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, at a distance from the sun of 2.2 to 3.2 astronomical units (au), where an astronomical unit is the distance of the earth from the sun. The belt is actually a set of three belts of objects, with narrow divisions between them. Asteroids are widely spaced, at an average distance of about 600,000 miles, or about 2.4 times the distance from the earth to the moon. Scenes of densely clustered colliding rocks in science fiction movies are not accurate depictions of an asteroid belt, at least in our solar system. (But we have not yet been to the Hoth system of the Star Wars universe.) Evidence from meteorites suggests that asteroids are the remnants of one or more proto-planets formed in the earliest days of the solar system. The planet which originally contained Psyche broke apart for unknown reasons, perhaps due to a collision with another planetary body. Jupiter’s gravity plays a role in keeping the asteroids from re-assembling into a planet.
Image Credit: Karl Tate, Space.com
Formation of an Iron-Nickel Core
The meteorites we find on earth are a rock collection telling the story of the solar system. Many meteors were thrown into space by collisions between comets, asteroids, and planets. After untold years circling the sun some of them fall to earth. Scientists have found meteorites from the moon and from Mars. Some meteorites are composed of the primordial material of the solar system, and some represent a cross-section through a planet like earth. There are meteorites which contain the common minerals which compose the earth’s mantle -- olivine and pyroxene. Then, there are other meteorites which are made of iron and nickel, the materials which compose the earth’s core. In the early days of geology, the composition of meteorites was a strong hint to geologists about the structure and mineral composition of the deep earth.
A rocky planet is formed by the agglomeration of debris in space, through mutual gravitational attraction. As the adolescent planet grows through accretion, the falling debris add heat, producing a partially or completely molten planet. The abundant heavy metals, iron and nickel, coalesce in droplets and sink to the center, forming the metallic core. The differentiation of a planet into the rocky mantle and metallic core implies a melting history, and enough mass for gravitational separation of iron and nickel.
3D Model of Psyche
Image Credit: Josef Ďurech, Vojtěch Sidorin, Astronomical Institute of the Charles University
Iron-Nickel meteorites give us our only direct look at a planetary core. These meteorites originated from the disintegration of early planets, or from the object which collided with earth to produce the earth’s moon. These meteorites are predominantly iron, alloyed with 5% to 25% nickel. The typical mineral texture is octahedrite, which is a laminated composite of iron/nickel alloys kamacite and taenite. The laminated structure forms by exsolution of the alloys during crystallization, and is known as the Widmanstatten pattern. The pattern is quite beautiful, and individual crystals are often several centimeters to tens of centimeters in size. Widmanstatten pattern in iron-nickel crystals grow slowly, and such crystal sizes imply slow cooling (millions of years) within a planetary body of considerable size.
Octahedrite, with Widmanstatten texture
The asteroid Psyche is the only known asteroid with the reflective properties (albedo) and density of iron-nickel. The density of Psyche is estimated according to its size and gravitational influence on neighboring asteroids.
The mean diameter of Psyche is about 180 to 200 km, with a mass of 2.3 x 1019 kg, or 23,000,000 billion metric tonnes. That’s a lot of iron.
The mean diameter of Psyche is about 180 to 200 km, with a mass of 2.3 x 1019 kg, or 23,000,000 billion metric tonnes. That’s a lot of iron.
The name Psyche is drawn from Greek mythology, for a mortal woman who married Cupid (Eros) and was granted immortality. The asteroid Psyche was the sixteenth asteroid to be given a symbol, and is therefore sometimes known as 16-Psyche. The symbol is an inverted semicircle, representing a butterfly wing (a symbol of innocence from Renaissance paintings), with a star above it. [in this post I have dropped the irrelevant “16” in the asteroid name.]
Costs to Earth Orbit
The cost to launch material from earth to space is high. Using the United States’ space shuttle, the cost to launch one kilogram to low earth orbit (LEO) was $22,000. When the fleet of space shuttles was retired following two disasters, the cost rose to $33,000/kg. Costs are now falling rapidly, thanks to intense innovation and competition from private companies, such as SpaceX and Blue Origin. SpaceX’s newest Falcon 9 will launch payloads to LEO for $4100/kg, and the planned Falcon Heavy rocket will bring costs down to $2200/kg. Higher orbits are necessarily more expensive, typically double the cost of low earth orbit.
The International Space Station has a mass of 419,455. Most of the station was built during the time that costs were greater than $20,000 per kg. If we were to rebuild the station, using the expected costs of the Falcon Heavy rocket, the costs of launching the material would be just under one billion dollars. But suppose we wanted to build something big? Let's take a large cruise ship, capable of carrying 1000 passengers, as an example. The Crystal Serenity has a mass of 68,870 gross tons, or 62.6 million kilograms. The cost to launch the material to rebuild the Serenity in orbit would be about 138 billion dollars. Just think how much cheaper and easier it would be if the material to build things was already in space!
In short, launching stuff from earth to space is insanely expensive. To build anything large in space, we must make use of materials that are already in space, and preferably already smelted by nature into metal. In short, we need Psyche.
Image Credit: Greybox.com
What We Will Do
Novelist Neal Stephenson wrote a detailed description of what could be done with a metallic planetary core in his novel “Seven Eves”. In Stephenson’s novel, the moon has improbably disintegrated, providing the metallic core which will give humankind (or rather, womankind) the means to build a society in space. Setting aside the improbability of Stephenson’s plot, his account gives a clear idea of the value of the asteroid Psyche.
Cheap, abundant energy is necessary for exploitation of Psyche. Today’s technical options would be a nuclear fission reactor or giant solar panels. It is possible that fusion technology may be available in time to provide energy for the project.
Initially, Psyche will be mined. Pieces small enough to be moved will be cut from the asteroid, and sent into lower solar orbit. The orbital velocity of Psyche is about 17 km/sec. I admit that I don’t know the delta V or energy required to drop a ton of iron from Psyche to earth’s orbit, but I believe it is possible. A magnetic accelerator or rail gun could launch the packets of iron from the asteroid, adjusting the orbit to deliver the packets toward earth. A nuclear reactor (or perhaps fusion reactor) would provide electricity for the rail gun. Energy could be stored in a large capacitor or set of capacitors until needed for launch. Conditions are perfect for building such a capacitor – there is vacuum and lots of iron. At the receiving end, the packets of iron would be captured using a gravitational assist from the earth and moon, and set into an orbit for construction purposes.
Subsequently, the interior of the asteroid will then become a place of habitation, perhaps the first sustaining human colony in space. The exterior of the asteroid will shield the colony from radiation, and spinning the asteroid can provide artificial gravity, thus solving two of the most damaging aspects of long-term survival in space. In the long term, the capture of a comet or ice-bearing asteroid would give the colony much of the physical material necessary for sustainability.
NASA is now planning a mission to Psyche. The spacecraft will be an unmanned probe that will orbit Psyche. Instrumentation planned for the probe appears fairly basic, providing for imaging and basic mineralogic identification, including ice, if it exists. Propulsion would be by a relatively low-power solar-electric engine, probably an ion-drive. NASA says that the probe will be launched in 2023, and will not arrive at Psyche until 2030 (although there is a 2-year discrepancy in the indicated transit time and arrival date in the official announcement).
International law governing the commercial use of asteroids was established in 1967, in the Outer Space Treaty signed by 98 nations. Three updates to the treaty were signed in the late 1960s and 1970s. The treaty prohibits any territorial claims, but allows mineral extraction. Of course, the treaty does not address how programs competing for the same resources would be adjudicated, or how interference between programs would be resolved. It is likely that primacy would be an important factor in any dispute over access to Psyche’s resources.
At least three well-funded companies and a government-led effort in Luxembourg are specifically interested in asteroid mining. In addition, there are a number of private companies developing technologies and actively seeking profit in space. These companies must surely be considering plans for the exploration and development of the resources on Psyche.
In my opinion, NASA’s schedule for the mission to Psyche is far too slow. I am not the only person to realize that Psyche represents a unique commercial opportunity, and development opportunity for mankind. If NASA continues on the proposed schedule, they may be late to the party. NASA may find that private companies and foreign governments have already placed their flags on Psyche. These other parties may be well ahead of the United States in developing plans for the exploitation of the asteroid.
Within the past year, NASA’s MAVEN Mars orbiter proved that the solar wind stripped away Mars’ atmosphere, leading to the frozen world that exists today. In Mars’ earliest history, it had a magnetic field that protected the atmosphere from the solar wind, as earth’s magnetic field now protects earth’s atmosphere. That magnetic field died long ago. When the atmosphere was blown away, the temperature plummeted, the water froze, and the planet became a frozen, barren world.
Scientists at NASA recently proposed an audacious plan for restoring atmosphere, warmth and water to Mars. Scientist Jim Green proposed putting an artificial magnet in between Mars and the Sun, stationed permanently at the L1 (LaGrange 1) position, where gravity from the Sun and Mars are perfectly balanced. A magnetic field large enough and strong enough would shield the planet, allowing the atmosphere to naturally recover. Initially, atmosphere would accumulate from volcanic emissions. After some atmosphere had accumulated, the Martian icecaps would sublimate and melt, releasing carbon dioxide and water. Atmospheric pressure is expected to recover to about half of the pressure of earth’s atmosphere at sea level (equivalent to about 15,000’ of elevation on earth). The scientists believe that Mars’ atmosphere and liquid water could be restored within 100 years. Converting CO2 to breathable oxygen would take somewhat longer.
Image Credit: NASA
You would need a lot of conductive metal, and a magnetic core….
Clearly, the asteroid Psyche could be essential to the idea of terraforming Mars by building an artificial magnetosphere. Psyche is the only readily available source of sufficient metal to build such a magnet. Which gives even more urgency to the exploration of Psyche, the crown jewel of the Solar System.
NASA Psyche Mission
A FUTURE MARS ENVIRONMENT FOR SCIENCE AND EXPLORATION. J. L. Green1, J. Hollingsworth2, D. Brain3, V. Airapetian4, A. Glocer4, A. Pulkkinen4, C. Dong5 and R. Bamford6 (1NASA HQ, 2ARC, 3U of Colorado, 4GSFC, 5Princeton University, 6Rutherford Appleton Laboratory)
Planetary Resources. Company is financed by a bevy of billionaires. Backers include Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, Ross Perot, James Cameron, Charles Simonyi and K Ram Shiram.
Kepler Energy and Space Engineering
Science Fiction Inspiration
Neal Stephenson, 2015, SevenEves, 880p.
Stephenson's plot involves survivors of global disaster building a sustaining colony in a metallic planetary core.
Robert Heinlein, 1966, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, 382p.
Heinlein uses magnetic accelerators to launch cargo capsules from the Moon to the Earth.
Harold Goodwin, 1952, Rip Foster Rides the Grey Planet, 250p.
A cold-war youth novel about international struggle for control of a unique asteroid made of Thorium.
And here are a couple more space art images, because they are cool.
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Note: I have discovered that some of my numbers in this post are in error. I will fix it as soon as I can. My apologies, Doug
The total economic productivity of the United States in 2015 was 18 trillion dollars. Of this total, $7.7 trillion was paid to workers as wages. The remaining 10.3 trillion accrued to owners of capital. Although Federal taxes are paid in several forms, the total tax burden on wages is 25 percent, while Federal taxes paid on capital returns is only 12.5 percent, half of the rate paid by wage-earners.
Wages and Return on Capital
Economic productivity can be divided into the contributions of Labor and Capital. More accurately, Labor and Capital, working together, both contribute to productivity. Labor requires Capital to be productive, and Capital requires Labor to be productive. But the benefits of productivity are divided – Labor and Capital are allocated different shares in terms of earnings, and carry away different piles of money. The shares allocated to Labor and Capital are largely determined by actions of the free market, modified somewhat by regulations such as the minimum wage law. But taxes on earnings of Labor and Capital are entirely arbitrary, determined by the complex rules of the Federal tax law.
The United States produced about 18 trillion dollars of income in 2015. The measure, Gross Domestic Income (GDI), is roughly equivalent to Gross Domestic Product, (GDP). Wages and salaries comprised 42.9 percent of GDI, or $7.7 trillion (source: Federal Reserve Database). Capital returns represent the remainder, or about $10.3 trillion. It should be noted that capital returns do not include unrealized capital gains.
Labor’s share of Gross Domestic Income has fallen from 51% in 1970 to about 43% today.
Gross Domestic Income ($MM)
Federal taxation is complex. Wages are subject to individual income taxes and payroll (social insurance) taxes. Wage earners also pay most excise taxes, such as tobacco, alcohol, gasoline and health insurance taxes.
Capital Returns are taxed as corporate income taxes, and taxed again as individual income taxes on dividends, interest, and capital gains when returns are distributed. Corporations also pay a share of payroll taxes equal to employee contributions, and pay a variety of Federal taxes and rents such as mineral royalties.
In 2015, the Federal Government collected 3.25 trillion dollars in taxes, out of 18 trillion dollars in GDI, for a total Federal take of 18 percent. Of those taxes, about 2 trillion dollars were paid out of wages and salaries, and 1.3 trillion dollars were paid out of capital returns.
Taxes on Wages and Salaries, millions of dollars
Individual Income Taxes
Payroll (Social Insurance) Tax
Taxes on Capital Returns, millions of dollars
Corporate Income Tax
Corporate Payroll Tax
Capital Gains Tax
Dividends & Interest Tax
The Federal Government taxes Capital Returns at 12.5 percent of earnings, on a 57 percent share of GDI, collecting a total of 1.29 trillion dollars.
By contrast, the Federal Government taxes Wages and Salaries at double the rate of Capital Returns. The government taxes Wages and Salaries at 25.2 percent of earnings, on a 43 percent share of GDI, collecting a total of 1.96 trillion dollars.
Individual workers are receiving a smaller share of the nation’s productivity than owners of capital. Moreover, Wages and Salaries are taxed at double the rate of Capital Returns. This disproportional taxation doesn’t seem fair, or in the best interest of the economy. The distribution of earnings to working-class households is more likely to see those dollars recycled into consumer demand than dollars distributed as investment earnings. In the interest of economic fairness, economic efficiency, and the reduction of wealth inequality, it makes sense to raise taxes on capital returns, and give tax relief to wage-earners.
Note: This study did not include unrealized capital gains, which allow the owners of capital to roll-over gains from year to year without paying tax. So, the effective tax rate paid on capital returns is actually less than reported in this post. Taxes on unrealized gains are effectively never paid if the underlying assets are never sold, unless taxed at death by the estate tax. I have not yet figured out a clear way to calculate (or efficiently tax) unrealized capital gains.
Calculations and Assumptions
Income (Federal Reserve Database)
Income attributed to Wages includes 42.9 % of Gross Domestic Income,
Income attributed to Capital is GDI minus income attributable to wages.
Taxes (Tax Policy Center and JustFacts.com)
Taxes attributed to Wages include:
- All individual income taxes, minus 9.2 % for capital gains, and 4.75% for dividends and Interest.
- Employee payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare)
- Federal excise taxes (alcohol, tobacco, fuel and health insurance).
Taxes attributed to Capital Returns include:
- Business income taxes
- Corporate payroll taxes
- Individual capital gains taxes
- Individual dividends and interest taxes
- “Other” taxes, representing diverse sources such as mineral royalty payments
- The 2016 component percentages of individual taxes (wages, capital gains, dividends and interest) were assumed to apply to 2015 taxes.
- The percentage of taxes paid on capital gains was applied to dividends and interest.
- Federal Excise taxes were entirely allocated to Wages.
Federal Tax Receipts by Source, 1934 – 2021 (forecast from 2016)
“* In 2015, 9.2% of federal individual income tax receipts came from capital gain taxes.”
“* For 2016, the Joint Committee on Taxation projects that 6.2% of gross income earned by individuals will come from capital gains, 2.2% from dividends, and 1.0% from interest income.”
Tables on Gross Domestic Income, and Wages and Salary share of GDI.
Thursday, March 9, 2017
In my early days as a middle manager, senior management challenged middle managers to answer the question: “Are employees an asset or a cost?” The answer, from the point of view of the corporation, became evident over the next two decades. Employees cost money. The company “downsized”, reducing employment by about 70%, while maintaining roughly the same production volumes. Efficiency was vastly improved by capital investments and technology, but the burden of providing employment to the down-sized employees was shifted to government, to other businesses, and to the employees and their families.
Both political parties are concerned about jobs – about the number, quality, and pay of jobs in America. Republicans also want to decrease corporate tax rates, to improve the competitiveness of American companies in global markets. It seems to me that all of these goals can be achieved by enacting a tax benefit that is based on the number of good jobs that a company provides to its employees.
Bill Gates proposes taxing robots that take away jobs from humans. This is incomplete, because there are many aspects of technology and capital which eliminate human jobs. Rather than taxing robots, it makes sense to do the converse – to offer tax benefits to companies that provide human jobs.
The tax break should be significant, and help compensate for the extra costs that a company incurs in providing benefits to an employee.
Robots and the Cost of Human Employees
Bill Gates thinks robots should pay taxes. Donald Trump thinks everybody should have access to a high-paying job. These are two facets of the same problem in the modern economy. Let’s look at how we could make that happen.
Bill Gates proposed taxing robots in a recent interview with the on-line news site Quartz. Gates’ logic is clear: if a robot replaces a worker who is paying Social Security, Medicare, and Income taxes, the robot should be responsible for paying equivalent taxes. It should be noted that the employer is partly responsible for paying payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare. When a business replaces an employee with a robot, the business saves money by not paying payroll taxes, health insurance and many other mandatory employee benefits. There may not be any intrinsic efficiency of automation – the advantage lies simply in shirking the social responsibility of taking care of working citizens.
Our laws require businesses to share the social costs of taking care of people. Businesses must provide health insurance to employees, must pay into Medicare and Social Security funds for workers’ retirement care, and usually provide retirement savings plans and other benefits. We have structured society to care for people in this way for nearly 100 years. Some economists argue that we need to break that tie between employment and social care, in order to allow business to operate more efficiently, and to value labor strictly on the basis of productivity. This is one of the arguments for adopting a government-run, “single-payer” health system. But even if the country adopted this health system, the issue of other employee benefits would remain.
It is not an even playing field, and the robot is given a huge advantage in this competition.
One of my friends pointed out that taxes are providing for the needs of workers, and that robots don’t have those needs. However, the needs of the displaced workers have not gone away – the responsibility of providing for those needs has been shifted – to another company, to the government, or to the individuals themselves.
Capital and Technology
Fortune magazine critiqued Gates’ proposal to tax robots, saying: “The principle Gates proposes would seem to require taxing any technology that eliminates human labor, presumably starting with the wheel.” Well, yes. That is exactly what is needed. Fortune says further “To tax the robot’s owner as a human earning $50,000 would in effect make efficiency illegal.” No, that is ridiculous. To be adopted, any technology must provide more efficiency than providing benefits to the human employee.
In Gates’ vision, robots are discrete, individual replacements for human workers. But that’s not how it happens (as Gates should know very well). Technology, in many forms, makes workers redundant or irrelevant through incremental efficiencies. During my 26-year career, secretaries were made obsolete when managers were given desk-top computers to do their own correspondence. Accountants were made obsolete by enterprise-wide accounting software. Draftsmen were made obsolete when geologists could produce presentation-quality color maps directly from seismic workstations. In the beginning of my career, geologists made maps by hand, with colored pencils on paper. But with a workstation, a single geologist can do the work of five or ten geologists working with paper, and do the work with greater depth. My career was marked by company layoffs about every 3 or 4 years. By the end of my career, the company was producing as much oil as when I started, with about one-third of the employees. And all without a single robot.
The simple way to look at the process of job losses is that capital investment, enabled by technology, replaces workers. This represents all kinds of automation, including robots.
Capital investment can create jobs – in fact, it is necessary to create jobs. Capital investment can also destroy jobs. There is a paradigm belief that technology always develops new jobs to replace the jobs it eliminates. The paradigm is usually expressed with a reference to buggy-whip manufacturing jobs. Certainly, in the past, new jobs have eventually developed. But the cycle time to develop new jobs is getting longer as technology becomes more sophisticated. There is no guarantee that the new jobs will be timely enough for displaced workers, or that the displaced workers can develop the skills necessary for the new jobs, or that the new jobs will be located where displaced workers can find work, or that new jobs will earn as much as the old jobs. The decline of the Rust Belt manufacturing centers gives ample evidence that new jobs do not necessarily appear.
Corporate Income Taxes and Employment
Here are a few real numbers which give a sense of labor market complexity and the costs to employ a human instead of a robot.
In 2015, American workers earned the following wages. The median wage (50% of wages lower, and 50% of wages higher) is lower than the average, because the average wage is pulled higher by a small number of very high wages. The median is therefore more representative of typical wages. The cost for employers to provide benefits to full-time employees averages about $10.70/hour, adding about 45% to the cost of the average employee. In the table below, I assumed that Annual Benefit Costs are linear with hourly wages; this may not be correct. The figure for Annual Benefit Costs for Average Wages is correct.
Annual Benefits Cost
2015 Profits, Employees and Taxes for Selected Companies
Sorted by Net Profit per Employee
There is a wide diversity in labor-intensity of American companies. The financial firm Goldman Sachs earns over one million dollars per employee, whereas Wal-Mart earns only $6,000 per employee. The corporate income tax paid per employee varies widely as well.
The Employers’ Tax Break
How should we encourage capital investment which produces high-paying jobs? I suggest giving companies a tax break for every good job they provide for society. The tax break should be at least sufficient to level the playing field between automation and human employees. The tax break should compensate companies for some of the costs related to human employment – health insurance costs, social security contributions, retirement plans and human resources administration. Because robots shouldn’t have an inherent advantage when it comes to a company’s decision to invest in automation.
Employers should be encouraged to pay employees a living wage. As President Trump says, every American deserves a chance at a high-paying job. A proactive tax policy would help that happen. I would suggest minimum tax benefits for minimum wages. We should set the threshold for the significant tax benefit well above minimum wage, perhaps 150% of minimum wage. This is close to the threshold established for insurance benefits under Obamacare, which is 138% of the Federal Poverty Level.
In a way, companies hiring workers for minimum-wage jobs are already receiving a corporate subsidy, through government welfare programs, Medicaid, and other assistance for the poor. The costs of providing for the well-being of these employees is being shirked by the company and borne by other taxpayers. (Thanks to my son for that insight.)
It is not possible to give companies enough income tax credits to fully compensate for the cost of benefits to employees. American companies employ about 123,000,000 full-time employees. The average cost of benefits per employee is about $15,000, for a total cost of a little more than two trillion dollars. By contrast, in 2015, American companies paid only 344 billion dollars in income tax.
A tiered system of tax relief would provide an incentive to companies that provide good-paying jobs. Companies with a large number of low-paying jobs cannot be compensated more than they are paying in taxes through tax relief; and we are not trying to give incentive for low-paying jobs anyway. As a starting point, I would suggest $1000 of tax relief for every job less than $15.00/hour, $2,000 of tax relief for each job between $17/hour and $17.50/hour, and $4,000 of tax relief for every job with greater than $17.50/hour.
Tax Cost, millions
Number of Jobs <$15/hr.
Number of Jobs $15 - $17.50
Number of Jobs > $17.50
The total tax cost of the program would be about equal to the current total business income tax collected.
A major theme of the Trump presidency is to improve American jobs – to give every American the chance for a high-paying job. The Trump administration is proposing to reduce corporate tax rates to improve the competitiveness of American businesses in the global market and enhance shareholder value. It seems to me that both goals could be accomplished by changing the tax rates on businesses that provide good jobs, in comparison to those companies that replace human jobs with technology and capital. In fact, any combination of taxes or tax breaks could accomplish the same goal, by making the number of full-time jobs and the quality of those jobs a factor in the tax rate.
It might be that this tax incentive is too small. An employer’s cost for an employee earning $17.40/hour is nearly $53,000; $36,200 for wages and $16,700 for benefits. A tax credit of $2000 might not be material. This suggested tax break is a nudge, rather than a shove, in the right direction.
Alternatively, rather than a tax credit, we might consider raising the tax on corporate profits, for profits which are not supporting workers. Raising taxes on business might seem unlikely in this political climate, but perhaps in a few years that may change.
The topic of taxes on business deserves deeper consideration. We should be able to measure the economic wealth generated by labor and capital, and look at the tax burden on each sector. I have never seen a clear analysis of this problem, and I would like to know if the tax burden placed on capital returns is equitable with the tax burden on labor. Perhaps this will be the topic of a future blog post.
Original interview, with video.
“Right now, the human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory, that income is taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”
Fortune argues: “To tax the robot’s owner as a human earning $50,000 would in effect make efficiency illegal. In addition, the principle Gates proposes would seem to require taxing any technology that eliminates human labor, presumably starting with the wheel.”
“So there are probably better ways than taxing robots to help humans avoid the harms of automation. Instead of slowing innovation, the government should think about taxing humans less and redistributing the income of robots more.”
“So Gates is right about the need to provide funds to retrain workers and to support them in making these job transitions, but taxing robots will just slow job creation. Automation is creating more jobs than it is destroying.” -- A paradigm-type statement, given without evidence.
Article partly agrees with Gates’ proposal to tax robots, but offers several caveats. E.g., some robots make humans more productive; some industries, such as health, deserve to have the best technologies available.
“Every American child should be able to grow up in a safe community, to attend a great school, and to have access to a high-paying job.”
May 2015, Median hourly wages, all occupations: $17.40
May 2015, Average hourly wage, all occupations: $23.23
OECD statistics – US GDP/hour worked = $62.89, 2015, in constant 2010 dollars.
4th highest, behind Luxemburg, Ireland, and Norway.
Real output of all persons, non-farm business sector = $107.39, constant 2010 dollars
2017 minimum wage $7.25/hour $15,080/year
Median wage $17.40/hour $36,192/year
Average wage $23.23/hour $48,318/year
Data on number of Employees, profits, and tax rate for selected companies: A prominent stock market appraisal service.
Data on number of Employees, profits, and tax rate for selected companies: A prominent stock market appraisal service.
Average wages total $23.42/hour, or about 69% of total employer costs. Benefits cost $10.73/hour, or about 31% of total costs.
Corporate Income Taxes represent 10.6% of total Federal tax receipts. Corporations are also responsible for significant contributions to payroll taxes.
Corporations paid $ 344 billion in income taxes, out of $3250 billion in total tax receipts.
* In 2015, 9.2% of federal individual income tax receipts came from capital gain taxes.
* For 2016, the Joint Committee on Taxation projects that 6.2% of gross income earned by individuals will come from capital gains, 2.2% from dividends, and 1.0% from interest income.
Estimated percentage of Federal Individual Income tax from dividends & Interest: 4.75%
Capital gains represent 9.2 percent of individual income taxes.
Table of capital gains and taxes paid to 2009.
Sources of Federal Tax collections.
123 million full time workers in the US in Jan. 2017.
Friday, January 13, 2017
The New Year is a time to look forward, backward, and to contemplate the passage of time. In that spirit, I wrote a list of predictions for the next 100 years. I also asked my son and a good friend to write similar lists. When I compared the lists, I was amazed at the convergence between our forecasts. We envision sweeping changes that span the range of human experience; life in 100 years will be quite different than life today. But for the most part, our forecasts represent the extrapolation of trends that are apparent today, using knowledge that we already possess or are actively seeking. In general, this post is drawn from predictions that at least two of the three forecasters had in common.
I believe that we already have much of the knowledge that will change life in the next hundred years. The fabric biplanes of 1917 foretold the Boeing 747 jetliners which were built 50 years later. Einstein’s publication of E = MC2 in 1905 foretold the atomic bomb in 1945.
It is clear from current trends that the scientific and technological achievements of mankind have just begun. In one hundred years, society will have a ten-fold increase in its ability to produce wealth, but it will struggle with equitable distribution and meaningful employment, as it does today. Our ability to produce technological advancement greatly exceeds our ability to produce social, political, and economic advancements. In other words, our ability to build new gadgets is much better than our ability to work together, to avoid conflict, and to share our wealth. Most of the positive developments of the next hundred years will come from technology. Most of the scary stuff will come from social problems.
Science is just beginning to solve deep mysteries of reality and life. The technologies which might result from these discoveries will fundamentally change how people live on earth, and where we go from here.
This post is organized into four parts: Technology, Environment, Society and Science.
This post is organized into four parts: Technology, Environment, Society and Science.
- A breakthrough technology will make energy much cheaper than today, and enable the reversal of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere. The breakthrough may be fusion energy, or solar power, in combination with advances in storage and transmission technology. Cheap energy should enable huge strides in global prosperity, but results will depend on how wealth is distributed.
- Self-driving cars will be the norm; only hobbyists will own drivable cars.
- Domestic airline travel will soon reach a gridlock limit; alternatives of high-speed rail and/or hyperloop tube transport will be built within 50 years between American cities. Trans-ocean hyperloops will be built by the second half of the century.
- Sub-orbital passenger aircraft will briefly compete with hyperloops, but will be less economical.
- Most cancers will be curable within 50 years, possibly sooner.
- Spinal cord injuries will be curable, as well as other injuries requiring cellular regeneration, such as blindness, deafness, and paralysis.
- Mechanical aids will be better integrated with human bodies through bio-engineering, solving a variety of human illnesses. Implanted mechanical aids will also offer the possibility of enhanced human performance for military or other purposes.
- Lifespans will (potentially) be much longer. Science will decisively solve the mechanisms of aging, and develop effective therapies to extend healthy life. Availability of those therapies may be limited by cost and affordability of extended life.
- Global population will not peak at 9 billion in 2050, as currently predicted, but will grow throughout the century due to extended lifespans.
- Genetic therapies will be available to cure genetic diseases, especially in children.
- Genetic selection or modification will be available to create designer children, but with limited legality. The topic of genetic child improvement will be as socially intractable as the abortion debate today.
- Hybrid and synthetic life forms will offer solutions to some problems, but will be the subject of sharp ethical controversy.
- All standard consumer meat will be synthetic. Synthetic meat and food will provide healthier diets in developed countries, and eliminate malnutrition in currently undeveloped countries.
- A number of Pleistocene extinct species will be restored, including wooly mammoths and mastodons. There will be an ethical argument about restoring Neanderthal and Denisovan people –they will not be restored.
- Biotechnology will emerge as the major threat in terrorism, assassination, and warfare.
- Quantum computing will be as common as flash memory is today. There will be huge progress in miniaturization and efficiencies. Artificial intelligence will eliminate many jobs. Deep technical problems in mathematics and computing will be solved. [For example, my son informs me that the NP-complete solution will be discovered – whatever that is!]
- Artificial sentience will not yet be a reality, but technologists will have a much clearer idea of what would be required to produce a sentient machine.
Space (Solar System)
- Thousands of people will be living and working off-world.
- Manned missions to Mars will be routine, but a permanent base will not yet exist.
- A permanent base will exist on the moon, but will be fully dependent on support from Earth.
- Asteroid mining will be a reality in the asteroid belt. Projects will be underway to place asteroids into Earth orbit, lunar orbit, or Lagrange points. The first sustainable colonies away from earth will revolve around asteroid mining activities. International tensions will flare over the ownership of asteroids and the rights for colonization.
- Simple life will be discovered in the solar system, with the possibility of fossilized multicellular life on Mars.
Space (Interstellar Exploration)
- Interstellar probes will be returning the first data from other stars.
- Planning will be under way for a manned interstellar voyage.
- Signals from a distant alien civilization will be detected, but so far away (and long ago) that communication is impossible.
Wilderness and Wildlife
- Many extinctions will occur due to climate change and pressures from a larger human population.
- Environmental degradation will be extreme in China, India, Africa and Latin America by mid-century. Efforts to restore the environment will be a high priority by the end of the century.
- New large park systems will seek to re-establish wilderness ecosystems, including large predators and herd animals which are now extinct or will become extinct.
- Wilderness areas will be greatly diminished globally, and wildlife will be similarly diminished.
- Wild fish stocks will be recovering from severe depletion due to overfishing. Commercial fishing will be illegal; fish for human consumption will be raised in fish farms. Restoration projects for coral reefs will be underway, after the near-extinction of most reefs on earth.
- Sea level will be 1 to 2 meters higher than today, sufficient to cause flooding in many coastal cities and communities, and abandonment of some communities. Substantial melting will be occurring from the Greenland and Antarctic ice-caps. Rising sea level will be accelerating and inexorable, with the greatest impact expected in the second hundred years.
Drought and desertification will spread northward and southward from the lines of 30 and -30 degrees of latitude as atmospheric convection cells grow stronger. Areas affected will include Southwest and south-central United States, southern Europe, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, parts of China, Argentina and southeast Australia. Famines are likely to occur in affected areas. The extent of the problem will depend on how quickly mankind can implement low-CO2 energy technologies.
- The world will endure a severe global financial meltdown, based on failure of credit systems. The crisis will cause an extended depression, and result in re-organization of political, economic, and financial systems.
- Fewer than 15% of American workers are now working in industries with physical products. Robots and artificial intelligence will continue to replace workers, as capital is more cost-effective than labor in many industries.
- Automation of the economy will leave the majority of people unemployed. This will cause significant civil unrest and conflict. The world will be divided into three groups: 1) the talented elite who work; 2) a minority of people who own capital, do little and earn much, and 3) those who do not own capital, do little, and earn very little.
- Sustained productivity growth of 2% to 2.5% annually will result in 7x to 12x total growth. If distributed equally, average household income in the United States would increase from $52,000/year to about $500,000/year, adjusted for inflation. Wealth inequality can be expected to grow for the foreseeable future, resulting in an extremely wealthy aristocracy and a moderately well-off middle class.
- The problems of what people will do for employment and how wealth is distributed will be the root cause of most social conflict in the next century.
- The United States, as we know it, will be greatly changed or no longer exist. The political organization of states will be changed, and the external borders will probably change. There will be a slow regional consolidation of North America; economic integration will be followed by political integration. Other megastates will also form, in Europe, Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union.
- A third (or fourth) political party will emerge in the United States, winning substantial power in Congress and the Presidency. One or both of the existing political parties will expire or be completely changed in a political transformation.
- Most of Africa will be economically developed. The African Union will exist as a meaningful political and military bloc.
- There will be conflict between the major nationalistic interests (China, Russia, USA) and major trading block associations. China will be involved in a major war against one or more of its neighbors.
- There is a high probability of another World War. The war will involve many advanced weapons (AI, drones, space-based weapons, and computer warfare), but probably not nuclear warheads.
- A global epidemic will result in up to 30% population loss.
- A solar flare will devastate electrical infrastructure, electronic communications and satellites. Rebuilding the lost infrastructure will be uneven, and will require most of a decade.
- Major earthquakes with huge damage and loss of life will occur in Turkey (south of Istanbul), California, Oregon, Italy, Chile, Japan, and Indonesia.
- The Mosul dam in Iraq will fail, with large loss of life downstream.
- One or more meteors will hit the earth with enough power to obliterate a city.
- A major terrorist attack will occur causing tens-to-hundreds of thousands of deaths. The incident may spark a major war, possibly along the Christian/Muslim divide. The incident will increase global surveillance and eliminate most privacy protections around the world.
- In the United States, the trend of acceptance of alternative lifestyles will continue. Some structural change will occur in a small percentage of American families, equivalent to the legalization of gay marriage. The change may be in terms of polygamy or polyamory, limited marriage contracts, three-parent children or children raised by communities instead of families. In other words, something weird by today’s standards.
- A number of forces, including the threat of terrorism, will challenge the principles of privacy in most countries. Most people in the world will live in what we consider to be surveillance states.
- Racism will diminish as genetic mixing makes the separation of races less distinct.
Science and New Technology
There will be at least one completely revolutionary discovery in physics in the next century, which will enable some transformative new technology. In the last century, most of the science for 20th century technologies was already known by 1917 (airplanes, E = MC2, etc.). Application and implementation of that knowledge produced the new technologies which changed the world. Likewise, I believe that we already have the science for the technologies of the next century. The breakthrough scientific discoveries of the next one hundred years will produce the transformative technologies of the following century.
The first list shows potential revolutionary scientific discoveries, in order of likelihood. All of the items on the list are areas of current research. I excluded potential discoveries which are outside the boundaries of known physics, such as faster-than-light travel or telepathic telekinetic dragons.
The second list is of potential technologies which might result from such discoveries and completely transform human life and human destiny, also listed in order of likelihood.
Potential Scientific Discoveries
- Full understanding of the processes of human aging.
- The discovery of a habitable planet orbiting a nearby star.
- Full understanding of gravity, and how it produces distortion of space-time, or the discovery that gravity is an emergent phenomenon, i.e., a product of other, more fundamental forces.
- The ability to alter time for small, table-top objects: to accelerate or decelerate time; to reverse time, or to put objects into a closed time-loop.
- The discovery and proof of sentient machines.
- Discovery of intelligent alien life.
- Discovery of how to manipulate space-time.
- Proof that we live in a multiverse.
- Proof that reality is non-material.
Potential Transformative Technologies
- Cheap fusion power.
- Asteroid mining and orbital manipulation.
- Permanent, independent, communities in space.
- A practical and efficient space-drive which does not require thruster propellant.
- Artificial Intelligence smarter than people, and capable of self-design with improvements.
- A cure for aging.
- The ability to generate localized, focused artificial gravitational fields.
- Faster-than-light communication, using separated quantum entangled particles.
- Sentient machines.
- Terraforming planets in our solar system.
- Manipulation of planetary orbits.
- Teleportation of physical objects.
- The ability to adjust current reality, in terms of modifying physical laws, physical objects or actions, or past events, based on a new understanding of reality.
- Communication with parallel universes.
The Black Swan
Most of the predictions in this post are consensus ideas, given by at least two of the three forecasters. But life-changing developments may be completely unexpected, in the sense of Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan events. (Even if, as Taleb writes, the Black Swan events are completely predictable in hindsight.)
It is therefore worth noting a few of the non-consensus predictions.
- Science will find evidence that the human soul exists beyond death.
- Marine archeology will discover ancient civilizations flooded by sea level rise, dating back to 30,000 years or more.
- Society-wide panopticon surveillance will challenge and possibly end the liberal, democratic, rule of law society of the west.
- Wealth inequality will bottom out, having reached a nadir in about 20-40 years, and be improved in 100 years compared to today.
References and Credits
Many thanks to Steve R. and Greg B., whose thoughtful correspondence enabled me to write this post and in other ways enrich my life.
Bill Gates, February 2016, interview with Charlie Rose, https://charlierose.com/videos/23144
David Deutsch, 1997, The Fabric of Reality, 390 p.
David Deutsch, 2011, The Beginning of Infinity, 496 p.
Jacob Bronowski, 1973, The Ascent of Man, 448 p.
The Boeing 747
Not long ago, I watched a Boeing 747 airplane take off from our local airport – that was the inspiration for this post. The 747 is a massive airplane, and appears to hang in the air as it is gaining altitude. The 747 has been in service since 1970 – nearly 50 years. The plane’s startling size immediately garnered nicknames: jumbo jet, queen of the skies, and my favorite, the aluminum overcast. Recent versions of the plane are still among the largest passenger planes in the world.
Despite the fact that the plane has been in service for 46 years, the sight still inspires awe. It made me wonder what people would have thought, if they had seen this aircraft one hundred years ago. The year 1916 was the midpoint of World War I, and airplanes were still crude novelties made of fabric and wood. The idea of an airplane weighing nearly one-half million pounds, capable of carrying up to 600 passengers, or another half-million pounds of cargo, would have seemed beyond comprehension. And yet within little more than 50 years, such planes flew.
The sight of this plane made me wonder what the world will see in the next one hundred years. What technologies will become commonplace in our grandchildren’s lifetimes that are beyond our comprehension today?