Where are the aliens? Solutions to Fermi Paradox

The Fermi Paradox poses an age-old question: With light and radio waves skipping across the galaxy, why has there never been any convincing evidence of other life in the universe—or at least another sufficiently advanced civilization that uses radio? After all, evidence of intelligent life requires only that some species modulates a beacon (intentionally or unintentionally) in a fashion that is unlikely to be caused by natural phenomena.

The Fermi Paradox has always fascinated me, perhaps because SETI spokesperson, Carl Sagan was my astronomy professor at Cornell and—coincidentally—Sagan and Stephen Spielberg dedicated a SETI radio telescope at Oak Ridge Observatory around the time that I moved from Ithaca to New England. It’s a 5 minute drive from my new home. In effect, two public personalities followed me to Massachusetts.

What is SETI?

In November of 1984, SETI was chartered as a non-profit corporation with a single goal. In seeking to answer to the question “Are we alone?” it fuels the Drake equation by persuading radio telescopes to devote time to the search for extraterrestrial life and establishing an organized and systematic approach to partitioning, prioritizing, gathering and mining signal data.

Sagan explains the Drake Equation

Many of us associate astronomer Carl Sagan and Hollywood director, Stephen Spielberg, with SETI. They greased the path with high-profile PR that attracted interest, funding and radio-telescope partnerships. But, they were neither founders nor among the early staff. The founders, John Billingham and Barney Oliver assembled a powerhouse board of trustees, which included Frank Drake (Sagan’s boss at Cornell), Andrew Fraknol, Roger Heyns and William Welch. Among first hires were Jill Tarter, Charles Seeger, Ivan Linscott, Tom Pierson and Elyse Murray (now Elyse Pierson). Of course, Carl Sagan has long championed the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and joined SETI as Trustee near the end of his life.

In The Birth of SETI, Tom Pierson reminisces about the early days of SETI. Also check out SETI pioneer, Jill Tarter, explaining how to write a message that will be understood by an alien civilization. This and the Drake equation was a topic of Sagan’s Astronomy 101 class at Cornell. In fact, using math & science as a universal language is the design philosophy behind the Pioneer 10 plaque created by Linda Sagan.

There is a lot of lore and love surrounding SETI, because its goal pulls directly on our need to understand our place in the cosmos. This week, SETI is going through a bit of transformation as it prepares for the next chapter in the search. So, where are the aliens? Are the funds and brainpower spent on peeping for aliens an investment in our own civilization, a form of entertainment, or a colossal waste?

This fascinating video offers 10 plausible solutions to Fermi Paradox. Fascinating, that is, if you can get past John Michael Godier’s dry, monotone narration. But. take my word for it. The concept and the content is exciting.

Border Control & Immigration: A case for open borders

In May and December 2010, I wrote 3 pieces about border control and immigration. While there is a lot of use in giving H-1B visas out to skilled workers who are wanting to improve the US’s economy, as well as H4 EAD visas to their spouses or children, there can be issues with illegal immigration or mass immigration so I wanted to touch on the different ideas and arguments in my 3 pieces.
Here they are combined into one posting.

In May 2010, I wrote A Case for Open Borders, originally in response to
Los Angeles to boycott Arizona over immigration law.

Twice, during the past 12 years, I have tried – unsuccessfully – to host a married couple from China for a 3 month tourist visa. Both husband and wife are retired and their child and grandchildren are US citizens. Prior to this month, the US consulate office in Beijing refused to issue Visas, based on two presumptions about my prospective guests:

  1. They were recently professionals (a medical doctor and a University science professor), and might be seeking to restart their careers in America.
  2. They failed to demonstrate sufficient ties to China. That is, they did not have a large amount of money in the bank, a home that was paid off, or a business that would fail without them. (Home ownership is relatively new in China).

Yet, this month, they were issued Visas on their first visit to a US Consulate, and now they are in my home, making plans to see the Grand Canyon, Bay of Fundy (Nova Scotia) and Washington DC. So what has changed?

Of course, my family acted as sponsor and guarantor. Right on the Visa application, we commit that our guests will not require public funds and that they will return to their homeland. But this covenant was required with each failed application in the past. What has changed?

To learn more about the swift approval after years of effort, I contacted a US official in Beijing who was involved in the decision process. Of course, 911 played a role in the reduction of visas issued during the past decade. America needed to develop better mechanisms to detect and prevent terrorists and those who support terrorism from entering the country. But this was not the primary reason that they were denied for so long. The real reason was economic…

Until recently, the US tried hard to block visitors seeking economic opportunity. But in the past few years something has changed. Not only does China enjoy an enormous trade surplus, they have lower unemployment than many regions of the US and their new found wealth has trickled down to most urban areas. (It is no longer true that a professional earns $400/year. That was in 1996. Now, a white collar job that might pay $100,000 in USA is paying $42,500 and the gap is closing quickly. Factory workers in rural areas are still behind—but not as much as you might think, especially not if their employer has ties to the west.

So the real reason for the quick visa decision now, is that the US consulate office understands that America is no longer a land of opportunity (at least not a land of disparate, relative-economic opportunity!). Visitors from many countries have better opportunities at home: A stronger currency and lower unemployment.

I suspect that even if this were not a temporarily truth, the desire of Americans to block immigration is either racially motivated or based on misguided economics. Visitors who work (on the tax roles or even on the sly) do not “steal jobs” from Americans. Instead, they raise the living conditions of all Americans. Even during tough times, protecting borders from visitors and immigrants is counter productive. It serves absolutely no purpose. The issue isn’t enforcement of immigration law. The quotas and restrictions shouldn’t exist at all!

At the risk of overwhelming detractors, I suggest a country with NO visa requirements and a very different border control: Let in everyone with a non-criminal past! (How’s that for heresy?!). Instead of spending resources trying to block economic and political immigration, focus only on terrorist threats. [Willingness-to-work = Good], [Desire-to-kill-neighbors = Bad]. Really very, very simple.

The conventional fear of open borders is that those of us fortunate to be here first will suffer from a glut of “wannabe” Americans. Nonsense! When other countries see the drain of talent, of capital and of dedicated workers, they will have only one way to ‘retaliate’: To compete with an open, democratic, capitalist, and pluralistic society, they must adopt these traits. They must build up their own welcoming ‘melting pot’ and create a competitive and proud work force. Result: All boats float higher—even across the pond with trading partners.

A Wild Duck blog is not the place to argue the macro-economic mechanisms. I won’t attempt defending my position here. But think it through. Get past your prejudice—And post your feedback.

-Ellery Davies

Also in May 2010, I added this observation in a Guest Editorial for Yahoo in response to
Police chiefs voice concerns to AG about Ariz. law
By Pete Yost, Associated Press. Yahoo News, 26-May-2010

WASHINGTON – Police chiefs from around the country have told Attorney General Eric Holder that Arizona’s new immigration law will divert law enforcement resources away from fighting crime. In an hour long, closed-door meeting with Holder, the chiefs have said that being forced to determine whether a person is in the United States illegally will break down the trust that police have built with communities. One participant at the meeting, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, said the Arizona law and similar legislation proposed in other states will actually increase, rather than decrease, crime. Arizona immigration law empowers police to question anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally.

Feedback from Ellery Davies:

Being in this country illegally isn’t a violation of Arizona law nor local municipal laws. It is of interest only to the Federal government and demographic sociologists. Moreover, it is a technicality. Those who make it out to be more than a technicality are either under the false impression that aliens cause more crime than citizens or – more likely – they are xenophobic.

I would argue that enforcement of Federal immigration law and anti-alien statutes does not help Arizona at all. As the police chiefs point out, it may increase crime due to the breakdown of trust between individuals (including citizens) and the police.

Supporters of the Arizona statute claim that illegal aliens disproportionately murder, rape and siphon public resources. Yet a very significant and disproportionate contribution by immigrants – legal and illegal – is more accurate.

Border control should focus upon blocking access to criminals directly: terrorists, drug runners – and of course those who are likely to require free services.

It’s easy to discourage lechers. Stop giving them services. You don’t need to frisk people in the street. Check their ID at the schools, hospitals and food stamp dispensaries. It’s that simple. Limiting any other demographic (even if “illegal”) is a holdover to racism or based on an unfounded fear that immigrants steal jobs…

Ahhh, yes. JOBS! The economics of this last issue is widely misunderstood. So let’s lay out the fact, and we can debate it until the cows come home…

Immigrants take jobs that legacy residents refuse to perform. As they integrate into communities and raise capital, they create jobs that employ all of us. By welcoming immigrants, we benefit by attracting freedom-loving foreigners from all countries. Their homelands experience a brain drain (and, yes, the flight of common laborers too). To fight back, they gradually resort to free markets: Hey wait! That means capitalism and personal freedoms. Precisely! And this benefits us all.

G-d! I wish that everyone could see the big picture. It took me 50 years to understand the cause and effect of border control. I hope that society figures it out in less time.

In December 2010, U.S. border patrol agent, Brian Terry, was shot and killed in Rio Rico Arizona. When USA Today distributed this article from The Arizona Republic, it got an unusually large amount of reader feedback. In response to readers blaming liberals or expressing racial hatred toward Mexicans and Africans, I contributed this reply:

It’s easy to blame liberals, immigrants and weak borders. But how many among us is not an immigrant or born of immigrants? The crossing of “illegals” * is facilitated by a great incentive: disparate opportunity. Solve it by fixing incentives (a “carrot & stick”):

  • Increase opportunity in their lands through democracy & trade
  • Eliminate opportunity here: Health benefits, assistance & taxpayer subsidy. When word gets back that illegals have no opportunity & protection, they stay with family or work the system (a legal, taxpayer route). We must recognize racial & cultural prejudice. Hispanic, Asian, African, Jew or Native American—They are not the problem. They are a solution! It is what makes us great. The problem is chronic unemployment on both sides of the border (due to gov policy), excessive doles on our side, and artificial trade restrictions.


* Follow up: On Oct 24 2011 . . .

The Daily Beast writer, Peter Beinart, observes that the term “illegals” is selectively applied as a noun to denote “illegal immigrants” and typically, those of Latino ancestry only.

As a noun, the term “illegals” is a racist euphemism and rallying cry. When is the last time anyone has called an Irish immigrant an “illegal”? How about a corporate officer who fails to file a tax return? What about Mitt Romney? He paid an undocumented landscaper. Is he an ‘illegal’ – or does the term apply only to the laborer that he hired? It’s something to ponder as we sit in glass houses, wrapped in a flag, eating apple pie and with passport in hand.

Should undocumented immigrants collect free services that burden U.S. taxpayers? No! Should we carefully screen for criminals and terrorists at our borders? Of course – even if the selection process stereotypes tourists & returning Americans! But for what reason do we fear border crossings by those seeking freedom and opportunity? What is the threat? Are we afraid of those who seek nothing more than pay taxes while serving as a gardener, nurse-assistant, laborer or child care worker? What is the threat?!

Ellery contributes political commentary to Yahoo, CNet, Google and other forums.
He welcomes feedback in his blog, A Wild Duck .