We Can Afford Rockets and Butter

I like science blogger Ethan Siegel: anyone who shaves his head for charity is a-ok in my book. But I have to disagree with the premise of his post “With All The Suffering in the World, Why Invest in Science? Basically, Ethan was asked why we should fund projects like the Mars landing (CUZ ATOMIC SPACE SCIENCE TANKS! WITH JETPACKS! THAT’S WHY!):

Well, ok, now that makes me have to ask you, because to send a manned mission to Mars, you’re talking about tons of money. And NASA, continually, year-after-year, has to fight for every penny (and I think it lost another 2% of its budget, or something like that, just in the past year). Why is it so important that we invest precious dollars towards this, given some of the other financial difficulties this country’s facing.

It’s not that Ethan didn’t provide a good answer–go read his post for the longer, but very eloquent version: he did. Nor would you want to get into detailed economics in that forum. So Ethan did a good job.

But the question itself really bothers me. It’s a completely false tradeoff, and one scientists have to face all the time. To put it simply, our dollars are not “precious” because we have a fiat currency; we can spend the money. Being a currency issuer is very different than being a currency user. There is no reason to choose between Mars landing or fixing all our other problems if money is the only limiting ‘resource.’ Hell, we could afford to put a whole goddamn showroom of ATOMIC SPACE SCIENCE TANKS! WITH JETPACKS! on Mars.

Actually, that last part might not be true. Landing ATOMIC SPACE SCIENCE TANKS! WITH JETPACKS! seems to be a very intensive undertaking. We might not have enough mohawk-coiffed rocket scientists. Might need to rustle up a few more. We could run into resource limitations–maybe we want some of our engineers, computer whizzes, and mohawk-coiffed rocket scientists to do something else worthwhile (figure out how to download porn faster!). Maybe making a bunch of ATOMIC SPACE SCIENCE TANKS! WITH JETPACKS! would cause shortages in making other fancy gizmos (dunno). It might cause inflation in the ‘send stuff into outer space’ sector. Or maybe we simply don’t want that many ATOMIC SPACE SCIENCE TANKS! WITH JETPACKS! But money is never a limiting resource when you have a fiat currency.

And that’s true even if you don’t have a mohawk.

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3 Responses to We Can Afford Rockets and Butter

  1. “It’s a completely false tradeoff”

    But, you know, it isn’t a false tradeoff – the tradeoff is between money spent on things that (largely, but not entirely) the GOP regards as unimportant if not actually dangerous (ie science, public welfare, etc.) and money spent on things that the GOP regards as important (anything that leads to criminals and wealthy private individuals increasing their share of the nation’s resources). Money is precious to those who worship money. Money is precious to those who feel that money is a measure of morality. Money is precious to those who feel that putting money in the Wrong Hands wastes it – just Throws It Away Forever! That’s the tradeoff. It’s interesting that he’s looking at NASA – on the one hand, NASA is shifting government money to private contractors, which should be desirable. On the other hand, that money could be instead spent on military hardware to be used not only to enrich the profiteers of the aerospace industry, but also to wave our national phallus in the face of the rest of the world. The modern GOP has militarized everything and fetishized the military. An extraordinary accomplishment from a group that by and large is terrified of putting themselves in harms way, but I digress..

  2. joemac53 says:

    John, you said it so well I don’t have to add anything. Thanks.

  3. Pingback: Why We Should Not Worry About $16 Trillion of Federal Debt–And What That Means for Policy and Politics | Mike the Mad Biologist

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