The Crisis of Big Science: Why Misunderstanding Money Matters

Nobel Prize recipient and physicist Steven Weinberg is not optimistic about the future of big science projects like various particle colliders (boldface mine):

Big science is in competition for government funds, not only with manned space flight, and with various programs of real science, but also with many other things that we need government to do. We don’t spend enough on education to make becoming a teacher an attractive career choice for our best college graduates. Our passenger rail lines and Internet services look increasingly poor compared with what one finds in Europe and East Asia. We don’t have enough patent inspectors to process new patent applications without endless delays. The overcrowding and understaffing in some of our prisons amount to cruel and unusual punishment. We have a shortage of judges, so that civil suits take years to be heard.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, moreover, doesn’t have enough staff to win cases against the corporations it is charged to regulate. There aren’t enough drug rehabilitation centers to treat addicts who want to be treated. We have fewer policemen and firemen than before September 11. Many people in America cannot count on adequate medical care. And so on. In fact, many of these other responsibilities of government have been treated worse in the present Congress than science. All these problems will become more severe if current legislation forces an 8 percent sequestration—or reduction, in effect—of nonmilitary spending after this year…

It seems to me that what is really needed is not more special pleading for one or another particular public good, but for all the people who care about these things to unite in restoring higher and more progressive tax rates, especially on investment income. I am not an economist, but I talk to economists, and I gather that dollar for dollar, government spending stimulates the economy more than tax cuts. It is simply a fallacy to say that we cannot afford increased government spending. But given the anti-tax mania that seems to be gripping the public, views like these are political poison. This is the real crisis, and not just for science.

This is why misunderstanding the political implications of having a fiat currency is so tragic. We can’t run out of money. That’s the difference between being a currency user (you, me, and state governments) and a currency issuer (the federal government). While there probably is a reducto ad absurdum debt/GDP rato at which point people start to believe U.S. currency is play money, we’re not close to that point:

Japan currently has a GDP-debt ratio (~225% vs. ~90%) more than twice that of the U.S., and still has very low interest rates. Clearly, selling Japanese debt isn’t an issue. To put this in perspective, for the U.S. to reach that level, we would have to increase our debt by $15 trillion–the size of the entire U.S. economy. No one is talking about that. We wouldn’t even notice it if we increased the debt by a couple of trillion dollars. Actually, that’s not true, since the people who would have jobs due to deficit spending, the people who would earn more money selling things to those people with newfound jobs, and those whose salaries would increase due to better bargaining conditions for workers would experience a noticeable improvement in their lives. But the amounts we’re talking about pale in comparison to $15 trillion dollars.

As I’ve argued before, it is our interest to not buy into the notion of money as a rate-limiting resource. Other things can be limiting–and ignoring those limits can lead to bad things (for example, Noah Smith argues there are limits on the number of physicists). But if the only thing holding us back is money, spend the damn money already.

Scientists (along with everyone else) need to internalize this. On the other hand, lots of people haven’t been able to wrap their heads around evolution, so this might take a while. Sigh.

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4 Responses to The Crisis of Big Science: Why Misunderstanding Money Matters

  1. Bayesian Bouffant, FCD says:

    Big science is in competition… with various programs of real science…”


    • eNeMeE says:

      Think “real science” is in comparison to “manned spaceflight” not big science.

    • Darkling says:

      I originally read it the same way that you did and cringed a little. After rereading it I think ENeMeE has the right of it.

  2. johnkrehbiel says:

    I don’t disagree with you interpretation of federal spending, but even on the traditional interpretation, the problem is tax cuts, not excessive spending. Let the Dubya tax cuts expire, and much of the deficit goes away. Get out of Afghanistan and put people back to work, and the rest goes away.

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