Of Tax Cuts and Proton Micropiles
I had drinks with my friend Alex last night. As it often does, we started talking about the Fed, Wall Street, economic turmoil…and physics. Or, more precisely, we started discussing how insane it is that the best and brightest in the country go work on Wall Street instead of at JPL, or CalTech, or even Skunkworks.
I brought up an incident I remember from the heart of the financial crisis. At issue were government restrictions on bank bonuses. There was a loud outcry from the banks that required government help (yes, even Goldman, which likely should have been put into receivership), that any limit on bonuses would make it impossible for them to compete for the top talent on the Street. Somehow, that swayed lawmakers. And, as a result, Wall Street remained a nearly impossible to avoid honey pot.
And I don’t fault those who go to it - I did the same. The intellectual challenges are fascinating, and are precisely the kind of things that scientists and puzzle solvers love. There are massive puzzles, and huge payouts. It’s a beautiful system with perfectly aligned incentives. But Alex and I kept coming back to “what if.”
So, what if restrictions had been imposed on banks such that they went back to being the loan companies they were meant to be. Well, you wouldn’t be able to make billions off of that. But what if, instead of creating an $850B per year tax cut, much of it for the extremely wealthy, the government put a $10B prize, tax free, to the first person to successfully engineer a working fusion reactor?
What do you think would happen as thousands of unbelievably bright scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, etc. refocused their energy on creating the ultimate power source? The SpaceX prize - only $10mm - led to civilian produced, space capable vehicles. Richard Branson decided that there’s enough money in space to develop a commercial spaceliner. A spaceliner!
So amplify that challenge 1000x. I can assure you, it won’t have much of an impact on our national deficit. And if we succeed? If we get to the point where oil isn’t necessary, where solar and wind power are memories of a not terribly efficient past? Just think of the dividends.
And for those who would argue that fusion is science fiction, I’d point to the discovery of bacteria that can use arsenic in place of phosphorous. I’d point to an internet rapidly evolving into something far more than William Gibson could have imagined. I’d point at mail-in gene mapping kits and telescopes that have let us see into the beginning of the universe. I’d point squarely at CERN, where they recently isolated anti-matter for long enough to study it. And we’ve only just scratched the surface.
So, dear Washington, if you actually care about our future, align incentives for the people who want to build the world anew. Stop arguing the relative merits of political agendas and open your eyes to a world in which you can surely bet China is trying to invent the next game-changing technology. See beyond your noses and the intense lobbying to which you are subjected. Create earmarks for something useful, something that could change everything. Please, dream a little.