I should state up front here that I really don’t have a problem ideologically with Federal Spending. That great boogieman of right vs. left. I pay taxes, I want things for it. And I frankly like most of what I end up paying for. I’d like to see priorities shift, but I don’t believe cutting the budget will accomplish that. I’d like to see an expand space program. I would like to see an expanding educational budget. I would love a sensible national health care program. I would like to see less spending on weapons systems that never get out of planning or away from prototype and I would certainly like to see less government subsidy of pointless corporate programs that would best be served by shareholders telling their boards of directors what to do with company money. I dislike intensely public funding of sports arenas, for instance, particular for corporations that could pay for them out of petty cash.
It’s not that I desire a welfare state—I agree with many of the opponents of welfare that it tends to be destructive over time, but I disagree with them that it necessarily must be so, but we’re not going to settle that argument any time soon. (The problems are in implementation and then a lack of any kind of support that would meaningfullly get people off the dole and self-sufficient—like child care, free health care, and jobs training. We get those things here and there, occasionally, depending on the whims of the prevailing party, and when they are there they are shown to work, but we can’t quite get out of the mindset that tells us that these things are handouts to the undeserving, statistics to the contrary notwithstanding.)
Just so we’re clear about how I stand on government spending. Now, then.
The rhetoric that accompanied Obama’s election included much from the downsized Republicans about looking forward to working with the new president and coming to grips with national problems in the spirit of a fresh start. However, the stimulus package—which may well be too big—has forced the Republicans to declare themselves. We’re hearing a lot about wanting more tax cuts—almost exclusively tax cuts—in lieu of spending in the form of direct aid. This is a Republican mantra now. Tax cuts. The question, of course, is really this: what good are tax cuts when you’re already buried in debt? Granted, it frees up (theoretically) money for critical and immediate payments, but if the idea is to put people back to work tax cuts are not the solution. Because corporate America is mired in over-leveraged debt burdens that must be paid down before something mundane like hiring can happen. Tax cuts, therefore, won’t have any kind of immediate impact on the jobless rate. In time it might, depending on several other factors, the most significant of which would be a newfound corporate sense of ethics which would prevent them from continuing the pillage of their own capital for all the things that have gotten us into this mess in the first place. Labor is at the bottom of the ladder of what they see as important—hence the tongue lashing Obama gave them for paying out bonuses while asking for federal aid. As for working people? What good does a tax cut do someone who isn’t paying taxes because he or she has no income?
But this was to be expected. It is an attitude born out of the mixed priorities of what has become the Right, one of which is fiscal responsibility (I used to support Republicans on this count) the other of which is the more Libertarian view (borne of the Grover Norquist faction) that government is always the problem and must be pruned back radically. Hence tax cuts, in order to curtail revenues in order to force the government to reduce its size and, one must realize, its influence.
This was to be expected, though. They have to stick by their perceived brief in the hope that not all of their program of the last eight (or twenty-eight) years was rejected by the part of their constituency who switched parties to vote in Obama and Democratic majorities in both Houses.
But now we have a fairly clear statement that these folks are a new form of Ostrich. Obama made it clear during the campaign and since taking office that he intends to put science back in the forefront of our national life. The steady erosion of science by continual right wing gnawing since Reagan took office has left us in a bad state in relation to the rest of the world in terms even hard core Republicans must grasp—competitiveness. The canceling of the Super Colider in Texas was bad enough, but we’ve seen all manner of sidelining of science, most especially during the Bush years, most prominently (but not exclusively) with regards to environmental science. Basic research is down, exploratory science is struggling. While the late and (by many) unlamented Senator Proxmire did inestimable damage to science by making it the object of ridicule and derision, the fact is that during the Fifties, Sixties, and good part of the Seventies it had been because of our national investment in Pure Research that America ended up at the vanguard of science. The payback from NASA’s Apollo program alone in areas as disparate as meteorology and medical technology is almost incalculable.
What characterized this was the willingness to take risks. Let scientists research what they would on the assumption that somewhere along the line something would emerge that would benefit everyone. It was a gamble, but of a win-win vareity. Things did result, technologies and fundamental insights that propelled our education, our understanding and, yes, our economy in ways that could not have been predicted.
The unpredictable nature of it drives certain types of people insane.
Reagan’s assumption when he took office was that if we cut out the government involvement in—well, in anything—then the private sector would move in and take up the slack. Nice idea and on paper there was nothing wrong with it, except it didn’t happen. (Personally, I think Reagan was one of our most gullible presidents—big business told him “Ronny, take the restraints off and we will make this country great, we will be responsible corporate citizens, we’ll do great things for America” and he believed them. (Top be fair, in some cases those corporate entities probably did do their best, but most just entered upon the feeding frenzy deregulation permitted and we’re paying for it now.) Reagan believed them and they took what he gave them and screwed the country. In terms of fundamental scientific research, corporate spending on it declined fairly steadily since them. (One of the most productive research facilities in history, Bell Labs, is pulling out of basic research (an announcement made in August 2008) after years of declining funding which left only four scientists in the institution doing any kind of pure science.) Corporate America cannot stand paying for gambles, even when historically this gamble pays off magnificently. (The shareholders would rather have the money in their dividend checks.)
So when Obama declared a recommitment to science, given his otherwise pragmatic vision, it was clear that he understood that in order for there to be a future, we have to look for one. And to look for it in such a way that it will benefit us as we go.
The stimulus package included a great deal of money—minuscule compared to the overall amount—for the various science departments which have been all but strangled over the last decade. According to this link through Panda’s Thumb, Republicans want to cut deeply into science.
The most egregious cut in this list in the excision a billion dollars—the whole stimulus allocation—for the Nation Science Foundation. But nothing is left untouched.
The most obvious conclusion to draw, as if that had not already become clear from all the other wrangling over this, is that the Republican leadership simply doesn’t get it, that they don’t see the connection between the free and subsidized exploration of all those things coming under the heading “Science” and the growth of both economic prosperity and the human spirit.
A less obvious conclusion, and perhaps a bit on the fringe of reasonable, is that Republicans, conjoined as they are to elements in our society which have for lo these many years done everything possible to destroy our confidence in science and our attachment to its products, both intellectual and material, cannot countenance increased support of the very institutions whose pronouncements they have denied and thwarted at every turn. It is disconcerting to see such a thorough-going denial of investment in the very fields that might—will probably, in fact almost certainly given its track record—do the most to improve our future.
But it is the future that is the enemy. It is the certainty that it will be different and that we must change in order to live in it that disturbs what has become a large segment of the Republican Party’s natural constituency. It is a denial of all that we must face and, more importantly, all that we must embrace in order to become what we’ve been declaring since WWII that we are—the bright beacon of freedom in the world.
The spending on infrastructure, on schools, on basic support mechanisms is being condemned by Republicans as unnecessary spending, because it is not stimulatory. But everyone will use those things and because they won’t have to rely on some private entity to do or not do them depending on the whims of the shareholders they will be there for everyone to take advantage of. (The interstate highway system enabled a huge spurt of economic growth once it was constructed. The benefits to transportation allowed business to increase profits. True, it also enabled White Flight and has created the problem of Suburban and Exurban sprawl, but that too was a spur to economic growth. Yet critics at the time saw it as “wasteful” spending.)
There is a link in the article to the legislators who are part of this demand to shut down a potential road to a better future. Perhaps we should gear up now to see that they are ousted in the next election cycle.
But then, maybe you think all this money for basic science is a bad idea, too. After all, science is all about the future and the world and the universe and tells us things that make us different. Scary.