And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
– Revelation 6:5
Well if everyone’s going to talk about the financial crisis like it’s the end of the world we might as well be literary about it.
The ScienceBlogs homepage has a somewhat panicky roundup of sciencebloggers who’re
looking for free cash concerned about the future of science in America. And all kidding aside, they’ve got a point. So far as I can see, there’s three reasons to include a lot of science funding in the stimulus.
1. Science is a driving engine for economic growth and development, even if not usually in the short term.
2. Compared to the rest of the garbage in the stimulus bill, a couple extra billion is pocket change.
3. It will help keep me employed.
Do those outweigh the negatives? The US was already running a large deficit even before the crisis.* I don’t see it being a good idea to add $800,000,000,000 to the “expenditures” line under those circumstances. And to this we’re soon supposed to add some kind of universal health care and college spending, when the boomers are retiring and Social Security is estimated to be less than a decade away from turning from a net source to a net sink of federal funds? Regardless of whether you’re the most dedicated free-marketer or the most conscientious progressive, the numbers are not promising. There’s always tax hikes, but the US already has one of the most progressive tax codes in the world and is already only about 50% behind France in terms of total government expenditures per GDP. Even leaving potential growth-hindering effects of tax entirely aside, we’re running out of people to tax.
And thus we’ll have to borrow, and eventually people will quit buying US debt as the Treasury looks less and less likely to pay those loans back with currency that’s worth anything. It’s not going to be a gradual thing either – with the dollar as a major reserve currency we could easily see a phase transition in international behavior if a weakening dollar precipitates a mass sell-off. At that point we’ll weather a tremendously ugly recession if we’re lucky, or hyperinflation if we’re not.
So I’m not a fan of the stimulus. Money has to come from somewhere, and we’re running out of somewheres.
But what about the science? If we’re going to have a stimulus, I certainly hope there’s lots of money for science in it. In the final analysis though, it’s not our money. It’s the taxpayers’ money. I hope they through their elected representatives continue to decide that science is worth that penny or so of each federal dollar. But if in lean times they decide it isn’t, it’s their prerogative. We scientists are smart people. We’ll live.
* At this point someone usually suggests the Iraq war or military spending in general as an expensive thing that could be cut. True. Like everything else though, the numbers are important if we’re going to be realistic. If the Iraq war were ended tomorrow (and even with Obama it won’t be totally over for years) it would only save around $150 billion a year. Which is a tremendous amount, but still only around 5% of federal spending and not nearly enough to erase the deficit. Baseline DoD spending is about $515 billion, or a little under 17% of the budget. Peace-loving people sometimes also suggest that this could be cut, but it’s a dangerous world and even magically erasing the entire DoD would only barely end the 2008 deficit (current deficit projections are much higher), and that only temporarily. The federal government spends a lot of money – defense isn’t all that huge of a fraction. Per dollar of GDP, the US’s military budget is fairly sedate anyway – roughly the same as other major powers such as China and Russia. Regardless, the DoD employs three million people; putting some fraction of those people out of work isn’t exactly going to do wonders for unemployment. Many of those people will be scientists; DARPA’s budget is more than half the size of the NSF.