January 29, 2020

From Idaho to Mars

2,402 people live in St. Maries, ID. The Lumberjack is the mascot of the lone public high school.

Tom Mueller grew up there, about a hundred miles from the Canadian border, surrounded by wilderness and chainsaws. But Tom also spent a lot of time looking up at space. His friend across the street had a telescope. The two of them would look for roaming planets and black holes in the night sky.

One day, Tom’s dad came home from a day of logging to discover Tom had strewn all the parts of the lawnmower across the yard. He was pissed, at least until Tom proceeded to put all the pistons and valves and blades back together. It still worked just fine.

Tom was really good at math. He was also really good at quickly understanding how different engines worked, and how to fix them. He loved launching homemade rockets from his backyard.

In high school, his math teacher asked if he wanted to be an engineer.

Tom said no.”

Do you want to be the guy who fixes the plane or the guy who designs it?” his teacher asked.

Nowadays, Tom is the CTO of SpaceX. He first met Elon Musk in 2001 after developing liquid-fueled rockets in his LA garage. The two decided to build rockets that would one day make it to Mars.

Tom credits his high school math teacher with nudging him to major in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Idaho, which pushed him onward to LMU in LA for a master’s degree.

If it hadn’t been for that math teacher, I probably would have been a mechanic or a logger.”1

The math teacher’s suggestion reminds me of Tyler Cowen’s observation that small nudges can be the difference in massive success and failure.

But there’s another interesting part of this story. Tom Mueller was born in rural northern Idaho. He now designs the world’s most groundbreaking rockets in LA. The move from St. Maries, ID, to Moscow, ID, to California was relatively easy.

There’s an economic efficiency in matching talent to geography. There’s a reason the auto industry clustered in Detroit, silicon clustered in the Bay Area, and healthcare clustered in Boston.

Geographic redistribution is one of the built-in advantages of the United States. Whereas even in Europe people can move around, there are still significant cultural differences between cities. It’s less likely somebody born and raised in Paris will choose to live in Berlin when compared to somebody born and raised in Chicago choosing to live in Boston.

The dynamism of people moving around is a hallmark of a free society. We get to vote with our feet. The inverse - the inability to move around - is a hallmark of centralized economies.

The startling problem, as I’ve discussed on this blog before, is that the number of people moving across state lines has dropped by 51% in a half-century.

Why?

What have we done to make it harder for somebody like Tom to move from Idaho to LA? How can we make it easier for people to move and choose where they want to learn and grow and contribute?


  1. https://magazine.lmu.edu/articles/rocket-man/


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