COMPETES

Congress recently passed the America COMPETES Act, a massive science and technology spending bill. Phil Plait has been beating the drum on this for some time. The bill has a lot of supporters in political and scientific circles.

However, I’m going to be ornery here. I’m opposed to passing the Act as written. The COMPETES Act and the justifications for it are an encapsulation of everything that has gone wrong in our government and in the way people think about government.

To be specific, my problems with the bill are:

1) It mistakes spending for progress; and

2) It adds to our massive deficit.

First, the spending. COMPETES claims to support American science and technology. Supposedly, without this injection of funds, America is “eating its seed corn” and destroying its competitiveness.

The problem is that this claim is made about every bill that comes through Congress, even when it involves boondoggles like bioethanol fuel, farm subsidies and highway funding. Every spending bill that ever sifts through Congress is covered with the most glowing prose imaginable about its supposed benefits. Even the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere” was touted as an economic stimulus to the region.

While the bill (which I’ve skimmed) seems relatively pork free, the list of those who endorse the bill (see Phil’s post) is a who’s-who of special interest spending. Are we to believe that these pork leaches are suddenly principled and noble when it comes to science?

Moreover, when the government funds something, that creates a crowd-out effect. Technology and science wind up getting funded for political reasons, not economic or scientific ones. This tends to be a net negative on the economy. Don’t believe me? A recent study at Harvard, designed to prove how wonderful government spending was, found the exact opposite:

The average state experiences a 40 to 50 percent increase in earmark spending if its senator becomes chair of one of the top-three committees. In the House, the average is around 20 percent. For broader measures of spending, such as discretionary state-level federal transfers, the increase from being represented by a powerful senator is around 10 percent.

It was an enormous surprise, at least to us, to learn that the average firm in the chairman’s state did not benefit at all from the increase in spending. Indeed, the firms significantly cut physical and R&D spending, reduce employment, and experience lower sales.

I’m actually stunned myself to see how clearly they detected this. Libertarians have been saying this for so long, we’re actually slack-jawed to see that we were right.

Most of COMPETES funding seems to be generalized. However, billions are targeted for government agencies whose function seems to be subsidizing big business. The fact is that much seems to have been attached to this bill that has little to do with advancing science.

Now if that were the only problem with COMPETES, I wouldn’t object. That’s the way Washington works. A dollar in legitimate science funding usually comes with a dollar of bullshit. We accept that. But then there’s the second problem — the debt this bill creates.

Some months ago, Congress passed PAYGO to much fanfare. This was supposed to get control of our exploding debt. Since then, Congress has completely ignored the bill, passing spending measure after spending measure without even paying lip service to PAYGO.

This bill, whatever its merits may be, does not cut spending or raise taxes to pay for itself. If the bill is so wonderful, why not make sacrifices to pay for it? No pain, no gain appears to apply everywhere except Washington.

We are on the brink of fiscal crisis. It will do no good to pass big spending bills now if we have a debt crisis later. All that spending will be paid for several times with economic ill. It’s no good to plant “seed corn” if a debt crisis burns out the field.

Phil justifies this deficit spending by pointing out how much money we are spending in Iraq. But this is precisely the kind of bad thinking that has gotten us into this situation. It’s as if a family in debt went out to eat at an expensive restaurant and justified it because it was less than the car they spent a fortune on. It’s faulty logic because:

1) two wrong don’t make a right;

2) there is no moral equivalence store where we can trade the Iraq War for a big NASA program;

3) PRECISELY this argument is used all the time to slash science funding, Apollo especially, and will be used in the future;

4) saying we can cut war spending is not the same thing as actually cutting spending. There are no points in this game for hypotheticals.

The last is perhaps the part that offends me the most. It’s like a morbidly obese man gobbling down a cupcake because he COULD get on the treadmill. We have not stopped the Iraq War and the Administration shows no inclination to do so. So we don’t have that money to spend. It is pure dishonesty to ramp up spending on one item and then pretend you could cut another when you have no intention of doing so.

COMPETES is a paradigm of what’s wrong with politics. People want their goodies (more spending on science) without paying the price (more taxes; less spending on other things). It is an embodiment of the view that government is a great golden god, dispensing free goodies that never have to be paid for.

If the people who support COMPETES love it so much, they should be willing to pay the price for it. They should be campaigning to cut spending or raise taxes and identify specific tax hikes and spending cuts. They should refuse to accept the funding from COMPETES until it is paid for. Until that point, we (and as a grant-funded scientist, I’m not exempt) are no better than the other 300 million children we have in this country demanding more and more government for no additional price.

When I was in the UK last week, the new coalition government proposed over six billion pounds in spending cuts, with a warning that this was just the tip of the iceberg. The British are taking their debt seriously and taking steps to fix it. They are not passing massive unfunded programs to add to the problem. But here, everyone still thinks we’re in a free candy store and can spend whatever we like without ever paying the piper. And to even suggest that we should pay for what we spend is to be a Right Wing extremist and to suggest we eat our seed corn.

Of course, these words are in vain. Both of the people who read this blog are likely supportive of COMPETES. But … at least these thoughts are out of my head now. I can go back to work.

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