January 09, 2004
So Will and Peter take issue with my support for a manned mission to Mars. As does Unlearned Hand and Chris Lawrence. (A 'dud post' according to Unlearned Hand. Oh dear.) So I suppose I should explain why this project doesn't exactly fill me with sticker shock.
My main source for this is the Washington Post article that Will provided. Now, it mentions $400 billion not $500 billion (and the million in my original post was a typo, no corrected.) But that's a decade-old estimate from NASA, so let's say $500 billion is more the order of the day.
Were Bush to announce that he wants the project accomplished within 10 years (because, well, it's nice Kennedyesque grandeur, I suppose), then that's $50 billion per year, or roughly a tripling of NASA's budget. (According to the Post, that's about $15 billion/year.) Not as much as I'm willing to bet the new prescription drug benefit costs us annually. Indeed, brushing off my copy of Excel and figuring a net-present value for the project (assuming a discount rate of 5%--you can adjust for your estimates for future inflation), the value in today's dollars would be only $386 billion. And that's before you subtract the value of any positive spin-offs from the project.
Furthermore, it's project-based spending. For you deficit hawks out there, that's good stuff. OK, it's a big chunk of change, but it's money that's not spent on entitlements, or what was called in the early 1990s 'relatively uncontrolled spending.' It's money for a definite project, with returns and spin-offs, and when it's done, it's done. Project-based spending is much simpler to cut (either when necessary, or when you want to do so because your budget's tight) than entitlement spending, simply because the constituency is normally narrower.
Much as the gnashing of teeth over 'lost opportunities' is entertaining, I have a gut-level assumption that the American people have a relatively fixed idea of the amount of national income we're happy to turn over in taxes, and that the question becomes how you spend that pie. However, the more of it which is done in entitlement spending (the aforementioned dentistry), the more fixed that spending becomes, and the easier it is to justify gently increasing the size of the pie.
And all I can say to Peter and Will's comparison to the pyramids is: come on. Libertarianism isn't helped by comparing actual physical slavery, the chattel ownership of human beings, to taxation which is decided through a democratic process. Is going to Mars a 'dream [the American people] didn't even know they had', as Peter puts it? So what: getting other people to dream something is what having a dream, having an inspiration is all about. And if enough people don't get inspired by it, well, it bodes badly for Mr. Bush and his successors in upcoming elections. But to compare a President to a Pharoah with the power to cast men into bondage, or to question how many died for the pyramids... really.
(As for Peter's suggestion that an atomic bomb might be an easier and cheaper alternative, I suppose everyone has different ideas of what's noble and romantic.)
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It's stuff like this that assuages my fears that my libertarian instincts might be slipping away. The intense, visceral revulsion I feel for such eagerness to buy Americans a $500 billion Mars-mission dream they didn't even know they had (possibly because the stiflingly drab managerial state deadened their ability to dream in suitably bright hues) is comforting evidence that, at the very least, I am in no danger of becoming a national greatness conservative.
What Mr. Rickey likes about the mission to Mars is the sheer scale. So let's pick at this a bit. It really seems that the truly impressive thing about actions like this is that they are so expensive--in forgone resources and sometimes lives (how many died for the pyramids?)--that no sane person or even voluntary group would actually be willing to foot the bill. It makes us feel good that we belong to (simply because we happened to be born here, for most of us, but let's put that particular silliness aside for a second) a collective so rich and powerful that we can flamboyantly break more of our toys than most other collectives even own and still be on top.
Mr. Rickey wants "simple, beautiful, magnificent." How about art, literature, sport? Who is he to say that knowing that the government established by a Constitution you never signed, governed by representatives you were in no way pivotal in electing, decided to give massive subsidies to certain industries in certain districts in order to send a handful of folks in a metal container to a distant planet is a finer, more noble pleasure than having white shiny teeth?
I mean, if what we want is wasteful, awe-inspiring spectacle, why don't we just start a few more wars? Nothing says "this is our scale" like incinerating hundreds of thousands of our fellow human beings in one glorious flash, right?
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The blogosphere is lining up against the Mars program, with a few notable dissenters, like Dan Moore and our dear guest Anthony Rickey.
Now, unlike Peter, I actually do have some sentimental attachment to the space program myself. You'll find me listening to Frank Sinatra's Fly Me To The Moon (only vaguely NASA-related, I know) several times every day. But I'm very bothered by this because nobody seems to care at all about how much the program costs.
On one side you have those to whom the very grandeur of the operation seems attractive, like Mr. Rickey. On the other side you have those like me-- if we could pull this off for a mere $500 million, I might be ready to throw in my two bucks voluntarily. But no, the costs are more likely in the realm of $500 billion (and President Bush hasn't told us how much he intends to spend himself-- my own harsh opposition to the cost depends a lot on the costs; I wonder if the same could be said about the Mars-trip supporters).
[This, despite the sort of eerie historical analogies one can draw between space programs and the Egyptian pyramids, where heavy taxation (remember, that's about $2000 for each of us) does the work of slave labor.]
So, I guess this a bit of a challenge to those of you who think that, say, $400 billion dollars to put a man on Mars would be money well spent (remember, that was George I's estimate, without adjusting for inflation). How much money is it worth to put a man on Mars? If $400 billion is okay, would $4 trillion be? (That's 20,000 bucks a piece). I'm not demanding an absurdly precise line here, but I'd just like an idea of the order of magnitude it would take to convince you that this is a dream better deferred until a later date.
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Will and Amanda both dislike the idea of putting a man on Mars or a permanent space station on the moon, and both of them make the same complaint: why should we do this, when there is only so much money, and so much on this planet is left undone? Much of the blogosphere (including my local university's blog, the Filibuster) has echoed the same sentiment.
How disappointing. Will looks at Dan Moore's enthusiastic comments about the glory of spaceflight and calls it vicarious dreaming. But then he lists a number of alternative goals that are no less vicarious dreams: police protection (the dream of a society without crime); food (the dream of a society without hunger); school vouchers (the dream of an educated society); or dental care (the dream of a society with, I suppose, very nice teeth). So long as government provides any of those, they're just another set of dreams, or another set of priorities.
I'm going to raise my banner with Dan on this one. Even conceding that a manned mission to Mars might give us no valuable new technology, no greater idea of how we fit into the universe, or any other scientific merit (and that's a big concession--it almost certainly will), $500 billion is a cheap price to pay for putting the romanticism and nobility back into our ideas of government. It's been a while.
A few summers back, I drove from El Paso to San Francisco, by way of Nevada. I chose my route so I'd have a chance to go by the Hoover Dam, and I've never regretted the extra time spent. You can only really understand it if you've been there, but suffice it to say that the Dam is big in that way that truly defies words. After driving for days through desert so vast that occasionally my radio could find no signal on any band, and after staring at a canyon deep enough to hide the bright lights of Tokyo, I found myself at a sheer wall of concrete that whispered, "This is the kind of thing we build in this country. This is our scale." Simple, beautiful, magnificent.
Putting a man on the moon, a man on Mars, or building an enormous resevoir in a desert isn't about 'vicarious dreaming' any more than full-employment, fair wages, or the more 'practical' concerns that Will and Amy mention: they're simply a different kind of dream. One is concerned with the daily trivia which touch all our bodies: has Uncle Milbert had enough to eat; does little Amy's classroom have sufficient copies of Heather Has Two Mommies; will little Tommy grow up with enough teeth that he doesn't choke on his Crest Whitening strips when they slip through the gaps. And these are important goals, and in some ways even noble.
But mankind is filled not only by bread (and as Amanda would dismiss it, 'circuses'), and often government should seek not only the practical and managerial, but the ministerial and majestic. As much as I love economics, allocative efficiency of resources is not something that trips off the tongue or inspires the soul. In the pageantry of great American images, the heart doesn't stir at the sign of the golden arches (though they feed the masses) or thousands of pages of health-care reform documents, but in those first pictures of the strange blue marble-like sphere that is our home. In a way, we should go to Mars simply because it is there, and in order to say that we can.
The dreams are the difference between a Good World and a World of Great Things, and as you might gather, I'm a partisan of the Great. Suppose that $500 million were spent on food, rent, dental care--the things that Will suggests. That $500 million of government money does no more than to place the world where it should be: it makes sure that families prioritize medical insurance over a new TV, for instance, or that individuals place as much value on education as they would in a well-managed world. It ensures that individuals have made the private choices that, all being equal, they should have made in the first place. And once we have our houses in order, well, then maybe we can see about building that dam in the desert, putting that man on the moon.
But those dreams will forever stay out of reach: however well you allocate resources, the very process of allocating them creates new desires, new dreams, and they can never be perfectly apportioned. The minimum level is never reached, and so you get the dull, drab greyness of managerial government, where 'federally funded day care for all' is a rallying cry. Every so often, we need to dream something bigger, something greater than ourselves, to invest in learning something as a species and a civilization. Maybe it isn't a man on Mars, or a permanent presence on the Moon. Maybe there's some other great dream that we're missing, but it's not perfect teeth for the nation. I'm happy to see something like this. And my guess is the electorate will be, too.
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Hello, everyone. Sorry for the delay in actually posting here, but Will was kind enough to invite me while I was coming home from the holidays, and a combination of illness and pre-semester preparations have conspired to keep me away from the computer. For those who don't know me, I'm Anthony Rickey, and I run the blog Three Years of Hell.
Whatever my other qualifications, I may be the first guest blogger to guest administrate Crescat, and I'm going to use that as my excuse for a delay in posting. Last night, I spent a few hours with Amy fiddling with the templates and getting MT-Medic up and running. It's a very useful little CGI program for those who run guest weblogs, because it lets you change information about your authors, view various technical details about your blog, and otherwise shift things around without having to go into a mySQL database. Most importantly, you can reset an author's password if he's lost it. It installs in minutes, so I recommend it to any readers who run their own blogs in Moveabletype.
Alas, alack, whatever my other talents, the Crescateers haven't given me extensive access to their servers and templates, which is unfortunate. I was hoping I might be the first guest blogger to implement comments on here in defiance of Will--but that will have to wait.
In any event, thank you to Crescat for inviting me, and I hope you enjoy my stay here as much as I will.
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Now, what do we know about ninjas? Let's quote the source:
Facts:Hrmm. Does this sound like any politician we know? Mammal? Check. Fights all the time? Check. Flips out and kills people? Check.
Ninjas are mammals.
Ninjas fight ALL the time.
The purpose of the ninja is to flip out and kill people.
Suddenly, it all makes sense.
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But the fact is that this is one of those programs that won't be done by other means (it can't be done either - with the current amount of capital required to do it only the government can authorize the funding for it) and if the U.S.A. doesn't do it - who will? We are the best at Space exploration (as the recent twin Mars landings have shown us) and Americans are the people who dream. The society that went from Kitty Hawk to the Moon in 70 years is the only one that can and will bring us to Mars in the next 20. We are going to go to Mars because we must. Because it is next. Because it is the frontier. Exploration is the reason. Exploration is what dreams are made of.
Let's suppose that it is indeed the case that the American government is the only institution capable of running trips to Mars in the near future. Why does it follow that we should? (There are plenty of things that only the American government could conceivably do, from painting the Washington Monument pink to invading Canada, but we surely shouldn't do things just because only we can.)
Moore suggests that we should explore space, because, well, we should explore space. The trouble that this is a moral imperative that simply isn't particularly convincing to those who don't already believe it. It's as if I were to claim that we should spend all that money on (say) public schools because "We are going to go to (spend the money on schools) because we must . . . Because (they are)the (future). (Education) is the reason. (Education) is what dreams are made of."
Both education and exploration are good things. Both education and exploration are things that are sometimes better pursued by governments than left to the vagaries of private entities and imperfect capital markets. But when the government decides which of these goals (if any!) to pursue with the resources of its society, it should do so with an eye always on the costs and benefits of what it's doing.
This is why I'm a little puzzled by Moore's line:
I'm not sure that, when considering policy, fiscal sanity should always be the most important thing. Or even in the top five.
Any policy that the government pursues with tax money replaces a number of other policies that could have been pursued instead. This is the economic concept of opportunity cost. To say that we should pursue "fiscal sanity" is to say that we should buy with our money the things we most want to buy with our money.
$500 billion spent getting an astronaut on Mars is $2000 per man, woman, and child in the country-- money that could otherwise be spent on useful stuff-- dental care, private school vouchers, more police protection, rent, or food. That's a pretty big sacrifice from the rest of us so that the Dan Moores of the world can acheive their vicarious dreams.
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Six days before the State of the Union, Bush says he wants a settlement on the moon and a manned exploration to Mars?
Sources involved in the discussions said Bush and his advisers view the new plans for human space travel as a way to unify the country behind a gigantic common purpose at a time when relations between the parties are strained and polls show that Americans are closely divided on many issues. . . .
The sources said Bush aides also view the initiative as a huge jobs program, and one that will stimulate business in the many parts of the country where space and military contractors are located.
Let's see -- Johnson's in Texas, Stennis's in Mississippi and Marshall's in Alabama, Cape Kennedy's in Florida, JPL and Ames are in California, Glenn's in Ohio. I think that's most of them.
I admit I don't entirely understand why people get so wowed by flight and spaceflight as they do, but it sells. The Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum is the most visited museum in the world. Ah, circuses. But I'd prefer some bread. If you want to fund science, the NSF could do with some more funding. NIH too, but it would be nice if they dropped their decision to only fund "hypothesis-driven" research. And don't forget the land-grant universities. Worthy causes, all. I just don't really feel like paying taxes to put a man on Mars or a house on the moon (eesh, how libertarian of me. . . If I weren't about to head out the door, I'd think of something liberal to say to balance it out).
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