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What distinguishes a seastead from a vanity project?

November 27, 2017


When a writer of the calibre of Izabella Kaminska critiques the economics behind seasteading, it’s wise to take note [On the (non) viability of start-up islands, Financial Times, Nov. 17, 2017]. Right off the bat, however, she’s blinded by the assumption that seasteads are fundamentally akin to special economic zones or tax havens, rather than being something brand new.  She’s right that a seastead cannot compete with the existing options on the basis of tax or regulatory evasion alone. Dubai, Shenzen, and the Cayman Islands already have that market cornered.

She also takes issue with the analogy of seasteads to the member nations of Hanseatic League – a maritime trade alliance among medieval city states – since the latter were not governed anarchically, but were subsumed under the authority of the Holy Roman Empire:

To the contrary, they boasted highly complex systems of civil governance which levied domestic populations. Some had a democratic flavour where decisions were forged according to representative consensus, some less so.

But no one has suggested that individual seasteads be governed anarchically. An alternative slogan for seasteading to “Let 1,000 Nations Bloom,” could be “Let’s have more, better rules,” or more accurately, more systems of rules.

Hansa League

The institutional ecosystem precedes the technological development.

But while Kaminska appears not to have done her homework on these counts, she does have two valid, related points:

1) Although she entertains the idea that seasteaders might be motivated by other concerns – like the American settlers escaping persecution – she maintains that there would not be enough intrinsic resources to sustain even the most die-hard pioneers. With nothing to trade, the platform would have to sustain itself with constant injections of capital.

2) In the absence of any real “homesteading” opportunities, artificial islands would have to provide services, and would be economically-disadvantaged compared to the aforementioned havens:


“In a global economy which already provides plentiful access to much cheaper special economic zones and tax havens, the exercise amounts to nothing more than a vanity project for billionaires with more money than sense.”

This brings me to the essence of seasteading, which has to embrace and the alleged “ocean tax.” Patri has predicted that seasteading will become a reality when the land tax (i.e., the costs of increasingly dysfunctional governments) exceeds the ocean tax, or the added engineering costs of building on the high seas. This formula computes the current (non) viability of politically autonomous artificial islands – vanity projects that may or may not ever come to fruition. But a politically autonomous artificial island is not a seastead. A seastead becomes a seastead when it turns the ocean tax into an ocean windfall, and reimagines the vast expanse of wind-swept waves as a dynamic, moist solar collector, ripe for harvesting in novel forms like algal biofuel.

What distinguishes a seastead from a vanity project? The seasteader isn’t afraid to get wet.

Settling the seas no longer science fiction, says NY Times

November 14, 2017

The New York Times has an article about seasteading:

[I]n 2017, with sea levels rising because of climate change and established political orders around the world teetering under the strains of populism, seasteading can seem not just practical, but downright appealing.

It mentions Ken Neumeyer’s “Sailing the Farm,” and gives an early history of the Institute – starting with Patri Friedman’s Burning Man talk, and  Peter Thiel’s 2009 Cato Unbound essay. The article is surprisingly optimistic about the prospects, and with good reason. It’s worth remembering that Thiel framed seasteading as the more realistic option for building the future when compared to outer space:

 In a 2009 essay, Mr. Thiel described seasteading as a long shot, but one worth taking. “Between cyberspace and outer space lies the possibility of settling the oceans,” he wrote.

The open oceans are still a desolate place. Outside of a few die-hard cruisers, we don’t really know how to safely, comfortably, and affordably inhabit them.

French Polynesia lowers the barriers to entry, by allowing certain geographic and political barriers to perfect mobility and autonomy. It makes sense to try to align the seastead’s interests with the political unit – in this case French Polynesia – to achieve something like an incubator for seasteading technology. These are the same technologies that islands will need in the event of extreme climate change: steady open-ocean platforms, next-generation transport vessels, and life-support systems for a new kind of society.

Seastead incubator

Update: Both the NY Times piece and a more recent VICE news article strike a different tone from most previous coverage. The change in major media reports on seasteading brings to mind Thomas Kuhn’s idea of the paradigm shift – the tipping point, when a new theory becomes recognized by a majority of the scientists in a field. First a theory seems crazy, but gradually, it begins to explain more and more of the anomalies of the old paradigm. Seasteading can be thought of as the ultimate counter-cyclical industry. As government/climate/the economy become less tenable in their present, a radical “reset” becomes more attractive.

Reading between Trump’s lines –– Jurisdictional arbitrage at it’s most comical

November 10, 2017

The on-going political theater – a real-world House of Cards – brings to mind the old Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times.” Some are happy to sit back and enjoy the show, but it’s even better entertainment if you can apply filters to understand what’s happening beneath the surface of the statements coming out of Trump’s White House.

The latest episode is “The Meeting With Native American Leaders,” [The unfiltered version of Trump’s meeting with Native American leaders,] in which Trump can’t stop calling the tribal leaders “Chief,” and makes creative use of the Nike slogan to imply that regulators won’t go after tribes for using aggressive drilling techniques on their lands.


“Chief, chief,” Trump continued, addressing one of the tribal leaders, “what are they going to do? Once you get it out of the ground are they going to make you put it back in there? I mean, once it’s out of the ground it can’t go back in there. You’ve just got to do it. I’m telling you, chief, you’ve just got to do it.”

Trump’s opponents will seize on this episode as more evidence of his simultaneous brilliant criminality and sheer idiocy. I’m neither a Trump supporter, nor a fracking enthusiast, but this analysis is lazy (it’s also not very funny). Fracking may be the least bad solution to America’s dependence on the Middle East, in spite of the big unknowns, like the effects on the water supply (not to mention those weird Oklahoman earthquakes).

Scott Adams has proposed the “persuasion filter” for understanding Trump’s methods: speaking directly in simple words, repeating himself, starting a negotiation with an outrageous first bid to frame a more sensible middle ground, pacing and leading, and on and on. That’s not my specialty. I’m exploring a new filter for the hip/woke/based reader in 2017. The Straussian filter helps you read “between the lines” to grasp Trump’s sometimes hidden, and sometimes not-so-hidden meaning.

Political theorist Leo Strauss suggested that this way of reading has been out of fashion in the West for many years (centuries?) because we’re used to an atmosphere of free expression. Historically, the consequence of speaking truth to power was death, so the best writers/orators learned to conceal their esoteric message within a harmless coating. A Straussian might embed a single line “in a terse and lively style,” which contradicts the rest of a writing that otherwise promotes the established narrative. Shakespeare used villains and fools to deliver the bitterest truths about humanity because it placed a layer of plausible deniability between him and the message.

Imagine the “unfiltered version of Trump’s meeting” if he had explicitly stated, “You don’t need to follow the EPA regulations. They’re a paper tiger, and besides– you guys are the left’s favorite historical victim group. EPA v. Cherokee Nation is never going to happen.” A lot of people would have to feign outrage, and Cherokee Nation would probably get fleeced again. Instead, we end up with another funny article about “Trump acting crazy.”

Trump appears to be playing both the fool and His Royal Highness. Although he’s ostensibly the most powerful man in the world, Trump still needs to use jester tactics to advance his agenda. The previous administrations installed a new governmental operating system called the administrative state that keeps their technocratic worldview crunching away in their absence. In a sense, Bush/Clinton/W. Bush/Obama are still in office.

Trump may be king, but secretly he is a weak king. More than legislation, his main instrument is his voice, which cuts through red tape by its implicit message: “I am stronger than the shadow state. I am a real person; I speak in words you understand. The faceless bureaucrat who you think is breathing down your neck is not going to be around forever.”

The Obama administration passed over 3,000 rules and 30,000 pages of environmental regulations. There are too many rules for bureaucrats to be expected to enforce them all. However, a business person in a regulated industry like energy won’t know which laws will be enforced, leading to paralysis. That’s why the native Americans are knocking on Trump’s door, why the U.S. still exports its pollution to the third world, and why you and I still have to fund radical brainwashing every time we fill up our gas tanks.

Trump’s esoteric, or hidden message is one of jurisdictional arbitrage. By calling the leaders “chief,” he is affirming that native American lands are a sort of special economic zone in which new technology can be tried. If it works, the tribes will get more revenue, the U.S. will lessen its dependence on foreign powers, and this meme will be more appropriate than ever:

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This is also a great opportunity to create funds and zones for testing renewable energy. Much like Saudi Arabia has started to plan for its own post-oil future, the native peoples of America could dedicate a portion of the windfall to developing clean energy alternatives.

Let 1,000 reservations bloom.

The #New95 Reach The Home of the Free Speech Movement

October 31, 2017

This weekend’s 1517 Assembly went swimmingly for an event made up of a bunch of rabble-rousers and contrarians. Danielle Strachmann and Mike Gibson – collaborators on the 1517 Fund, and formerly the Thiel Fellowship (aka 20 Under 20) –  introduced the morning’s speakers as those “doing what they have no business doing.” These included the first female tech CEO in Afghanistan, and Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison (who started the multi-billion dollar payments processing company before the age of 20).

Balaji Srinivasan spoke on how to enable discussion of truly new ideas, which may be unpopular. Nowadays, everyone is a journalist and a public figure. If you want to speak “truth” to “power,” Balaji suggested separating one’s earning name from one’s speaking name. This can be done through his new company (soon to be He also advised extending your personal runway by living as a digital nomad – maximizing your savings, and minimizing your burn rate.

There was a common theme: the avant-garde eventually becomes the system. Sadie Valeri explains how this has been the norm in the fine art world for decades. Students learn to imitate Picasso’s abstract art, rather than the human figure, as the masters – including Picasso – did for centuries. “You’re not a revolutionary by copying revolutionaries,” she said, suggesting that those looking to take charge over their education should find a solid teacher who has the skills they want, and learn everything they can from them.

I wrote about the original event that inspired the Assembly – Luther’s publication of the Ninety-five theses on October 31, 1517 –  including my own spin on the #new95.

I was fortunate to meet a Berkeley econ student (my major at Cal) – David Zhou – who picked up a poster version of Mike’s new 95 to post on Berkeley’s campus. After a bit of dramatic staging, we taped it up to one of the bulletin boards outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union. Some of the lettering on the old building had fallen down, leaving only “Martin Luther” standing. Both Luther and King were great reformers in their own right. As Berkeley activists struggle to find a coherent voice for the civil rights issues of our day, they could do worse than to look at these men, and the much older tradition of protest that inspired them.

Update:  It looks like someone reposted the sign on Sproul in a better location. Good on whoever pushed this boundary.

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Sea-“steading” Semantics and a Socratic Dialogue on Seceding from Spain

October 30, 2017
Four years ago, DeltaSync debuted a preliminary plan which estimated that a series of platforms for 20 to 30 people would cost around $15 million. With one-fifth of the space reserved for open greenery, the firm estimates living space would cost about $500 per square foot, which is just over half as much as the average price per square foot in New York City (and less than a third of the price of Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side).

Later, Wachs is critical of frontiersman language – like “homesteading” – which she associates with genocide and colonialism. I don’t hesitate to speak positively about homesteading, which has a noble intellectual tradition when bound up with the Lockean proviso: while individuals have a right to homestead private property from nature by working on it, they can do so only “…at least where there is enough, and as good, left in common for others.”

Still, we must remember that the Homestead Act gave rise to the Trail of Tears, and reflect on the maladies the global north has brought to the western and southern hemispheres.


What is the modern equivalent of cholera?

It is equally important to push back against the idea that seasteading is somehow ‘colonialism 2.0.’ The subtle art of subjugation has been evolving all along, and the right to self-determination was never re-established in the South Pacific. After all, this was just 50 years ago.

Hopefully seasteading will help countries like French Polynesia in the on-going quest for self-determination.

2. Dialogue on Catalan Independence, By Jason Sorens, Pileus Blog

If you haven’t followed the news out of Catalonia, this socratic dialogue between an imagined opponent and supporter of independence will get you up to speed on the issue, from the right to self determination…

TONI (Independence Opponent): The right to self-determination is not an individual right like freedom of expression or the right to vote; it’s a collective right and therefore subject to far stricter limits. Your right to secede infringes on the rights of others who do not want secession. Like me.

…to the political status…

TONI: [Independence] could happen, but only if we stay in Spain and make the case. Persuasion is the way to go, not just leaving. Once you leave, you can’t go back.

GEMMA (Independence Supporter): If you had a girlfriend who told you that she would beat you violently if you ever tried to leave her, wouldn’t that make you want to leave her more?

…to the economics…

GEMMA: No one denies there will be short-run costs to independence. The long-run benefits are larger. If Spain is willing to harm Catalans by keeping us outside the EU after independence, they will also be willing to harm us when we are under their thumb. At least independence lets us negotiate with other European countries as an equal. WTO membership will happen relatively quickly. Also note that as long as other countries do not recognize Catalonia’s independence, our goods will have access to European and global markets on the same terms as Spanish goods. There is no reason recognition of our independence and accession to the WTO and EU could not happen around the same time.

TONI: It’s odd, you have to admit, for independentists to hope that Catalonia’s independence is denied recognition so that Catalonia’s citizens are still treated as if they were Spanish citizens. If Catalonia is denied recognition, other European countries are not going to negotiate with Catalonia as an equal. You cannot have it both ways: all the rights and benefits of independence but none of the duties and costs. The short-term costs of secession could be huge. Just look at all the businesses moving out of Catalonia.

I guess exit works both works ways.

Catalonia Region Just Declared Independence from Spain; What Happened Next Will Force You to Think for Yourself.

October 27, 2017

From the New York Times:

BARCELONA, Spain — Spain’s leader fired the government of the country’s Catalonia region on Friday, dissolved the regional parliament and ordered new elections after defiant Catalan lawmakers declared independence, escalating the biggest political crisis in Spain in decades.

But then there’s this:

Within an hour of the Catalan vote, the Spanish Senate in Madrid voted 214 to 47 to invoke Article 155 of Spain’s Constitution, granting Mr. Rajoy extraordinary powers to take direct administrative control over the region and remove secessionist politicians, including the Catalan leader, Carles Puigdemont.

It’s hard to say whether this will result in a stable new country of Catalonia. It seems unlikely, considering that the Spanish government is considering prosecuting the Catalan lawmakers who voted for independence. Other European countries are already lining up to assure Spain that they won’t recognize the new country, but this is a big deal nonetheless. It raises serious questions about legality and, more importantly, legitimacy. Spain says this move is illegal. Putting that aside, what makes a new separatist government legitimate in the eyes of the rest of the world? I don’t claim to understand the nuances of Spanish/Catalonian relations, but I sense that it would be unwise for supporters of independence to overplay their hand. Catalonia, which includes the city of Barcelona, was granted autonomy in 1978. The current President of the region, Carles Puigdemont, called for a vote, which the constitutionalist party (those who wish to remain under the Spanish constitution) refused to participate in:

Puigdemont announced in June 2017 that the referendum would take place on 1 October, and that the question would be, “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” The Spanish government said in response, “that referendum will not take place because it is illegal.” [Wikipedia]

It took place anyway. Now what?


Catalan Sheepdog or a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

A few things worth noting:

  1. Independence is not as popular among the citizens of the region as it’s often made out to be. Although the people are fiercely nationalistic, the independence movement has historically been the project of a small far-left cohort that wants more power to tax and spend. Figures for support range from 40 to close to 50%, but I haven’t seen any that exceed a majority.
  2. Tyler Cowen suggests that this may be an act of “electoral terrorism.” He asks whether any geographic region can call a legislative referendum to separate from the broader country, and demurs. Could this be a case of pretending to be victims, when in fact the Catalonians are the aggressors?
  3. Some amount negotiating would need to take place to figure out how the new nation would split its assets and liabilities with Spain. It’s hard to imagine this unfolding smoothly when the parties can’t agree on what’s lawful.

As a final point, I’m reminded of Adrian Vermeule and Eric Posner’s observation about the paradox of tyrannophobia – i.e., crying wolf when there is none, or when it’s merely a big fluffy sheepdog. It can have the effect of creating tyrants out of leaders who feel backed into a corner by their rebellious constituents. There is a parallel to Trump and his critics in America. Just look at the escalating wars of words (“You’re a maniac!”; “No, YOU’RE the maniac!”), and consider what this might look like if one side fires an actual first shot.

With that said, we may about to witness one of the biggest experiments in new nation formation in decades. There will be many lessons to be learned. We should be especially tuned in to mistakes to be avoided in the future.

New 95 Theses

October 18, 2017

Some highlights from Mike Gibson’s (@william_blake) spin on Martin Luther’s inauguration of the Protestant Reformation – promoting an upcoming assembly by his 1517 Fund:

 1. Life in the U.S. begins with a 13-year mandatory minimum sentence: K-12.

3. Higher education has become America’s national religion, complete with heaven and hell, salvation and damnation. You’re a winner or a sinner. It’s Yale or jail.

17. The debt to party ratio on campus is too damn high.

18. Total student loan debt in the United States is now more than $1.5 trillion.

26. In most schools, boredom with tedium has been diagnosed as a psychological disorder. It is as if we diagnosed orca whales as mentally ill because they lost energy floating in tiny tanks at SeaWorld.

30. A school will defend itself against the true education it hates.

40. Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Vermeer — no college.

54. The liberal arts and what colleges call the liberal arts are as different as civilization and insolent barbarism.

63. Illiterate sailors on a rickety ship overthrew a thousand years of university Aristotelian scholarship in 1492.

65. Most published research findings are false. Yup, here’s your footnote.

72. The Bro Wage Premium: joining a fraternity lowered GPA by 0.25 points but boosted future income by 36 percent.

74. The hypocrisy of postmodernism as a philosophy concerned with power structures is that its authority depends on the accredited university.

And lastly:

95. Education ought to be a mission not merely to instruct the world but to liberate it.

Curiously, one could find the roots of the current dysfunctional educational system in the offspring of the Reformation – from the training schools for puritan ministers, which begat the Ivy Leagues, to the whole notion of compulsory education. From Wikipedia:

Martin Luther’s seminal text An die Ratsherren aller Städte deutschen Landes (To the Councillors of all Towns in German Countries,1524) called for establishing compulsory schooling so that all parishioners would be able to read the Bible by themselves.

You can request an invitation to the 1517 Assembly, taking place on Oct. 28 (three days before the 500 year anniversary of Luther’s publishing of the theses) here.