Spending Priorities

By Sean Carroll | November 14, 2007 12:49 am

Money spent on energy research vs. the Iraq war. (Via Matthew Yglesias.) Amusingly illustrative graph below the fold.

Iraq vs. Power Research

I’m not usually impressed by these kinds of comparisons; if the Iraq war really had inspired populaces throughout the entire Middle East to spontaneously overthrow their despotic governments and inaugurate a new era of democracy, tolerance, and prosperity, it would have been a good idea. The war is expensive, but that’s not the best argument against it.

Still, the occasional pictorial representation of our spending priorities does help to bring home how messed up they are. Via Ezra Klein, here’s the famous food pyramid, along with a corresponding pyramid showing how we subsidize different types of production.

Food Subsidy Pyramid

Sometimes this democracy stuff is just depressing.

  • a

    both of these are great but meaningless without data. The so called wikipedia source for the lower chart doesn’t seem to balance with the graphics. i never trust these types of charts. I’ve never seen one that doesn’t bend the rules of fair game. No matter the political affiliation.

  • http://www.cmi.ac.in/~anshul anshul

    Shouldn’t the US have some scientific bodies with some political clout to you know, advertise these things to the regular public loudly?

    (Besides, can you enable full posts in the RSS feed again? It helps some of us who have their feed readers download the stuff so that they can read it offline in the bus or something. Thanks!)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    anshul, the full posts should be available at the right feed (http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/feed/atom/). The only exceptions are when we use the “more” tag, which we have to do for long posts.

  • http://freiddy.blogspot.com/ Freiddie

    Maybe a logarithmic graph would be more manageable, although the point would be less obvious as advertised. But I do agree that we should spent more money on things like CERN than war. Does anyone agree with this?

  • http://turnerbroadcasting.blogspot.com turnerBroadcasting

    I used to have this great pen, from a political activism group that had the same graph in a pull out , sort of window shade thing..

    Wait I will find it for you guys.. here you go. True Majority.


    I was having lunch with a friend of mine at the SFSU C Sci dept. and I pulled this out and it cracked him up. They still have those pens, just contact them.

  • http://turnerbroadcasting.blogspot.com turnerBroadcasting

    Ok, there’s a really cool pen available, with a pull out window shade type thing on the side, that has this same basic graph in general form (not the war, but the defense dept. budget vs. others)


  • George Musser

    Here’s a great discussion of the same question: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/17/business/17leonhardt.html

  • rusell

    What most amazes me about these things is the complete lack of accountability. A government (in any country) can, and usually will, take this kind of disastrous decisions without any consequence for the decision makers besides a possible loss of popularity.

  • jick

    What the hell, the Iraq war couldn’t inspire American populace to spontaneously overthrow their despotic government. So far it was just a total waste of human lives and money.

    Well, to be fair, it’s true that the so-called “despotism” of America is still much better than the best governments one can find in the Middle East.

    But then again, none of those infamous Middle East tyrants I’ve heard of have ever sent troops halfway across the globe to burn cities, kill people, and in general just mess up, with half of their own people cheering behind.

    Sometimes this Pax Americana thing is… well… depressing. (Sorry for punning.)

    – jick

  • Ryan

    George Musser,

    That is a fascinating discussion, thanks for the link.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/john John

    I have to agree with the criticism of the pyramid graphic…is it volume we are supposed to compare? Because then the numbers are way off. If it’s not volume then don’t use a pyramid. This goes for the right hand one as well.

  • Tumbledried

    Interesting graphics. The first really brings home how absolutely disproportionate the emphasis of US budgetary spending on Iraq has been. I’m not sure it adds terribly much to this discussion, but in my humble opinion the issue of energy – in economic, and the indirect economic cost, through possible environmental damage (caused by burning coal/oil etc) – will be one of the biggest possible destabilising issues in the next century. I think, in terms of the potential for avoiding future conflict over environmental and economic resources, one could make a very, very good argument for military scale spending towards the goal of researching and providing cheap, and moreover, clean energy. Maybe energy research should then be reclassified, and included as part of a broader defense research program?

  • tyler

    the pyramid graph is amusing, but completely invalid, since it clearly violates the rules of good data visualization in its comparison of unlike data types and the “visual volume” trick. The latter is infamously deceptive, it’s one of the classic “USA Today” lying data graphic tactics.

    The tall graph follows the rules (though it’s not beautifully made) and that’s how it makes its point. interesting to see the two side by side.

  • http://name99.org/blog99 Maynard Handley

    The other problem with the pyramid graph is that it conflates different issues, namely the volumes of items and the costs of items.

    Meat is substantially more expensive than grain, so it would not be surprising if the dollar amount of subsidies for meat were substantially higher than the dollar subsidies for grain. You may be offended by meat subsidies on libertarian grounds, or on vegetarian grounds, or on ecological grounds, but this picture is not an academically honest way of presenting the issue.

    What one really wants, presumably, in this particular context, would be to display the *fraction* of the cost of meat, grains, etc, that represent federal subsidies.
    If you’re going to be even more honest, this would have to include side subsidies like the types of foods that are accepted for WIC/food stamp programs, that are bought for school lunches and so on.
    My suspicion is that that would give us a rather flatter distribution of cash across the different food groups, but I honestly don’t know.

    At the end of the day, I think it is absolutely dishonest of people bemoaning America’s eating habits to lay the problem at the feet of food subsidies. If the federal government subsidised salads at McDonalds and Burger King so as to halve their costs, of course more would be sold; but I suspect not substantially more, and the effect on the overall health of the nation would be basically lost in the noise.
    Complaints about school lunches, food advertising to kids, portion sizes, non-display in large type of the calories in ALL the food at fast food restaurants (as opposed to a chart that is three years out of date); heck maybe even complaints about lack of parks and playgrounds, all strike me as legit. This complaint, that it’s the relative costs strikes me as rather less so. I’d be happy to be proved wrong by real data, but it just doesn’t mesh with my experience of America.

  • Elliot

    three words “campaign finance reform”


  • Kapakapa

    And money not spent that should have been spent on Iraq.

    Simply assuming if the US were to compensate, say, $30,000 for each life lost, $10,000 for the injured, and $5,000 for the displaced, what would that amount to additional war budget? Pardon the unrealistically cheap scale of compensation.

    Robert Dreyfuss recently estimated in November 11, Tom’s Dispatch as follows:
    ‘There are, by now, perhaps a million dead Iraqis, give or take a few hundred thousand. If a typical wounded-to-dead ratio of 3:1 holds, then you’re talking about up to 4 million war, occupation, and civil-war casualties. Now, add in the estimated 2-2.5 million who went into exile, fleeing the country, and another estimated 2.3 million who have had to leave their homes and go into internal exile as Iraqi communities and neighborhoods were “cleansed.”

    The total adds up to a deep, helpless sigh.

  • markk

    Re: the pyramids – yes they are extremely misleading. In fact really bad, since they do not include agricultural water subsidy as part of grain or vegetable.
    e.g. southeastern CA for example… Include that and the pyramid is actually upside down.

    Not that subsidies are good. Of course now that corn prices are going up on their own because of secondary markets, people call it a “crime against humanity” for agricultural product prices to go up. You can’t win either way as a farmer.

    Being from Wisconsin we have always laughed at dairy subsidies as if people here wanted them as is. The fact that it was (and is still kind of) true that the farther you were from Eau Claire WI the more dairy subsidy you got, always was good for a laugh.

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  • William

    Yeah, I agree with most of the other commenters. I’m seriously skeptical about that pyramid graphic. I can’t even tell in what terms it means. Percentage of what? Does it include price controls for milk as “subsidies”? The common wisdom, at least as I understand it, is that the biggest subsidies are responsible for the biggest monoculture products: corn, soybeans, and sugar, full stop. Of those, the soybeans are mainly used for the oil, and the corn is mainly of a type used for high fructose corn syrup. I hadn’t even heard of significant subsidies for ranching. Perhaps the maker is including animal feed in the subsidies, in which case meat would concentrate resources by virtue of being higher on the food chain.

    It’s big news that the farm bill this year is including more subsidies for fruit and vegetable farming. Of course, “more” still isn’t much, and less in the way of subsidies overall would be far better, but… yeah. That bottom pyramid needs great elucidation.

  • Pedro


  • http://techguytales.com Tech Guy Tales

    Hey, why don’t you change the y axis to increase at one dollar at a time, that way you can make the graph even longer!

  • Pingback: Money spent on energy research vs. the Iraq war [chart] at pepemosca()

  • Ahmed

    Sean: Before thinking about forcefully bringing about our “democracy” to the world, we would be better off looking at the sad state of things back here. Our most basic rights have been eroded and belittled, our privacy desecrated, and the very democratic foundations our nation built upon (and which we are supposedly trying to spread by invading secular, non-threatening states with crippled armies) have become almost irrelevant to the day-to-day decision making on Capitol Hill. You are unhappy about the money lost – and so am I – but I am a tad unhappier about the fact that after 5 years of insensible war we have managed to get half a million people killed, most of them civilians, and have set back what used to be the scientific center of the middle east (Baghdad) into the middle ages. You cannot educate people by killing them.

    And if “democracy, tolerance and prosperity” are what dragged us into having a blundering idiot as head of state for 8 years- a man whose sayings are sold in the comedy section of your bookstore – maybe we need to rethink this whole democracy thing.

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  • XR

    Well, with Dubya in charge, what else is new? Spending money without restraints on a war that still does not have a clear exist strategy is not a problem, while raising measily $10 Billion cigarrate tax to help pay for a $300 Billion domestic bill is too much. The war cost is already $1.6 trillion, what’s another $10 B. Especially since we are still borrowing against our chidrenn’s and the children of our children’s future. Whoever says Dubya is thinking any of these through is obviously not thinking themselves.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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