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It is the 50 year anniversary of the Apollo moon landing!  It is a glorious anniversary: the moon landing was surely one of humankind’s proudest moments to date! Human beings left the Earth and walked upon the surface of a different world and returned to tell the tale! Yet it is a bittersweet anniversary too.  Today we are too politically paralyzed, too indebted, and too subservient to world-bestriding monopolies to accomplish anything similarly stirring.  It is unlikely we could even repeat the same feat! The president talks of returning to the moon by 2024, but anybody following the affairs of NASA recognizes that this is not going to happen (even assuming the current administration remains in place to push these particular space priorities).

In 1967, the Apollo program, by itself, was taking 4 percent of total government spending.  That was an era when the USA’s GDP represented 38% of the total world economic output (it is around 24% today).  There are lots of cranks and bumpkins who grouse about such outlays, but that money was spent here on Earth and it yielded rewards far beyond the moon landing itself.  The communications, materials, and technology innovations which have changed so many aspects of life largely flowed out of the space program (and its shadowy military sibling programs).

Perhaps you are wondering why this is not a nostalgic & triumphalist post about an epochal human accomplishment.  Maybe you are also perplexed about why I am writing about budgets and GDP instead of, you know, about landing human beings on the moon (although there has not been a human on the moon during my lifetime).

This is not just an anniversary post, it is also a polemical post about current policy failures. We are not investing any such vast outlays in long-term, open-ended research today.  It is going to come back to haunt us in a future of reduced prospects and lackluster breakthroughs Fifty years hence, are we going to look back on 2019 and enthuse about an Instagram filter, or slight improvements in immunotherapy, or blockchain technology?

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Wikipedia blandly notes ” blue-sky projects are politically and commercially unpopular and tend to lose funding to more reliably profitable or practical research.” The real genius of the moon-landing was that the end result was so spectacular and stupendous that it upended this conventional wisdom.  U.S. politicians of the sixties had the genius to perceive that the Apollo program could bring us together, boost our national prestige, bankrupt the Russians, and yield enormous technological and scientific rewards all at the same time.

In 1969, it must have seemed like the beginning of a golden age of space exploration.  After our heroic moon conquest we would build nuclear reactors on the moon and then create space cities in domed craters.  There would be giant lunar rail guns, torus space stations, spaceplanes, and Mars missions (and my floating Venutian city).  Instead we have the moldering hulk which is the International Space Station and some worn out space planes in museums.  Our vision and our willpower faded as our greed grew greater.

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But it is never too late! Space is still out there, bigger than ever. The moon landing showed that the impossible is possible if we work together.  That’s still true too and it is something we should all think hard about as we look up at the night sky and make plans for what to do next.

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I haven’t written very much about the current state of politics lately, not just because President Trump makes me angry & unhappy, but also because the deadlock in Washington (and precipitous national decline) make me sad and anxious.  I would like to continue this precedent:  paying breathless attention to all of Trump’s stunts and bullying just make him stronger (although I do think it is worth noting that he has been signing Bibles as though he were the author–and his devout Christian followers absolutely love it!). However, the latest enormities fall in the realm of policy and planning, so let’s take a look at the proposed 2020 Discretionary budget which was released by the White House yesterday. Predictably, this budget delivers slight funding increases to the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, while stripping safety net and environmental programs fairly drastically.  I suppose this is not unexpected under any Republican president, even one such as this one, (although it raises eyebrows after the colossal tax giveaway to the rich).  However, what truly raises eyebrows in the budget are the appalling cuts to scientific and medical research.  Here are the actual numbers:

Proposed Discretionary Budget Changes

All dollar amounts are in billions.

Department Or Agency
2019 Budget (Estimate)
2020 Request
$ change
% change
Defense1 $685.0 $718.3 $33.4 +5%
Veterans Affairs $86.6 $93.1 $6.5 +8%
Health and Human Services $101.7 $89.6 -$12.1 -12%
Education $70.5 $62.0 -$8.5 -12%
Homeland Security $48.1 $51.7 $3.6 +7%
Housing and Urban Development
HUD gross total (excluding receipts) $52.7 $44.1 -$8.6 -16%
HUD receipts -$9.3 -$6.5 $2.8 -30%
State Department and other international programs2 $55.8 $42.8 -$13.0 -23%
Energy $35.5 $31.7 -$3.8 -11%
National Nuclear Security Administration $15.1 $16.5 $1.3 9%
Other Energy $20.4 $15.2 -$5.2 -25%
NASA $20.7 $21.0 $0.3 +1%
Justice $29.9 $29.2 -$0.7 -2%
Agriculture $24.4 $20.8 -$3.6 -15%
Interior $14.0 $12.5 -$1.5 -11%
Commerce3 $12.3 $12.3 * <1%
Labor $12.1 $10.9 -$1.2 -10%
Transportation $27.3 $21.4 -$5.9 -22%
Treasury $12.9 $13.1 $0.2 +2%
National Science Foundation $7.8 $7.1 -$0.7 -9%
Environmental Protection Agency $8.8 $6.1 -$2.8 -31%
Army Corps of Engineers $7.0 $4.8 -$2.2 -31%
Small Business Administration $0.7 $0.7 * -5%
Other agencies $21.3 $19.1 -$2.1 -10%

Notes

* $50 million or less
1. Includes $9.2 billion for emergency border security and hurricane recovery funding
2. Includes funding for the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, Treasury international programs and 12 international agencies
3. Appropriations for 2019 are incomplete.

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So, the super massive ulti-mega-omnibus funding bill passed today (despite a last-minute executive tantrum) and the bill is…good?  This goes against all of the doom-and-gloom scenarios which dominate the news (and this blog), and it is unpalatable to praise any product from the 115th Congress of the United States of America, but, despite the president’s recommendation for massive cuts to fundamental scientific inquiry, Congress coughed up a LOT of new money for science.

I know you are all smart, so let’s get straight to the numbers. For its annual budget, the NIH received 3 billion dollars more than last year (an 8.7 % increase). The National Science Foundation got a $295 million budget raise (3.9 % increase).  The USGS received a $63 million budget (6%) expansion, while Congress increased the budget of the NOAA by $234 million (4%) to $5.9 billion.  The Department of Energy received a whopping 16 percent raise of $868 million dollars: their annual budget is now $6.26 billion (obvs. we need shiny new nuclear weapons…but maybe there is some money for fundamental nuclear research in there too). Even the EPA kept the same budget as last year and experienced no cuts.

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Best of all NASA gets a much-needed lift.  To quote The Atlantic (which was the source of these numbers):

Nasa will receive $20.7 billion, $1.1 billion more than the previous year. The space agency’s science programs will increase by about 8 percent to $6.2 billion and its planetary-science program, in particular, by 21 percent, to $2.2 billion.

Of course, the biggest slice of the pie goes to the military, however a lot of Defense Department money ends up going to research too… although I would be happier if, instead of building manned aircraft appropriate for the Cold War, they spent more money on blue sky research and moonshot scifi stuff like wormholes, grasers, super robots, and railguns.  But that research (and more) is in there too…somewhere…so hooray!

I have been marching around with a pitchfork and a torch demanding that Congress be defenestrated…but this budget unexpectedly satisfies my most cherished demands.  Maybe if there were more blueprints like this I could swallow some more tax give-aways and religious idiocy and what not.  When I am having political arguments, I always say I will support any stupidity as long as there is more money for fundamental scientific research.  This government has really pushed just how far such a bargain extends…and yet they came through in the end.

Of course, there may be some people who cry out that all of those millions and billions could be given to impoverished communities (Democrats) or to needy multi-billionaire plutocrats (Republicans), but ensuring scientific research and keeping Visigoth hordes from swimming the ocean and sacking our cities are the two things the government MUST do to ensure there is a future….and they have done that.  The future generations who will have to pay this leviathan $1.3 trillion tab, might actually get something for their money: a yet-unknown equivalent of the internet, the capacitor, the moon landing, or the wonder vaccines of yesteryear. At least the government is trying to fulfill humankind’s most fundamental aspiration—to know more about the universe and how it works so we don’t destroy ourselves (sadly, this great quest, as construed by the powers-that-be, involves building tons of super-weapons with which to destroy ourselves, but nobody said life was easy).

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Of course it is a tumultuous time and I may be saying a very different thing next week, but for the present the seed corn for the crops of the future has been stowed away.  I am pleasantly surprised to say “Good job!” to our elected officials.

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Happy Birthday NASA! The National Aeronautics and Space Administration began operations on October 1, 1958 barely two months after the passage of the National Aeronautics and Space Act (which congress approved on July 29, 1958).   Since then the space agency has encountered myriad astonishing successes from landing humans on the moon, to leaving the solar system, to building the only working space planes, to exploring the planets and sun with robots (and doing so much else).  In order to accomplish these astonishing missions, NASA has spearheaded countless breakthroughs in science.   During its 55 year history, the space agency has caused revolutions in fundamental astronomy, physics, aerospace engineering, materials sciences, ecology (and many, many other fields).  NASA is a resounding success—it is one of the greatest human institutions for exploring, learning, and innovation.

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It is somewhat ironic that today is the space agency’s anniversary because the shutdown of the American government has is deeply hurting the agency.  Of NASA’s 18,000 employees, 97% are on unpaid furlough. All projects other than active missions are temporarily suspended.  This is serious business, because space projects, like cakes in the oven, do not deal with suspension very well.  The more time spacecraft spend here on Earth being shuttled in and out of storage, the greater the likelihood of something going wrong.  Also, the universe did not shut down because of funding trouble—so missions with orbital based schedules will potentially have to be held up for years.

Sigh--Don't hold your breath for this...

Sigh–Don’t hold your breath for this…

For anyone reading this in the far future or from a cave deep beneath the Earth, this is all a by-product of a failure of America’s split legislative houses to pass a budget due to political feuding.  Extreme right wing legislators who do not wish for Americans to be able to afford health care (and believe that if the government is defunded it will advance the wealthy business leaders whom they serve) are holding the national budget hostage in the hopes that they can disassemble the Affordable Care Medical Act.  Congressional districts in America are laughably gerrymandered (i.e. designed to be perfectly safe for incumbents) so it will be some time before the majority of voters can remove these dangerous and incompetent politicians from office.

"I want to hurt sick people AND stop human progress." (citation needed)

“I want to hurt sick people AND stop human progress.” (citation needed)

Even before the government shutdown, NASA has been having political and funding trouble.  The anti-government right-wing caucus in the House of Representatives has been trying to bleed away more and more of its funding (many of the so-called tea party caucus are also religious fundamentalists, so science makes them nervous and unhappy anyway).  All of this strikes me as appallingly short-sighted.  The legislators who believe the market to be the supreme arbiter of human affairs are clearly being paid to espouse such a short-sighted objective. While, the market is quite good at selling everyone plastic rubbish, crooked equities, and hair loss pills, by itself the system is fundamentally incapable of the sort of research which moves humankind forward.  Blue sky research into the unknown is not a job for abusive oligarchs and fat corrupt businessmen.  The exploration of the universe and of cutting edge science is a task for the brilliant men and women of NASA–but at present they are at home worrying about their bills and looking at the employment section for less important (but better paying) jobs.

At least you don't need a clean room to flip burgers...

At least you don’t need a clean room to flip burgers…

I would like to interrupt the parade of anteaters, crowns, demons, and obscure colors for a brief but important political polemic.  It seems likely that the Federal budget sequester will take place tonight and that is very bad news.

As almost everyone now knows, this artificial crisis was created as an attempt to make America’s hostile and antithetical political parties work together to cut spending and balance the budget.  Unsurprisingly creating (another) arbitrary deadline failed miserably to accomplish this task–so unstructured cuts will hit big parts of the Federal budget.  Defense spending is slated to be cut by 13% and the rest of domestic spending will be trimmed by 9%.  The sequester will not touch entitlements like Medicare and Social Security (which make up the majority of the budget), because doing so would be political suicide for national politicians.

Take this and apply it randomly to existing programs.

Take this and apply it randomly to existing programs.

Some people are ok with this, and argue that the Federal budget is out of control and needs to be reined in by some means.  Nine percent and thirteen percent are not big numbers.  The American military is still the largest in the world…etc…etc… This is the wrong way to think.  As this article outlines, many of the budget cuts insidiously strike at our research budget which will direly impact the future not just of the United States but also of the other nations (and maybe the ecosystems) of the entire world.

The sequester will hurt basic science research.  Greedy Wall Street moguls will be just fine and (most likely) people at the bottom of the economic scale will be ok too, but, in twenty years humankind won’t have nanotechnology, space elevators, immortality potions, or whatever incredible thing today’s research was meant to foster.

Private companies, the Chinese, James Bond villain billionaires…all other entities capable of fundamental research are small potatoes (other than universities—which receive much of their science money from the government).  The US Government is the world’s largest source of funding of basic research money…by a lot.

Fundamental research is the one thing America is good at (well maybe we can still make pizzas, scammy software, and dumb action movies, but we can talk about that another day) and that’s okay because research is the most important thing.  Nations do not become superpowers because of indomitable spirit or cool national symbols, but because of engineering, science, and innovation. Research is the critical underpinning of economic, military, and cultural greatness.  It is also fundamental to humankind’s quest to understand and manipulate the universe (before it kills us and everything we care about).  Social security does nothing to further that objective!

Canceled due to budget cuts.

Canceled due to budget cuts.

The sequester cuts resemble a farm plan which leaves out the seed corn.  And what is the point of even running a farm then?   So, politicians, go ahead and make cuts to the budget.  Raise taxes even.  National leaders, do what you have to do, but please don’t cut the most important part of the budget because it is most abstract and lacks special interest lobbyists.  That is stupid…and it is what we are doing by default.

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