Drugs vs. NASA

I have written here in the past about false dichotomies: the strawman choices columnists and editorial writers, among others, develop in an effort to build up their own pet projects at the expense of NASA. The latest example is a column Sunday by Tom Schmitt, publisher of the Council Bluffs (Iowa) Daily Nonpareil. Most of Schmitt’s column deals with the rejection by the House to provide additional funding for drug enforcement activities. The amendment to the appropriations bill that would have added money for those programs was rejected, Schmitt claims, because it would have taken money from other programs, including NASA:

I don’t care if NASA’s funding would have had to be cut. Fighting a drug that harms Americans, particularly young Americans, is far more important than another rocket being sent to another far a way [sic] planet.

And there you have it. We can either spend money on combating illegal drug abuse, or we can spend that money launching “another rocket” to “another far a way planet.” No consideration is given to other programs whose funding was spared, with the exception (oddly enough) of the DEA.
This example is particularly disappointing to me: the Daily Nonpareil was my local newspaper growing up, oh so long ago.

As noted here earlier this month, the House appropriations bill includes a provision for NASA to engage in an awareness campaign targeting the general public. Perhaps such an effort should be designed in such a way to make the agency’s efforts seem less, well, frivolous, and thus less likely to be on the short end of these false choices.

16 comments to Drugs vs. NASA

  • Frank Johnson

    As long as human spaceflight is perceived to be mostly publicly funded, there will continue to be these kinds of arguments. Spaceflight is just too easy of a target for writers looking to make a point about excessive government spending. It would help if space was perceived to be a viable destination for a larger number of private citizens, rather than exclusively reserved for a few astronauts.

  • Brent

    Well, the editorial itself doesn’t look like its directly aimed at NASA. NASA seems more a convenient target for the closing part of a too emotional editorial. Eh.

    I did learn something though – never take Afrin.

    What he doesn’t realize is that maybe inspiring kids with the possibility of space travel, like Frank says, may keep them from being so selfish and bored that they’ll try meth. Not that I care a hoot in hell for anyone stupid enough to try it.

    If giving the option, I’d gladly reward a hard working student engineer with a job working on a rocket bound for another far away planet rather than throw more money down a black hole trying to rescue human refuse. Illegal drug users deserve everything they get. Except my tax dollars.

  • billg

    The wrongheadedness of such arguments is always apparent. Hundreds of agencies line up at the budget trough. A slice removed from NASA’s pie is a fair game for them all, not just someone’s favorite cause du jour. It is simply a weary rhetorical conceit.

    Ironicaly, the game is played in the margins of the budget. The real money is in defense and entitlements.

    As for private space activity, I say let’s go. By its nature, however, private space activity won’t do anything that isn’t profitable. We’ve yet to demonstrate that quasi-stunt suborbital flights can make money. I’m not optimistic that profit will support putting people on the Moon and Mars and exploring the Solar System for a considerable amount of time.

  • William Berger

    That editorial has several other spelling/grammar mistakes in addition to the “far a way” one you noted. The editor needs to take some English classes at the local community college.

    I think the best response to these kinds of false dichotomies is to go on the offensive and pick a different program that could provide the funds, selecting one that the author also cherishes. So if it’s a liberal making the claim, proposal taking money from another program popular with liberals. Ditto for conservatives.

    So how about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s $400 million? After all, there are plenty of television channels out there already, so why shouldn’t we take that $400 million and spend it on drug abuse? Anybody who opposes this is obviously not in favor of dealing with this subject seriously, right?

  • Mike Puckett

    The War on Drugs has made the Shuttle and Station look like stellar examples of blinding sucess.

    Spending money on the WoD is like burning it and flushing the ashes down the toilet. The author defending this wasteful program is like defending a pile of dung.

    I have never used so much a single illegal drug in my life but I can see the collosal waste of money and the damage to our civil liberties from the sham that is the WoD.

  • Kevin Davis

    So let me get this straight.. We have spent billions upon billions of dollars on the WoD and no one complains. However, a tiny fraction of an increase in NASA all hell breaks loose.. A word to the wise to the Anti – NASA crowd, even if we get rid of NASA, it is only a tiny fraction of our national budget.. If you don’t like NASA, please be honest. There are other ways to cut spending like no longer give the Corporation for Public Broadcasting any more of our money..

  • This column by Tom Schmitt all too conveniently pushes the hot buttons of libertarian-leaning Star Trek lobby. In order to justify any NASA project, it is not enough to dredge up suggestions that the money should instead go to X or Y, when X or Y are predictably things that a lot of space advocates hate anyway, like the war on drugs. Realistically, if NASA’s budget were cut severely, a fraction of the savings would go to other science and engineering research, and the rest would go to deficit reduction.

    In turn, any mention of tax savings or deficit reduction leads to the “drop in the bucket” argument, that NASA is not much compared to the federal budget or the entire US economy. However, this is also a strained comparison. Since the US is capitalist, the federal government cannot lay claim to the entire economy, only to about 20%. Moreover, most of that 20% is not command spending, but, in effect, negative taxation. Certainly that is what Social Security and Medicare are. Negative and positive taxation together make income redistribution, and that is also controversial, but it is not the same thing as NASA. When the government redistributes income, it changes which private citizens spend money, but it does not much change what they spend money on. By contrast NASA spends money on things that would not exist otherwise, like the space station and the Hubble telescope.

    Only about a quarter or a third of the federal budget is command spending. Much of it — for example counterterrorism — is considered necessary for the country, even if the private sector would not replace it. NASA could be as much as 5% of truly optional command spending by the federal government, depending on what you consider optional and what you consider command spending. It is not the lion’s share of anything, but it is not a drop in the bucket of that sector of the US economy by any means.

  • “The War on Drugs has made the Shuttle and Station look like stellar examples of blinding sucess.”

    Mike, I wholly agree. I, too, have never used an illegal drug. (Well, I smoked a cigarette when I was circa twelve, but the best thing my dearly departed Father ever did for me was make me smoke the rest of that cigarette. I’ve never smoked a puff of anything in the intervening three decades, and my current ideas of powerful drugs are tea and red wine.)

    We could hardly do more good for our nation than by taking every penny the WoD wastes jailing essentially innocent people who have smoked and traded a drug no more dangerous than entirely legal tobacco and alcohal, package that money, and literally throw it at the moon. At the very least, we’d provide a very big market for the commercial launch induatry.

    — Donald

  • William Berger

    “e have spent billions upon billions of dollars on the WoD and no one complains.”

    Where did you get this silly idea?

    Lots of people complain about it all the time, including those who support it whole-heartedly but think that the focus needs to be shifted or priorities changed. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that people who disagree with you are morons _OR_ unthinking automatons.

  • I’m not a big fan the war on drugs either, but I hope that at least some people here can analyze the real numbers instead of just ranting. A credible reference for the size and nature of the war on drugs is here (at the federal level) and here (state and local). The total war on drugs is a grab bag of expenses that will not all disappear with legalization. Detox for both legal and illegal drug addiction is part of the war on drugs. Arresting people for driving while intoxicated, or for beating their spouses and children while intoxicated, is part of the war on drugs. If you look only at drug interdiction and enforcing the drug laws specifically, it is in fact about the same size as NASA’s budget.

  • William Berger

    “Spending money on the WoD is like burning it and flushing the ashes down the toilet. The author defending this wasteful program is like defending a pile of dung.”

    This is a typical false analogy, similar to the one used to discuss the “war on poverty” as a waste. The critics commonly claim that _ALL_ of the money spent on the “war on drugs,” or _ALL_ of the money spent on the “war on poverty” has been wasted because, well, the war hasn’t been “won” yet, ignoring the simple fact that nobody ever really claims that these things will be completely eradicated, only reduced. So the issue is what is the best way to reduce them.

    Claiming that these programs are completely pointless is a dumb way of looking at it–overly simplistic, incongruous, and block-headed. Flip the issue over on its head–it is hard to argue that if _none_ of that money had been spent that things would be infinitely better. Certainly at least some of the money was spent effectively. Bad guys are in jail, for instance, because of money spent on the “war on drugs.”

  • “If you look only at drug interdiction and enforcing the drug laws specifically, it is in fact about the same size as NASA’s budget.”

    Hello, Greg,

    Taking that number at your word, it actually strikes me as an astonishing fact. For the amount we waste on this, we are successfully sending clockwork probes throughout the Solar System; successfully maintaining a large base in orbit (whatever you or I may believe about its usefulness or lack thereof); operating a first-generation space plane (dito); operating the first large semi-permanent space observatory; flying tons of science and applications satellites; and beginning a major new project to return people to deep space. I believe my rant was fully justified!

    — Donald

  • Donald,

    You should listen William Berger on this point. You talked about the war on drugs as if the whole thing was jailing pot smokers. In fact, enforcing all of the drug laws is less than half of it, and within that effort, only a small fraction is for marijuana. The big money in the war on drugs goes to cocaine, heroin, and alcohol, and not only for prosecuting drug use, but also for crimes committed while intoxicated.

    Personally I agree that they spend too much money on jailing addicts, and not enough on detox. But it is not true that the whole war on drugs is just an invented problem, or that they just prey on the innocent. The war on drugs has its own problems and solutions and has nothing to do with NASA.

  • Greg, I don’t disagree with your general point that the issue is more complex than I (and others) have made it sound. But, I think if you include the costs of jail time for minor drug offences, the figure would be a lot higher than it looks on paper. Likewise, the benefits of legalizing relatively non-dangerous drugs extend far beyond saving the high costs of a pointless and hopeless war. By legalizing pot, you would remove a lot of its financial value and the consequent violence, thereby reducing financing for the illigal drug trade as a whole and a lot of the costs of our emergency rooms. We should have learned all this during Prohibition.

    Do keep in mind that, probably unlike most or all of the people on this list, I live in an inner city, albeit a relatively wealthy one. I see around me every day the results of extremely unwise drug use. I also see the results of this stupid “war” waged by wealthy suburbanites who have no understanidng of the problem or of what it is that leads large numbers of decidedly non-wealthy people to get wrapped up in it.

    If we want to “solve” the drug problem, we should be spending money on housing, education, and especially providing decent, exciting, future-oriented careers for young people, especially poor young people. Which brings us back to the subject of this list. Which would we rather have: kids dreaming about exploring the Solar System and having a realistic opportunity to make money doing that, or children with a dead-end, no-win choice of starving on the streats or selling drugs (or, if you are very wise and lucky, being a lawyer or a financial analyst or a banker tasked to figure out better ways to fleese the middle class and poor — to my great shame, I was once despirate enough to work for a credit card company and, I kid you not, that was exactly the attitude of senior management). As it is, I really do believe that much of the money spent even on truly dangerous drugs is badly deployed. Give people a better choice they can believe is achievable, and most of them will not choose drugs.

    — Donald

  • I agree that getting a PhD is better than selling drugs on the street. It still seems like you are straining to connect unrelated issues, just like Tom Schmitt, even though you come to the opposite conclusion.

  • Actually, on this I probably agree with Schmitt more than you, even though I come to the opposite conclusion. I don’t think spaceflight and our social probems are at all unrelated. Indeed, many of our social problems result from our young people not having a dramatic future to dream for, thereby giving them no reason to achieve.

    Expanisonist, outward-looking societies that dare to dream usually do better than societies that look at their navels. Colonizing the Solar System gives young people a reason to dream and achieve in a way no amount of banking or social working will or can. Children need a future, not just a job. In a very real sense, the real solutions to our drug and education and lack-of-opportunity problems all lie “out there” as much or more than they lie down here. Some Democrats (most notably Lyndon Johnson) once understood that. We need to re-discover it if we are to survive as a political force in the American context.

    — Donald