One of my guilty pleasures is watching the TV show “Alaska State Troopers” on the National Geographic Channel. The pleasure part comes from seeing spectacular scenery and wildlife like moose and bears I’ll never be able to visit in real life.

However, the guilty part comes because most episodes also pose the question as to whether some of the people the Troopers will have to meet are actually more foolish than the animals.

In one incident, a man took his 15-year-old daughter with him to a party, driving his truck up a side road onto a foothill and parking it there among other party-goers’ cars with no room to turn around. All of the adults at the party proceeded to consume far too much alcohol to legally drive, and no one paid attention when the 15-year-old decided to join the drinking, too.

So now it’s late at night. The sun is going down — this is Alaska in summer after all — and the father realizes he and his daughter have to go home. Therefore, the intoxicated father decides that this will be the perfect time to teach his almost-as-intoxicated daughter how to drive the truck. Of course, since there is no space on the road to turn around, the father instructs the daughter to back the car down the hill by looking in the rear view mirror to see where she’s going.

You can already imagine that this adventure was not going to end well. Fortunately, the truck went off the road and into a ditch so quickly that it had no time to work up any significant speed, and no one was injured. However, the attempts of the father to then convince the arriving Troopers that alcohol had absolutely nothing to do with his truck being in the ditch were comical.

Future space exploration will also contain a similar steering-behind-you problem. Star Trek imagined a technology called “inertial dampening” that allowed starships to accelerate between “rest” and warp speeds and back almost instantly without smearing everyone aboard into a biofilm along the bulkheads. Physicists have no way to imagine inertial dampening, but they actually have conceived of technologies that can get an unmanned probe to a nearby solar system (a mere six light years away) in a human lifetime. Figuring out the details is mere engineering. 😀

Project Daedalus is a design for such an interstellar probe originally created by the British Interplanetary Society in the 1970’s. A 54,000 ton, 620-foot long, two stage starship (sketch shown in figure) would be constructed in Jupiter orbit and then launched toward Barnard’s Star with a fusion reactor engine. To acquire enough helium-3 for your fuel, you’d first have to build a fleet of balloon-suspended robotic mining factories to extract the isotope from Jupiter’s upper atmosphere for twenty years, but, like I said, mere engineering details.

Operating continuously for two years,  the reactor would boost Daedalus to 12% of light speed –or about 22,000 miles per second — before shutting off for a 46 year cruise. About half way through, Daedalus would deploy telescopes to start surveying the Barnard System in order to figure out where any interesting planets there might be when Daedalus arrived decades later. Still at 12% of light speed upon arrival, Daedalus would fly through the system throwing out subprobes for closer planetary flybys, radio its and their data back to earth, and continue onward into the great dark.

The mission was planned as a flyby because stopping in the system creates a whole new set of complications. To start, the ship has to be much more than twice as large, because it takes fuel to slow the ship down just as it takes fuel to accelerate it to 12% of light speed in the first place. In fact, the ship is mostly fuel, and it consumes a lot of extra fuel to first speed up the fuel you’ll need for slowing down upon arrival. Furthermore, you can’t, as in the flyby mission plan, store most of the fuel in a first stage fuel tank which you dump on route and arrive at Barnard’s Star with a mere 450 ton payload from the tens of thousands of tons you launched from earth orbit. You’ve got to carry all the braking fuel with you to the end. It takes much longer to get all of that extra mass up to cruising speed, so the whole trip takes much longer than 48 years.

So, depending on how you’ve optimized the specs and what your telescopes have told you about the star system, years before arrival, the ship rotates so it’s pointing back toward earth and refires its engines for those years to slow to orbital speeds. And that brings me back to the steering through the rear view mirror problem again. How accurately can you know when to fire up the engines? Remember,  you’re limited to on-board instrumentation and computation because earth is too far away to improve the accuracy of your work, even if earth’s ability to measure interstellar distances has gotten much better in the decades since you left. And you’ve got to start slowing down while you are significant fractions of a light year away. When you’re going 22,000 miles per second, inaccuracies in distance measurements to your targets matter. Be off by 11 seconds in firing your “retros”, and you come to a stop no closer to your destination than the earth is from the moon.


The point of these little parables is this: it is really hard to direct where you’re going when you have to make decisions by looking backward and can not know exactly where you are in respect to where you’re trying to go. Yet, I now have  noticed that the assumption that the government can successfully manage modern economies containing huge international flows of demand, finance, labor, technology, and consumption contains the same steering-by-the-rear-view-mirror fallacy.

President Obama acknowledged the fallacy — perhaps without quite realizing it — earlier this week when he responded to an interview question about why he had failed to cut the annual Federal deficit in half as he’d promised in 2009:

“Everybody who is out there back in 2009, if you look back what their estimates were in terms of how many jobs had been lost, how bad the economy had contracted when I took office, everybody underestimated it. People thought that the economy contracted 3%. It turns it retracted close to 9%. We lost 8 million jobs just in a year’s span, about half a year before I took office and half a year after I took office,” Obama said. “So, the die had been cast, but a lot of us didn’t understand at that point how bad it was going to get.”

There’s some truth in that, but it proves the larger point I’m trying to make: it took more than a year after the fact before the government could gather the information to notice that a recession was really a Great Recession. The Obama Administration then spent that year focused on expanding health care entitlements and “investing” in next-generation green energy projects — which we now see are becoming an ever larger economic albatross — because it was falsely convinced by its own outdated data that a strong economic recovery was quickly guaranteed.

Similarly, two years earlier, before the housing bubble popped, the Bush Administration, the major banks, the Federal Reserve System, and the Democratic congress were all being fed equally  out-of-date information from the bureaucracy that led them to believe there were no major risks to the system, so rear-viewing the economy is a bipartisan risk.

And we are still doing exactly that!

The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes more than most people ever want to know about employment statistics through the menus here. I’ve been spending a lot of time wandering through the information since last fall when the reported unemployment rate began to fall, but I noticed that employment was rising only among males.  The number of employed adult women was continuing to decline.

In fact, the number of seasonally adjusted employed adult women declined compared to the same month in the previous year (when “seasonal” factors should be similar) in 10 of the 12 months of 2011. By comparison, the number of seasonally adjusted employed adult men rose by over 500,000 per month compared to the previous year in every month of 2011. So, either there was a sudden gender-related new trend in labor participation over the last year, or the data samples were missing something important.

Turns out it was the latter. In the January 2012 data, when the BLS updated (as it does annually) population estimates — as is necessary to project employer sampling results over the entire economy — the number of men employed was only 90,000 more than in December. However, the number of women employed shot up by 700,000. And, due to the same correction, the number of adult women officially counted as “not in the seasonally adjusted labor force” went up by 780,000 as well (there was negligible change in the not-in-labor-force number for adult men between the two months).

Now, these 1.5 million women didn’t suddenly materialize on New Year’s Eve. They’ve clearly been here throughout 2011, but policy makers are only now finding out about them as 2010 Census data is better analyzed. The Census Bureau, according to oral reports I’ve heard, suggests these women are mostly over 55, meaning that they are approaching the age when they will be drawing on entitlements for their care. They show up most importantly now in producing a lowered labor force participation rate -– or, in other words, in the number of people we assume will be paying taxes and producing economic output to support future entitlements for all you young whipper-snappers. And a lower labor force participation rate means that the official unemployment rate (which is number unemployed divided by the sum of the number employed and the number unemployed) shrinks, even as the future debt problem gets amplified.

So just as the bureaucracy underestimated how bad job loss was getting because their data were outmoded in 2009, they are now overestimating how rapidly jobs are improving because things that actually happened a year ago are being counted as if they are happening today. This cannot simply be extrapolated to continue as if this was merely a delayed, but routine recovery from something that was not a Great Recession. You can’t just “party on, Dude!’

The BLS has to use seasonal adjustments in the first place because there are normally huge month-to-month swings in employment (for reasons, like weather and holidays) that have nothing to do with the underlying health of the economy. You add jobs for some months, and reduce them for others so that over the entire year a better picture of longer term trends emerges. Then you calibrate your formula for the next year based on later, more complete data from other benefit-related government sources on total employment.

As John Crudele noted:

“There really weren’t 243,000 new jobs created during the first month of the year. But there were 2.68 million [unadjusted] jobs lost…The positive figure was derived solely from favorable seasonal adjustments. Or, as Calculus99 wrote on ‘Perhaps the reason why the consumers are feeling gloomy is because they don’t see the jobs that the statisticians tell everyone are being created.’ ”

“In a normal year, the economy picks up statistically in the spring and then swoons in the summer. This year — because the … weather this winter has been warmer than usual — there might actually be a dip in economic activity this spring.”

“…The Labor Department [also] removed a huge block of 367,000 jobs it thinks, but can’t prove, disappeared in January as companies quietly went out of business. But the assumption about the seasons outweighed the assumption about invisible birth/death jobs.”

Now, I am not suggesting in any way that these adjustments are being made to “cook the books”. They are the best our measurement systems are capable of doing with the time and budget constraints of current sampling technology, and in most stages of a business cycle, when large numbers of jobs are being gained or lost, they probably work pretty well. When you’re at the peak or trough of a cycle, when job growth is stagnating, isn’t one of those times! The “corrections” are several times as large as the jobs signal we’re trying to measure, and so errors in the corrections can be large enough to mislead policy-makers. Realize that due to sampling uncertainty alone, monthly job estimates come with an uncertainly of + 100,000 jobs before you include any uncertainties from things like seasonal adjustments and the business birth-death model. Yet the stock market and political commentary go manic-depressive based on whether or not the official jobs number is 50,000 more or less “than expected”. No one actually knows enough to “cook the books” even if they wanted to do so.

I note that we are continuing to wait (for short-term stimulative expediency) to do a “full-burn” on our retro rockets in regard to government spending. I expect we’re going to be a bit more than 11 seconds late when we finally discover that the system we’re heading toward looks entirely too much like Greece. Or, applying to the economic recovery the words of the old Meatloaf song, “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are!”