Repost: McCain's planetariophobia

By Phil Plait | October 16, 2008 10:11 am

Note: I originally posted this entry on October 8, but quite a few people are saying that it won’t load for them; they get errors or blank pages. The Hive Overmind has been notified, but in the meantime here is the post again. I hope you can see it! But if you’re reading this note, you can see it, and if you can’t read this note, then why am I sitting here talking to myself?

So a little while back, John McCain made an ill-advised crack about planetaria (that’s the plural of planetarium), calling them "foolishness". It was ill advised because it raised the hackles of lots of science-loving folks, including those who want to — gasp, horror! — educate kids about astronomy and science.

At the time I suspected it was just a wedge in which to attack Barack Obama, but his use of the word foolishness really caught my attention. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, but does he really dislike such things?

Well, last night removed any doubt, when McCain — twice — used Obama’s requested earmark of three million dollars for Adler planetarium as a bludgeon, trying to pin Obama as another pork-barrel politician. He disdainfully said the money was for an "overhead projector". Those are his exact words. Here’s what he said:

While we were working to eliminate these pork barrel earmarks he [Senator Obama, or "that one"] voted for nearly $1 billion in pork barrel earmark projects. Including $3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois. My friends, do we need to spend that kind of money?

Well, shock of shocks — it turns out McCain’s characterization of this was all wrong. In fact, I would call it a lie. He knows it wasn’t for an overhead projector, a piece of classroom equipment that costs a couple of hundred dollars. That money was for Adler’s Zeiss Mark VI star projector: a venerable piece of precision fabricated equipment that projects the stars, constellations, and other objects inside the planetarium dome. Adler’s Zeiss is 40 years old, and desperately needs replacing. These machines are pricey, and replacing them difficult.

Adler needed money to do this. They asked local politicians, and eventually were able to get a request in a budget submitted by Obama. However, Obama never even voted on that budget, and Adler never got that money — thus making, again, McCain a liar.

Needless to say, Adler wasn’t thrilled with this characterization of their beloved Zeiss. They issued a statement to that effect. You can also get opinions all over the place: Universe Today, SpaceWriter, Davin Flateau, Discovery Space, Wonkette, the Chicago Tribune, even NPR.

I have posted about this before (just last night, in fact). The comments on my statements have been all over the place, from support to some fairly ridiculous complaints. My favorites have involved something along the line of, "Where in the Constitution does it say the federal government has to send money to planetaria?"

Good question. But where does it say the government will repair roads, provide clean water, create public schools, fund the space program?

Look: there are some things the government does for the greater good. This is where libertarians and I part company. Government isn’t always bad. In many cases, it takes the money it gets in taxes and does fantastic things with it, like sending probes to Mercury and funding autism research. It makes the roads drivable, and makes sure companies don’t pollute our air (well, it used to do that). You can complain all you want that earmarks get abused — and they certainly do — but they also get used to fund projects that are starved for cash, and that richly deserve to have life breathed into them.

I disagree with McCain here as well. He wants no earmarks at all. I think that’s ridiculous. It would be far better to have regulation of them, instead of the laissez-faire attitude the government has now. Or, if not overt regulation, some sort of throttle on them, instead of them being free passes to bridges to nowhere.

And finally, I want to reiterate what I said in my first post on this topic: I love planetaria. Love love love. They educate kids. That is among the finest and most honorable goals anyone can have. People who work at planetaria across the country and the world do it because they love it. They don’t get rich doing it, they don’t get fame doing it, they hardly even get accolades doing it. But we owe so much to them! Kids learn in planetaria– and not just about the stars over their heads on a given night; planetaria are evolving into the digital age, bringing incredible programs to the public (I know what I’m talking about here). And it’s not even just astronomy. The projectors can give all kinds of lessons: biology, history, local lore… anything you can create digitally can be projected in a planetarium, and kids can learn.

For McCain to use this as a political zinger is insulting, and for him to call it foolishness is beyond the pale. The honorable thing for him to do now is to admit he was wrong, admit he mischaracterized both the planetarium and Obama’s stance, and then issue a public apology to planetarians and science-lovers across the country.

The next debate is in one week. I bet a lot more pro-science folks will be watching, too. Closely.

Comments (59)

  1. Your entry has been seen. In fact I saw it the first time also. Maybe it’s because my IP is from outside the US. (Yeah, I also answered “1984” on that number thing.)

  2. Andrew

    I saw it the first time, but every time I’ve tried to go back for the last week I’ve just got dead air.

  3. defectiverobot

    I can’t say enough about the Adler Planetarium. I encourage everyone who visits Chicago to go check it out, especially on the first Friday of the month when they stay open late and all of the astronomers bring their telescopes out onto the atrium and let everyone check out whatever planets might be out that night. (The first time I went, they pointed one of the larger scopes at Saturn. When I looked through it, I was so stunned by the image that I leaned back and said to the astronomer, “Holy cow! Is that really it?” He laughed and nodded bemusedly.)

    Anyhow, I decided to become a member when my eight-year-old son just fell in love with the place, and we go in to check out the light show every few months. They do an absolutely fantastic job, and the astronomers who present are patient at explaining the concepts to kids, yet don’t talk down to them. They make it clear, fun, and engaging, and, as Phil points out, inspirational. (It’s served no small role in my son’s decision to become a nuclear physicist. He doesn’t know what a nuclear physicist is, really, but that he wants to be one is partially because of the love and wonder of science that the Adler Planetarium has instilled in him.)

    Folks, they only need 3 million dollars for an “overhead projector.” Let’s make sure they get it. It’ll pay for itself within the first minute its online: it’ll knock the dangerous scientific ignorance out of everyone who experiences it. The returns will be enormous.

  4. Quiet Desperation

    Zzzzzzzz….

    How much will this bailout/buy-in affect science funding?

    Anyone? Bueller?

    Or shall we fiddle with the “overhead projector” as the economy burns?

  5. On the other side of the world, I had my first visit to a planetarium on the day of the debate. What a strange co-incidence! It really made me think…
    http://thinkingproblemmanagement.blogspot.com/2008/10/think-again-mccain.html

  6. Ryan Turner

    This was originally written for the fulldome mailing list, a forum focused on planetarians. I think it’s quite pertinent here:
    ——————————-
    While I couldn’t agree more that it’s a great idea to make noise about this in our communities, we should be very careful in our framing. ‘Earmarks’ are a sensitive issue because, while they are the way this sort of funding often gets done, in a perfect world, they wouldn’t be. By and large, people don’t like the idea of earmarks. Working where I do, in a planetarium built on just such earmarks, I still have my misgivings about the way the business is routinely conducted.

    My point is this – I think framing the argument in terms of the value of such a projector or the worthiness of the institution is ill-advised because it doesn’t really address the attack on wasteful federal spending. It accepts as given the tactic of earmarks and opens up the argument that there are a tremendous number of such worthy causes and institutions – they can’t all be funded. Further, it opens the question of the validity of federal money going to local institutions. These are not arguments that can readily be addressed.

    However, there is a place where we can stand on firmer ground. The framing should focus on the disdain shown by McCain for science education in his repeated attacks of this particular earmark, especially in light of his responses to ScienceDebate2008. That is to say, don’t try to justify the earmark for the projector – shine a light on McCain’s lack of commitment to STEM education instead. This is something that’s easier to back up and much more nationally relevant.

    My .02.

    -Ryan

  7. Don Barry

    Good article, but I should point out one significant error: you point out that
    people don’t get rich working in planetaria — that is true for the majority of
    employees, but not all. Adler’s director is paid more than $430k/year, a princely
    sum — perhaps even a disgusting sum. At a more reasonable salary over the typical
    tenure of a director, a new Zeiss could have been purchased from the savings.

    Don Barry,
    Astronomer, Spitzer Space Telescope Science Team
    Cornell University

  8. Aodhhan

    Hey…lets just have the federal government upgrade all the planetariums around the country. How much could it cost…really? Who cares if 80% of the public doesn’t have ready access to one in order to get their money back. Plus, maybe they will let us all see a show for free…. yeah right!

  9. themadlolscientist

    A good science museum – with a good planetarium – is “more funner” than Disneyland any old day. And a lot less expensive. And you don’t have to wait in line for 4 hours.

  10. Jose

    but quite a few people are saying that it won’t load for them; they get errors or blank pages.

    This has been an ongoing problem for several posts for a while (The UFO and Antivaxxer posts come to mind). I just assumed they’d been shut down by the overlords when things got a bit too nasty. Now I’m terrified by the thought that Michael Horn might think he bested me! I’m just kidding. He’d think that anyway.

  11. Todd W.

    @Jose

    Yeah, I was wondering if he would claim a win because the BA “shut down the thread”.

    Phil, just to note, it isn’t so much that we can’t get to the posts. We can, as long as we view the posts in list format (i.e., without seeing the comments). It’s when we try to go to the individual post with the comments (e.g., by searching for the post and/or clicking on the post title) that we get the 500 error. Also, when seeing the posts in list format, the comments link isn’t live.

  12. DGKnipfer

    Here we go again.

  13. Oh so this is a political science blog? Interesting how Phil Plait’s skepticism vanishes around a political candidate that he personally believes in. And I am astounded that Phil Plait has come out of the closet for mind reading, since he somehow seems to know when a candidate is lying instead of making an inaccurate statement that he believes is true.

    Welcome aboard Phil. Glad to have you out here on the “fringe.”

  14. Don Barry,

    Do you have a verifiable source for that figure?

  15. Greg in Austin

    @dmduncan

    As you surely already know, this is Phil’s blog. He talks about whatever he wants.

    Where did Phil say anything about a candidate he personally believes in?

    He is talking about McCain equating the planetarium’s star machine to a $200 projector. It is either an ignorant mistake or a intentional lie. McCain has used the phrase “overhead projector” many times over the course of a week, a phrase which at best makes him look uninformed or ignorant, and at worst makes him playing on the ignorance of potential voters to attack his opponent.

    You’d think he’d want to get his facts straight before going on national television.

    McCain should stop using this “projector” issue to support his campaign. Seems to me his advisers are not doing their jobs, or he is ignoring them.

    8)

  16. Andy Craig

    It’s not often you see someone flat-out claim that it doesn’t matter that the Constitution doesn’t let the government do something. As irate as you are about things like habeas corpus and separation of church and state, that seems more than a little hypocritical.

    The Constitution establishes a Federal government of enumerated powers. If a power isn’t granted to the Federal government by the Constitution, then the Federal government doesn’t have that power. Period, end of story, and you won’t find a judge in the country that will say otherwise. Now, you could certainly argue that this kind of spending is justified by some provision in the Constitution, but to dismiss the Constitution as irrelevant with that kind of condescending non-argument is both insulting and incredibly inconsistent of you.

  17. Phil Plait likes (his) reality the way it is, and he aims to keep it that way!

  18. kuhnigget

    @ dmduncan:
    Dr. BA quoted two examples of McCain making the erroneous planetarium projector/overhead projector comparison. How exactly is that “mind reading”?

    Woo woo woo woo….my spirits are detecting a troll nearby…. woo woo woo woo….perhaps it will speak….

  19. John Phillips, FCD

    DumDuncan: Actually, it is irrespective whether Phil likes or ‘believes’ in Obama when the point of his post is about McLiar’s repeated use of a mis-characterisation of yet another science project for political gain. And what a surprise, once again relying on the ignorance of his supporters on what the ‘overhead projector’ really is.

    It seems that it is you who have problem with reality, not Phil. By the way, if Phil liked his reality the way it is, wouldn’t he be voting for the status quo, i.e. another 4 years with Bush III, better known as McLiar and Beyond The Pale.

    As for Phil reading his mind over lying: What else do you call it when McLiar’s mis-characterisation of the ‘overhead projector’ has been repeatedly pointed out to him and his organisation by a multitude of commentators from the first time he used it. To repeat, see what I did there :), if someone keeps on repeating the lie when they have been repeatedly corrected on it what would you call them.

    Then again, after watching the debate, it appears that that is exactly the McLiar tactic. After all, how many times was he corrected by Obama over something he claimed Obama stood for, only to then immediately repeat exactly what he had just been corrected on. Admittedly, to be fair to McLiar, perhaps he had thought that Obama would just ignore all the lies without response and so had not prepared a follow on response. Either way, either he is a congenital liar who knows no better or he is an incompetent fool who can’t think very fast on his feet in pressure situations. Personally, I think the stress of the campaign combined with his age and possible health issues are catching up with him. You really want this man as your pres in this day and age?

    As someone who has always considered himself a USphile, at least when it tries to live up to its founders’ promise, and having enjoyed working with and for US companies as well as serving alongside its servicemen, are these two truly the best the rethuglicans have to offer as leaders in 2008. If so, especially after 8 years of Bush II, even to a glass half full type like myself, that is so depressingly sad and even pitiable for a country like the US.

  20. Jose

    @Andy Craig
    Don’t start this baloney again. I hope you’re one of the people who can still access the old posts, because this viewpoint is pretty well demolished there.

  21. Jose

    @dmduncan
    There’s no mind reading. Either McCain was guilty of deliberately mischaracterizing the earmark, or he’s a moron. Phil was just being charitable in picking the former.

  22. Andy Craig

    Jose-

    I don’t regularly read the comments around here, and whatever was said I kinda doubt you guys managed to resolve a complex, centuries-old dispute on Constitutional law. Besides, my post wasn’t about whether or not this kind of spending is Constitutional. My complaint was the way the BA dismissed the question as irrelevant and not worthy of serious contemplation.

  23. John Phillips, FCD

    Doh, irrespective should of course be irrelevant in my post above. Though irrespective might well accurately describe McLiar’s behaviour on continuing to repeat his ‘mistakes’ after being corrected repeatedly on them.

  24. Jose, how wrong you are!

    Unless we have verifiable evidence that points exclusively to the “John McCain is lying” hypothesis, hereafter referenced as TJMILH, and not to some other equally plausible hypothesis—and Phil clearly has opted for TJMILH (“In fact, I would call it a lie.”)—then I’m afraid mind reading seems to be the only explanation left for how Phil knows what John McCain’s other thoughts are about what he is saying, and how John McCain is feeling about what he is saying, for unless one man can get inside the head of another man, it is impossible to know exactly what is motivating a particular act which might have several causes. Furthermore, I am delighted to see that Phil has abandoned the practice of submitting this evidence for publication in a peer reviewed journal for rigorous scrutiny and debate as the only means available for we human beings to know things as reasonably well as Phil knows John McCain lied.

    So, MIND reading it IS!

    But hey, this is not a bad thing. There’s plenty of room for more rational people out here in the fringe. So I am happy to have Phil here, and I hope he stays awhile!

  25. Jose

    @Andy Craig
    Besides, my post wasn’t about whether or not this kind of spending is Constitutional. My complaint was the way the BA dismissed the question as irrelevant and not worthy of serious contemplation.
    Well, He didn’t do that. He pointed out the stupidity of the question “Where in the Constitution does it say the federal government has to send money to planetaria?” That’s it.

    Now, you could certainly argue that this kind of spending is justified by some provision in the Constitution.
    and
    I don’t regularly read the comments around here, and whatever was said I kinda doubt you guys managed to resolve a complex, centuries-old dispute on Constitutional law.

    We pointed out that our founding fathers had the foresight to add just such a provision.

  26. Jose

    @dmduncan
    Either McCain knew what he was doing, or he’s an idiot. I was making a joke that Phil was being nice in choosing not to think McCain’s an Idiot. Now, there’s no way to absolutely know that McCain’s not just an idiot, but based on his life I’m comfortable making that assumption. That leaves the other option, which is that McCain knew what he was doing. Where’s the mind reading?

  27. John Phillips, FCD

    @dumduncan: Which part of repeating the same falsehood after being repeatedly corrected don’t you understand. I.e. we don’t need mind reading skills when our observational skills are sufficient. There are three options.

    1. He is lying and knows he is lying but doesn’t care because it is the political strategy him and his team have settled on, for now at least.

    2. He is lying but doesn’t know he is lying because his staff tell him otherwise. Maybe he is being protected from bad news so doesn’t see output at all from any of the media outlets that have highlighted his ‘mistakes’ while his staff are just telling him what he wants to hear. I could understand if only the web was criticising him, as he apparently doesn’t get it, so could easily not see the web response. But come on, its in all the major media outlets. Hell, even Fix news picked him up on a couple of his tax whoppers about Obama which he has kept repeating.

    3. Actually, now that I think about it, there isn’t a three.

    So you have 1. or 2. Technically, you could try for 2. and at least claim that he isn’t lying because for whatever reason he actually believes the ‘mistakes’. More than possible, but if true, says a great deal about him and his campaign. As the only way he could continue to believe and repeat these ‘mistakes’ is either by being so sheltered that he has totally lost touch with how the outside world is responding to him or, the guy is flirting with serious senility issues. Take your pick and all done on the back of repeated observations of the subject in action, no mind reading needed.

  28. Andy Craig

    ***Well, He didn’t do that. He pointed out the stupidity of the question “Where in the Constitution does it say the federal government has to send money to planetaria?” That’s it***

    Exactly- he dismissed as stupid and irrelevant the question of whether or not the federal government Constitutionally can (not “has to”) appropriate money to things like this.

    ***We pointed out that our founding fathers had the foresight to add just such a provision***

    And the foresight to explain, repeatedly, that they categorically rejected any such interpretation of that provision (I’m assuming you mean the tax and spend clause) that would encompass authorizing this kind of thing.

  29. John Phillips, FCD

    @Andy Craig: No, he dismissed it as stupid and irrelevant because his reply to the original poster highlights that he doubted if the poster applied the same criteria to other examples of government spending that most people approve of, which are also not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. Now if you, or the original poster, want to turn it into a general Libertarian rant about government spending or similar, go ahead, but you are missing the point of Phil’s post, perhaps deliberately.

  30. Sirs, one reason why people commit the fallacy of false alternatives is due to their lack of imagination, and a sincere belief that the world really is as simple as it appears to them in their thought. And so, when crafting an either-or, one should query oneself whether there is also a neither to account for.

    Notice that I am not claiming John McCain is not a liar. He may well be! But a false claim to knowledge is not the same as knowledge of a false claim. So, when Phil wrote “In fact, I would call it a lie,” does Phil mean to say that he would call it a lie because it’s a fact that John McCain lied, or that it is a fact that he (Phil Plait) believes John McCain lied?

    Well, if the first is true, we have a question of how valid are the means whereby Phil has claimed to know it, and therefore, of how true that claim to knowing it really is; and if the second is true, we have evidence that the distinguished scientist Phil Plait actually does have a belief that X is true in the absence of knowing that X is true.

    You see, “I likes reality the way it is” too, “and I” also “aims to keep it that way.” But some of us think that reality is more complicated than others of us realize or even want to admit.

  31. yy2bggggs

    dmduncan:

    I’m confused. Are you calling Phil a liar?

  32. Jose

    @Andy Craig
    Yes. This part.

    The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.

    Here’s the summary of the arguments.

    That’s not what they meant when they said “general welfare”

    You don’t think they added that because they realized it was impossible to include everything that it might be appropriate for the federal government to fund? Then why weren’t they more specific. Why were the Framers careless enough to include such a huge and obvious loophole?

    Well, you could argue that almost anything could fall under “general welfare”. What if someone thought it was in the interest of general welfare to spend 8 billion dollars to study what happens when you marry goats to kangaroos.

    Good point. Luckily the Framers were smart enough to build in several layers of redundancy into the constitution to prevent this type of thing from happening. The first is the House of Representatives (majority vote). The second is the Senate (majority vote). The third is the presidential veto. And if someone still ain’t happy, they can take it up with the judicial system. But until the judicial system decides it isn’t, a law passed by congress and signed by our president is by definition constitutional. That’s not my opinion, that’s how it works. That’s how it was designed to work. You can argue that something should be unconstitutional, but that doesn’t mean it is.

    “Where in the Constitution does it say the federal government has to send money to planetaria?” is a dumb question. Now if someone had asked “is it constitutional for the Federal Government to fund a planetaria?” That’s not so dumb. But that’s not what happened.

  33. Andy Craig

    3 out the 4 things he mentioned are the responsibility of state governments in the United States, and are therefore dealt with under state constitutions. The federal government gives the states money, and that is certainly constitutionally questionable, but there’s no serious *constitutional* debate over state governments having the power under their respective constitutions to provide for infrastructure and public education.

    It wasn’t a serious argument based on critical thinking, it was a dismissive “this is just stupid” wave of the hand.

    ***You don’t think they added that because they realized it was impossible to include everything that it might be appropriate for the federal government to fund? Then why weren’t they more specific. Why were the Framers careless enough to include such a huge and obvious loophole?***

    Lucky for us, the Founders also happened to leave us with an extensive document record of the thoughts and influences on the Constitution, and perhaps more importantly, on the public debate whereby the document was sold to the American people. This specific argument was raised by opponents of ratification. The Federalist, considered the seminal commentary on the constitution, was specifically published by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison (both of whom had played key roles in drafting the Constitution) to answer those criticisms. And it, like every other proponent of ratification, said that interpretation was absurd. They said to look at it in context- that clause is at the beginning of a list of specific, enumerated powers, most of which would be included in such a broad interpretation of the tax-and-spend power grant. Instead, the clause simply refers to the power of Congress to tax and spend in the exercise of its powers.

    And Alexander Hamilton was *the* biggest of the big government guys among the Founding Fathers.

    ***Good point. Luckily the Framers were smart enough to build in several layers of redundancy into the constitution to prevent this type of thing from happening. The first is the House of Representatives (majority vote). The second is the Senate (majority vote). The third is the presidential veto. ***

    The issue is the limits on the legislative power. The simple process required to pass legislation is not a check on the extent of legislation. That’s saying that the legislators
    (including the President in his legislative capacity of sign/veto) are to be trusted to check their own power, which is obviously not the idea.

    ***And if someone still ain’t happy, they can take it up with the judicial system. But until the judicial system decides it isn’t, a law passed by congress and signed by our president is by definition constitutional. That’s not my opinion, that’s how it works. That’s how it was designed to work. You can argue that something should be unconstitutional, but that doesn’t mean it is.***

    That is not at all how it works, nor is it how the judicial system views it. An unconstitutional act of legislation is unconstitutional the day it’s passed. The courts do not exist to generally review the actions of the government for constitutionality, and that is not what they purport to do. The courts are by nature passive. The exist to adjudicate disputes based on individual claims of harm or illegality. When the government is one of the parties to the dispute, the question of legality often hinges on whether or not the claims and actions of the government are trumped by the higher law of the Constitution. The courts always work with the assumption that determining constitutionality is a process of discovery, seeking a truth that already exists. That they are simply judging the facts (thus “Judge”). Obviously it’s not always like that in reality, but that’s how that’s the form that legal arguments and rulings have to stick to. And while the government may only listen to the courts, that doesn’t mean we the people shouldn’t be judging the government for its fidelity to the Constitution. It’s our Constitution after all.

    Also, courts in the United States only hear cases where there is a real, actual conflict. They do not automatically review every law. And for “conflict” to exist, you have to have someone with standing come forward and make the claim to the court. Unfortunately, the courts have held that taxpayers do not have standing to challenge the constitutionality of spending. So there is no legal process to challenge in the judiciary the decision of Congress to give money to a planetarium in Chicago.

    ***“Where in the Constitution does it say the federal government has to send money to planetaria?” is a dumb question. Now if someone had asked “is it constitutional for the Federal Government to fund a planetaria?” That’s not so dumb. But that’s not what happened***

    Those are the exact same questions, aside from you again using “has to” where the question is actually “can”. No one is arguing that that there’s any Constitutional *obligation* for Congress to spend money on planetariums (which is, by the way, also a correct plural), so there’s also no one arguing against it.

  34. Andy Craig

    I just notice BA used the same wording, so maybe technically that “is the question”, but I make the same objection. By using “has”, you’re just making it sound more petulant and stupid by burning a strawman. No one’s asking “Where in the Constitution does it say the federal government has to send money to planetaria?” because no one’s saying that there *is* anything in the Constitution that says the federal government *has* to spend money on planetaria.

  35. So, I guessing that there is nothing in your constitution that says the guvmint has to spend money on a planetarium. Is there anything that says it can’t (spend money on a planetarium)?

    My guess is that unless you’re spending money on something expressly prohibited by the constitution the government can spend your money any damn way it pleases (at the congresses pleasure).

  36. Andy Craig

    ***So, I guessing that there is nothing in your constitution that says the guvmint has to spend money on a planetarium. Is there anything that says it can’t (spend money on a planetarium)?

    My guess is that unless you’re spending money on something expressly prohibited by the constitution the government can spend your money any damn way it pleases (at the congresses pleasure).***

    No, that is not how it works. The Constitution grants powers to the government. In the absence of a power grant, the government doesn’t have that power. Now, certain provisions have been stretched extremely broadly so that in practice there are very few limits on what the government can do (something BA has complained about on occasion). I, and many others, object to what we consider to be interpreting the Constitution beyond any reasonable recognition. However, the more important point is that such considerations should not be something solely for courts and lawyers to concern themselves with- it is a discussion that should happen in our legislatures and in our public discourse. There is room for disagreement, absolutely, but ultimately it is up to us, the American people, to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. And we can’t very well do that if people have the attitude of seeing any Constitutional obstacle to *their* desired policy as something to simply be ignored, dismissed, and attacked rather than seriously considered.

    Courts are the next-to-last resort to keep the government in line, not the only line of defense.

  37. Andy Craig, sounds like you have some affinity with those people who say that taxation is unconstitutional (Wesley Snipes et al)?

  38. Andy Craig

    shane-

    Uh, no. Snipes is a delusional, paranoid conspiracy wackjob. Just because he (and plenty of other nuts) peppers his insane rants with references to the Constitution doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate constitutional arguments to be made that the government has seriously overstepped its limits. That the 16th Amendment wasn’t really ratified isn’t among them. That the current income tax scheme violated the 4th and 5th Amendments (with mandatory filling being forced self-incrimination and tax audits being a violation of the 4th Amendment guarantee of being secure in, among other things, your “papers” against unreasonable search and seizure) is. How can you tell the difference? The same way skeptics sort bullsh*t from credible arguments on other issues. The 4th/5th amendment issue with the income tax was actually argued in front of the Supreme Court (they rejected it, mistakenly IMO) and is advocated by respected professors in major law reviews. The 16th Amendment argument has never been seriously entertained by any court in the country, and no law review would consider publishing an article considering it, except perhaps using the debunking of it as a jumping off point for a discourse on the process of constitutional amendment.

    Skepticism is something that should be applied to government, politics, and the law, too.

  39. Nigel Depledge

    Andy Craig said:

    It’s not often you see someone flat-out claim that it doesn’t matter that the Constitution doesn’t let the government do something. As irate as you are about things like habeas corpus and separation of church and state, that seems more than a little hypocritical.

    The Constitution establishes a Federal government of enumerated powers. If a power isn’t granted to the Federal government by the Constitution, then the Federal government doesn’t have that power. Period, end of story, and you won’t find a judge in the country that will say otherwise. Now, you could certainly argue that this kind of spending is justified by some provision in the Constitution, but to dismiss the Constitution as irrelevant with that kind of condescending non-argument is both insulting and incredibly inconsistent of you.

    Go back and actually read what Phil wrote. He doesn’t actually comment much on the mechanism of “earmarks”. Mainly his post is about how worthy a planetarium is of funding, and about how disdainful, ignorant and deceptive McCain is being.

    So maybe the mechanism of earmarking should be removed from Washington altogether. Maybe it serves a valuable purpose of which I am unaware.

    Either way, McCain’s disdain of science education is inexcusable.

  40. Jose

    @Andy Craig
    The courts always work with the assumption that determining constitutionality is a process of discovery, seeking a truth that already exists. That they are simply judging the facts (thus “Judge”)

    I fully understand that courts work with the assumption that determining constitutionality is a process of discovery, seeking a truth that already exists. But until they’ve gone through that process, the “truth” of the constitution hasn’t been determined. So it’s meaningless to say something like “This earmarks is unconstitutional”.

    Also, courts in the United States only hear cases where there is a real, actual conflict. They do not automatically review every law.

    No one is making that claim.

    Unfortunately, the courts have held that taxpayers do not have standing to challenge the constitutionality of spending.

    Why on earth would they say that? Perhaps because they’ve read the part in the constitution that says

    The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.

    And they understand that it is Congress’s job to determine what constitutes “general welfare”.

  41. yy2bggggs: Absolutely not. I have no reason to doubt Phil’s sincerity.

  42. john

    Hi I don’t live in the US, I’m a limey but what strikes me is in that in a country with over 300 million people many of them very talented are these two clowns the best you can do for president ? I don’t think so.

    Just a thought!

  43. Andy Craig

    ***I fully understand that courts work with the assumption that determining constitutionality is a process of discovery, seeking a truth that already exists. But until they’ve gone through that process, the “truth” of the constitution hasn’t been determined. So it’s meaningless to say something like “This earmarks is unconstitutional”.***

    Then it’s equally meaningless to say “the Patriot Act is unconstitutional” or “incarcerating American citizens without charge and without access to the courts is unconstitutional”.

    Constitutionality is *not* a question to be considered only by the courts. The idea is not supposed to be that the government does whatever it wants and then lets the courts sort it out. Constitutionality is something that’s *supposed* to be considered and debated by the people and the legislators.

    ***No one is making that claim***

    No, but it’s the only way your “no one except the courts should ever think about the Constitution” argument works.

    ***Why on earth would they say that? Perhaps because they’ve read the part in the constitution that says

    The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States.

    And they understand that it is Congress’s job to determine what constitutes “general welfare”.***

    Actually, no, that’s not the reasoning the courts used.

    And I notice you completely ignored my arguments concerning that clause in favor of just repeating your naked assertion.

  44. Jose

    @Andy Craig

    Who’s saying you can’t think or debate the constitution? Debate it all you want. Isn’t that what we’re doing? I’m just saying that ultimately it doesn’t matter what you or I think. That’s power is reserved for the judicial system to determine.

    And I notice you completely ignored my arguments concerning that clause in favor of just repeating your naked assertion.

    Just answer this. If that’s not what they meant, then why didn’t they put it in the constitution? They were very carful and specific about so many things. Why did they miss this?

  45. Andy Craig

    ***Who’s saying you can’t think or debate the constitution? Debate it all you want. Isn’t that what we’re doing? I’m just saying that ultimately it doesn’t matter what you or I think. That’s power is reserved for the judicial system to determine***

    It absolutely does matter what we think. It’s our damn Constitution. And no, that power is not exclusively reserved to the judicial system. The “power” to decline to participate in the enactment/enforcement of purported legislation that violates the Constitution is something all branches are supposed to do. That’s all courts do, they don’t really “strike down” unconstitutional legislation. It’s still on the law books. The courts just say that they won’t enforce it.

    Your argument has been that we mere citizens have no place challenging the government when it violates the Constitution, and that whatever idle chatter on the subject goes on amongst the people is irrelevant. Nothing could be more at odds with the idea of a government that derives its power from the people.

    ***Just answer this. If that’s not what they meant, then why didn’t they put it in the constitution? They were very carful and specific about so many things. Why did they miss this?***

    They didn’t miss anything. They all rejected the argument that the clause was the blank check you claim it to be, because they considered such an interpretation, when the clause is read in context with the rest of Article 1, Section 8, to be bordering on absurd. The only people who even raised the issue were the people arguing against ratification, one of many spurious and disparate arguments they made *against* the Constitution (along with some very prescient ones).

    By picking single clauses out of context and twisting and stretching the definition of words and phrases far beyond, and sometimes in blatant contradiction to, what they were considered to mean at the time of ratification you can justify whatever you want. Doing that completely destroys the justification for even having a written constitution. That’s just maintaining a constitutional facade for a government that is no more based on the Constitution than Christianity is on the Bible.

  46. Jose

    @Andy Craig
    They didn’t miss anything. They all rejected the argument that the clause was the blank check you claim it to be

    As I’ve said very clearly, it’s not a blank check, and there are safeguards built in place to make sure it’s not used as such.

    You started off with some idiotic premise that Phil was saying the constitution doesn’t matter, when he said nothing remotely like that. Then you pretend that I’m arguing that people have no right to think or argue about the constitution after I’ve been arguing the constitution with you. Now you’re saying that I think mere citizens have no place challenging the government when it violates the Constitution? Give me a break.

    And after projecting these easy to attack, silly positions on me, you then have then the gall to accuse me of twisting things and taking things out of context? Grow up.

  47. Actually, Jose, Andy’s pretty much spot-on here.

    I don’t think he’s even said that he disagrees with Phil’s position, just that he believes that Phil is (un-skeptically) discarding the underlying question of federal funding as being an issue worth discussion, and that this is not generally the philosophy of skepticism that Phil espouses.

    That’s a fair point.

    Now, in Phil’s defense, the whole discussion of whether or not federal funding of science is Constitutional or not *is*, in fact, largely irrelevant to his point that McCain is taking an anti-science standpoint here… since I don’t believe that anyone can claim that McCain is a strict constructionist and therefore it is legitimate to criticize his characterizations of the Zeiss. McCain obviously believes that the federal government has a much higher responsibility in gathering and disbursing funds for a wide range of projects under the general welfare clause.

    But Andy is essentially correct; the proper role of the federal government in funding of anything should be discussed thoroughly, and not discarded out of hand.

    Now, I will also say that I don’t find Hamilton’s (or any of the founding fathers’, for that matter) views on the Constitution to necessarily maintain the level of relevance that they had at the birth of the country in our post-Industrial world, but that’s a subject for a whole ‘nuther blog.

  48. Jose

    @Pat
    But Andy is essentially correct; the proper role of the federal government in funding of anything should be discussed thoroughly, and not discarded out of hand.

    No, he’s absolutely wrong. If someone was arguing this, he would be right. But nobody is. There’s nothing wrong with discussing this, and I’m not discarding this out of hand. As proof that this is and has always been my position, I offer up the fact that I’m actively discussing this and actively not dismissing it out of hand.

    Let me get off the constitution to make my point. I’m pretty sure OJ murdered he wife, but a jury decided he was innocent. Is my opinion irrelevant? Well, legally it sure is. Does that mean I can’t talk about it? No. Does it mean I have to pretend he didn’t do it? Of course not. Can I try work to educate people about DNA evidence and call for racist police to be given the boot? Yes. Can I work to strengthen domestic violence laws? You bet.

    Phil poked fun at the question “Where in the Constitution does it say the federal government has to send money to planetaria?”, because it’s a stupid question. Andy got on his high horse and twisted that into, “It’s not often you see someone flat-out claim that it doesn’t matter that the Constitution doesn’t let the government do something” which is idiotic. He then continued to employ this tactic against me. If you can’t see that, then there’s really no point in discussing it further.

  49. spiffy

    Oh don’t be naive, Phil. Do you honestly think that dollars filtered through the federal government buy more cool planet-arium equipment? You must think either a) Chicago politicians will wrangle larger than their share at the expense of plantet-aria elsewhere; or b) Chicago governance is so corrupt that their planet-aria are actually better off having Chicago funds administered through the federal government.

    Oh. … Well, maybe you’re not naive, maybe you’re just really, really cynical.

  50. Joker

    Defectiverobot wrote :

    “(It’s served no small role in my son’s decision to become a nuclear physicist. He doesn’t know what a nuclear physicist is, really, but that he wants to be one is partially because of the love and wonder of science that the Adler Planetarium has instilled in him.)”

    So a planetarium turned your kid on towards wanting to be a * Nuclear Physicist? * Not an * astronomer * .. ??!

    Hmm .. Something’s wrong with that piccie..

    Either they’re running the wrong kind of programs at Adler (which I doubt) – or there’s something screwy with your boy? (& I can’t comment there not knowing the lil’rugrat – no offence!) ;-)

    Perhaps you should try taking him to a * nuclear physics * laboratory and see if that makes him wish to become an * astronomer!? * ;-)

    As for McCain & his moronic confusion between ‘planetarium’ and ‘overhead projector’? Well its looking more & more like early onset dementia to me .. :-( Not only is he repeating himself he’s repeating the wrong words over and over.

    He’s too old and too crazy for my choice of POTUS that’s for sure – and having Palin (not the Monty Python one, t’other ‘un) as Vice ready to step in and put her mitt on The Button … (*Shudder*) I’m trying to laugh at such idiocy but really its all just too sad. :-(

    I agree with those who argue that neither McCain nor Palin were good choices for the Republican ticket. What were they thinking? There really wasn’t any better choices than those two for that Party ..?

    (Scratches head in wonderment, puzzles over whether the Republikans were deliberately *trying* to throw the election or something?)

    Oh & planetariums = Awesome, awesome, AWESOME, a-w-e-s-o-m-e .. 8)

  51. It IS pork-barrel spending. Call it what you want, it is still funding for the isolated pet projects of members of congress and their constituents — that must be paid for by all Americans, whether it’s beneficial to them or not.

    I don’t disagree with you — government isn’t always bad, and some things are for the greater good. Perhaps the planetaria’s projector was one of those situations–but I doubt either of us know enough about their specific financial circumstances to judge either way.

    But it’s beside the point. If a project is worthy of the public’s hard-earned tax dollars, should it not be able to stand on its own legislative appropriation? If it is TRULY for the greater good, why not have legislators vote for a bill specifically written for that individual need, rather than sneaking an appropriation into another bill that is completely unrelated?

    Dan

  52. The economy would be better able to rebound from a bit of foolishness and corruption if we weren’t losing ground in science to Japan, China, India… Burma, Haiti….

  53. W L Anderson

    I marvel that such a simple matter can balloon into such an outpouring of verbiage, some of it knowledgeable but some resoundingly and astonishingly ignorant. We already knew that McCain is an ignoramus in the area of science, so his ravings about an astronomy projector are more of the same. I would have hoped for more intelligence on the part of those who log into ‘Bad Astronomy’, but I guess I should know better after a long lifetime of observing human beings.

  54. Tony A

    It amazes me that people can find it a problem that their government is spending a mere $3m on a piece of equipment that is invaluable as an educational tool…

    It devolving into arguments about whether it is in your constitution or not is irrelevant. Your country is in a mess. The only way out of this mess is by investing in scientific advancements, and building a stable platform for the future.

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