No, the U.S. Can’t Run Out of Money (And What This Means for Scientists)

Dylan Matthews, now of Vox, tweeted the obvious:

To his credit, he’s argued this before:

The U.S. Treasury never has to default on any of its debts. That’s because we control our own currency. If we owe debts and don’t have the tax revenue to pay them, we can always just print the money and hand it over. That may not be the best approach, and in the very worst-case scenario this leads to hyperinflation so bad that defaulting is the less-bad option. But we’re so far from that situation today that worrying about it doesn’t seem worthwhile.

While I’ve discussed this before, a key point related to science funding bears repeating:

…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 [the] 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.

While I disagree with how some science funding is being spent (e.g., NCAAM, the overproduction of PhDs, certain programmatic decisions), the notion that science funding is somehow limited by dollars is ludicrous. Scientists, who are supposed to understand how things work, need to push back on this. It’s only your career*.

*Scientists are the stupidest government contractors ever, largely because thinking of ourselves as government contractors is, for many of us, beneath us.

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