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Kerry at KSC
Presidential candidate John Kerry once argued that the money spent on the International Space Station would be better spent on law enforcement, the environment, and education. (credit: NASA/KSC)

Space vs. butter

A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey’s on the moon)
I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.
Gil Scott-Heron, “Whitey on the Moon”, 1972

In order to win the political battle of the budget, space exploration has to perennially out-compete hunger, terrorism, disease and infirmity. The high profile of space exploration is a two-edged sword in this battle because the technological leadership inherent in space exploration is counterbalanced by the perception of conspicuous consumption.

The arguments that the next $100 billion spent on space would be better spent on something else are rhetorically effective, but logically empty. The trick space foes use is to compare the last dollar spent on space with the first dollar spent on the alternative. Piercing the rhetoric involves comparing all the money spent on space to all the money spent on the desirable general category: Upping social security payments by 3% would probably not be a big deal to Granny. Similarly, throwing more money at alleviating poverty, seeking clinical immortality, and curbing terror probably won’t have too much impact since so much is being spent on those problems already.

The trick space foes use is to compare the last dollar spent on space with the first dollar spent on the alternative.

There are genuine problems with social equity in medical payments. No one laments the walkup business traveler who sets the benchmark price for airline tickets. But pity Nell who as an uninsured person sets the rack rate—Medicaid and insurance companies demand discounts from hers. Richard Scruggs is putting some of his millions won suing the tobacco industry to use trying to cut this Gordian knot. Canceling the space program would not help get much closer to a solution to the uninsured. When you have 13% of GDP spent on medical, what is another 0.15% going to do for you?

Can money help if “The man jus’ upped my rent last night. (‘cause Whitey’s on the moon)” Maybe, but rent control does more harm than good to help alleviate housing shortages. Ironically, relaxing zoning restrictions to allow sleeping quarters tighter than the space shuttle’s would probably help out more.

Using money to stop “The price of food… goin’ up.” results in mounds of American cheese that must be stored or destroyed and a billion impoverished farmers overseas.

Gil Scott-Heron is not the only person who argues that space money is better spent on earthly matters such as “Junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck.” John Kerry has gotten into the act:

We cannot spend nearly $100 billion of the taxpayers money to fund the space station and then say that we do not have enough money to put cops on the beat, clean our environment, and ensure that our children get the best education possible.
John Kerry, Senate speech, September 4, 1996
In India, the political stakes are high since poverty is much more immediate and national prestige is much less secure.

While I agree with John Kerry back in the day that the International Space Station should go, what would an extra $100 billion over 20 years—a nickel per person per day—do for local law enforcement? Presumably, local governments would spend less on cops if the federal government spent more. They are already optimizing between crime and taxes so if the feds spent more, they would spend less. Would federal dollars spent on protection just substitute for state, local or personal dollars? Maybe yes, but if not, that says something different about the value of the activity; if no one is paying for beat cops now, that should mean that they are not important enough to rate a big federal subsidy.

While the first dollar spent on the environment can emulsify some sticky bird problems, the last dollar spent on environmental protection probably does much more to harass than to conserve.

The space vs. butter debate has a global element. In India, the political stakes are high since poverty is much more immediate and national prestige is much less secure:

Last year, the [Indian Space Research Organization] said it would send a spacecraft to orbit the moon by 2005 and land an astronaut on the moon by 2015.
Some scientists criticized the plan for an astronaut’s journey, saying the feat is outdated and will bring little benefit to India, where more than a quarter of the 1.06 billion people live in abject poverty.
S. Srinivasan, AP, 8/12/04

At stake is $2.2 billion over ten years or seven-hundredths of one percent of India’s $3 trillion a year economy. Hopefully, some movie company will decide that a substantial investment in recreating Apollo 11 will help balance the social accounting in India and help it join China in the rare ranks of the loony.

Of course, the rallying cry of space boosters can’t just be “Space is cheaper than you think!” A good rearguard action, however, to protect budgets is just as important as the proud vision required to champion them. So the next time someone asks you, “How come there ain’t no money here? (Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon)” You can tell them that if they can solve the world’s problems with an extra one-tenth of one percent of our $50 trillion global economy, then perhaps they can fund the space program afterwards.


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