Bloodbath for Science

By John Conway | February 13, 2011 3:55 pm

Last Wednesday the House Appropriations Committee released a list of proposed cuts totaling over $74 billion to be attached to the continuing resolution under which the government is presently operating. The next day, the committee promised even deeper reductions in the present fiscal year funding, which began last October, and which is nearly half over. The committee is set to propose some $100 billion in cuts, the rationale being “to rein in spending to help our economy grow and our businesses create jobs.”

Among the cuts is $1.1 billion from the Department of Energy Office of Science, the agency which funds the majority of basic physics research at universities and national labs. This is out of a total proposed budget of $5.12 billion for basic research. That request for FY2011 was slightly above the FY2010 actual appropriation, meaning that the proposed cut for FY2011 represents more than a $890 million decrease relative to FY2010.

If enacted (and what happens next is a high-stakes game of chicken), clearly, this represents a 20% rescission half way through the fiscal year. Effectively it’s a 40% cut. Imagine you are a national lab director, or a university PI like me. If I am told that I will not get the money we were awarded by the DOE, we will need to let people go, no question. People are talking about closing the national labs for some period, and I have heard rumors that the Tevatron at Fermilab, scheduled to shut down in September, will actually be turned off in a couple weeks on March 1, ten years to the day that Run 2 began.

The exact programs within the DOE Office of Science to be cut will be detailed by the committee soon, I expect. But this is utter devastation for the people that form the bedrock foundation of our high tech economy, and train the next generation of scientists and engineers. It is breathtakingly stupid.

And how does cutting $100 billion in government spending “help our economy grow and create jobs”? The immediate result will be the loss of something like a million jobs. This is just an order of magnitude guess, based on the notion that all government spending supports jobs one way or another, at about $100k per job. Maybe it’s 600k, maybe it’s 1.5 million – I don’t know. But to say this creates jobs? I am totally baffled by this logic. I am no economist, but maybe one out there can enlighten me.

As far as I can see, we cut federal spending so the ultra-rich can keep their tax breaks, and they invest the money they keep overseas where labor is cheaper. So we are killing American jobs – some of the best ones we have in high-tech and alternative energy – and sending them out of the country. This is incredible.

The administration’s FY2012 request will be released tomorrow. No doubt the house majority party will declare it DOA…

  • Joshua Wetuski

    Yes it is… it’s very depressing.
    America has already lost most of its factory jobs, all we have left our service and research, the rest is fiscal institutions screwing people over and getting rich while contributing nothing back to soceity, yet these are the men congress listens to above all others (that and Big Corporations like oil companies).

    I blame ignorance and undereducated people that just go with what their parents taught them or they heard one guy say and never listened to any other side there after and close their ears off to any other voices or ideas(Ron Paul supports for examples that refuse to any other alternative economic fields of thought).
    Political ideology seems to me the be comparable to religion in a lot of ways. Your ideas are usually based off your parents (even if they deny it they usually are), you close your mind to any other idea besides th one you had forced into your head, and anyone that believes differently is below you and wrong in most all aspects. Sure that doesn’t apply to all, but neither do the aspects of religion, it’s just that it applies to “most”.

    Anyone have any other good countries in mind we might could move to instead?

  • Kushal

    This is terrible, I always looked at the US as the place for Research because of funding. There are other things that they should really cutback on.

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  • JRQ

    Understand, John: The people proposing these cuts believe that research scientists and staff are not doing any real work *by definition* unless they are employed by the private sector. If your work doesn’t contribute tangibly to some company’s bottom line, and ultimately to the profit of the CEO and shareholders, then your work produces nothing of actual value. In this view, any job that exists as a result of federal funding is, as a matter of principle, disposable and can be cut with no real loss of productivity. If your work is valuable to the private sector, you’ll be hired by some company anyway. If not, it has no value and you shouldn’t be getting paid to do it.

  • Deon

    > So we are killing American jobs – some of the best ones we have in high-tech and alternative energy – and sending them out of the country. This is incredible.

    I think there’s some symbolic meaning in the fact that to find employment with my PhD in one of those “STEM” fields that our politicians so love to fawn over, I had to move to Iceland — a country that was quite literally on the edge of bankruptcy.

  • Derek

    $100b in cuts over 1/2 year is $200b annualized. If you assume that most cuts land on salaries, and that most people either can’t or won’t work 6 months for free, then I think you want to estimate 2 million jobs at stake, rather than 1 million.

    The worst thing about it is, I expect they know the cuts they are proposing will kill jobs. Since they are counting on a disastrous job picture to help them knock out Obama in 2012, however, from their perspective this is a feature and not a bug.

    -df

  • tim rowledge

    political ideology seems to me the be comparable to religion in a lot of ways.

    Yup. A political ideology is a religion that admits (at least tacitly) that it was made up by humans. Or conversely, a religion is a political ideology (almost always veering significantly towards oppression) that claims to be justified by some deity or deities.

    I think you could – at least jokingly – claim that a nation is a religion with guns.

  • Matt

    Just to give you a sense of perspective, the nominal budget for defense spending in the US is $700 billion, which is 53% of total global military spending.

    Now, of course, that number doesn’t count a lot of intelligence spending, which is highly classified, and includes satellite programs, foreign wiretapping programs, espionage, etc. Altogether, the military budget in this country is of order $1 trillion dollars. The $5 billion for basic scientific research in the US is a rounding error. And yet they’ll cut that before anyone looks like they’re “weak” on defense.

    When you look at the US federal budget, 85% is either dedicated to insurance programs or military spending (or interest). None of that is real investment.

    We’re a giant insurance company with an army.

    But the truth is that scientists are partly at fault. We’ve got paltry lobbying capacities, and we’ve got no one to blame but ourselves. We can’t just sit back and hope that politicians will advocate on our behalf. If you don’t have a major lobby in D.C., then nobody listens to you. That’s just the way the world works. Devoting one’s life completely to laboratory work is a luxury we just can’t afford anymore.

    It’s time we stopped complaining about how dumb the public is and saying that we don’t want to dirty our hands with politics, and actually organize a serious and targeted lobby, just like the other major players, from defense contractors to oil companies. The Union of Concerned Scientists and the National Academy of Science are a joke; no politicians quake in their boots when they get those groups mad, because neither group gets down on the ground in campaigns to direct money to favorable candidates or to run attack ads.

    If you don’t believe a small but highly committed, highly-feared, single-issue lobby can have a big effect, just look at the NRA or AIPAC. What’s stopping us?

  • http://freelance-quantum-gravity.blogspot.com/ Javier

    Well, afther this I wouldn’t consider the USA the first economic potency any more.

    Certainly it is bad for people that is actually working in science, but it also means that the country loose any possibility to recover from the crisis. Good luck Americans ;) .

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  • Solomon

    @Matt, I think it pretty much comes down to money. The NRA and AIPAC have multi-billionaires among their donors; so, they can afford to buy candidates and massive quantities of major media advertisements as needed for their goals. Scientists just don’t have that kind of money. Additionally, those particular groups have spend decades insinuating their positions into the conservative consciousness. At that kind of rate, we might hope for the necessary influence somewhere around 2050, if we can find a message that actually manages to resonate with the American public.

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  • Anonymous

    Matt @8,

    I could not agree more. With the exception of basic scientific research, I can’t think of an economic sector which is largely dependent on government funding and does not devote significant resources to lobbying. I’ve noticed that research grants are often used as examples of “pork” in political speeches; perhaps science is a convenient scapegoat because it’s possible to point fingers at it without angering any lobbyists.

    The effectiveness of a pro-science lobby would be highly dependent on how successful it was in getting donations, but I would think it would be possible to convince professional scientists to donate, since we are all very aware of the importance of government funding. I think the idea is long overdue and just needs a few committed, politically savvy individuals to get off the ground.

  • tim rowledge

    I would think it would be possible to convince professional scientists to donate, since we are all very aware of the importance of government funding

    I guarantee that if significant donations were made a politician or ten would use that as evidence that scientists were too highly paid and grants needed to be cut to stop them ‘interfering in the political process’

  • Derek

    @John, have you looked at the deficit lately? No one wants a program they are associated with cut but everyone wants government spending reduced. So the cuts have to come from somewhere. If you want to really fix the problem, get rid of some of the entitlements so the DoE can invest more into Research programs!

    As far as job creation goes, the cuts certainly cost jobs but I don’t see how that puts more money into the richest americans pockets. They aren’t cutting taxes, they are cutting spending.

  • Matt

    @Solomon, There are no billionaires for science? Really? Are there really no scientists who cashed in and got big? You don’t think we could scare up some people at Google, or Bill Gates, or people from Silicon Valley? For heaven’s sake, Paul Allen is wasting his billions on X prizes. He’s not pro-science? He couldn’t be convinced? Have you spent any time at a TED summit?

    That’s just off the top of my head. There are definitely more billionaires for science than for guns. There’s just no organization. It’s a mess.

    @Derek,

    The reason they’re trying to cut spending is so they can avoid raising taxes on rich people. You could close almost the entire long-term deficit just by ending the Bush tax cuts, which overwhelmingly benefited the very wealthy.

  • John

    Derek, they already cut taxes, hugely, over the past two decades for the wealthiest. How about we go back to Reagan-era taxes? I’d vote for it. But now, apparently, we need to pay for that by cutting spending. This is called eating your seed corn, if you are generous. More accurately it’s the rape of the middle class. Just look at the numbers and try to make an argument that this will all work in the favor of anyone but the ultra-rich.

    As to your first point, no I don’t want government spending reduced. I want more of it and I want it paid for by those who have benefited from it, myself included. I’d rather than than the apparent alternative.

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  • cvj

    I think the sum total of the forbes 400 rechest americans is 1.37 trillion(*). If I understand correctly, the US budget deficit for 2011 is around 1.27 trillion(**). I don’t see how we can take the money from the rich and pay for our spending, given we owe ~14 trillion now. I think we have to cut spending.

    (*)http://www.forbes.com/2010/09/21/forbes-400-gates-buffett-facebook-rich-list-10-intro.html

    (**)http://articles.latimes.com/2010/feb/01/nation/la-na-budget-deficit2-2010feb02

  • John

    cvj, uh, we need not limit ourselves to the richest 400 Americans…there are 300+ million of us, and so how about the top 1%, which is 3 million people?

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  • Dr Gerard Hammond

    it’s sad but America is so last century. The Chinese are coming and cashed up. Learn mandarin.

  • david karapetyan

    This is fundamentally a PR problem. Where are the lobbyists and popularizers of scientific research? How often do people get to hear about fundamental research that lead to the creation of semi-conductors and various other kinds of technologies that make modern life possible? Washington is run by business school graduates and they run the place like a business because that’s the only way they know how. So sitting around and crying about is not going to change things. Scientists need to be more involved with the political and bureaucratic aspects that surround their work and they need to make sure people are constantly aware of how important scientific research is and that cutting funding to fundamental research is not an option.

  • Jason Dick

    The argument is about confidence: the belief is that the only problem with our economy right now is that investors lack confidence. If only the US shows investors how willing we are to inflict pain on ourselves, the investors will see how great the US is, and so private investment will pick up and cause a recovery.

    Of course, this argues that investors are abject morons. And it absolutely ignores the evidence. Paul Krugman has put out a large number of excellent blog posts and columns about what he calls the “confidence fairies.” Here’s one of this more in-depth pieces:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/02/opinion/02krugman.html

  • Valatan

    @cvj: that deficit figure is massively inflated by stimulus money that is now gone. And every economist in the world, almost, agreed that a stimulus of some form was necessary–the problem was that it was too small, not that it was too large–you jump-start the economy, you increase tax reciepts that way, too.

    The stupid ting was to artificially create a deficit when the economy was good–you run deficits in recessions, and run surpluses during expansions. Instead, we decided to cut taxes and create a deficit where there was none. Why is this never an issue when Republicans are creating deficits? Why isn’t this an issue when the Republican policy suggestions–gold standard, cutting taxes, repealing health care; all make the problem worse?

  • AnotherSean

    I don’t know if it makes any difference, but when people equate a political ideology that cuts scientific spending with a religious belief, we should remember it was the Democrats that killed the SSC. I don’t like it when scientific spending is cut, out of principle. But from the perspective of a policy maker forced to confront a several trillion dollar budget deficit, I can’t say the decision is completely surprising.

  • Derek

    @John, In reality the government shouldn’t be handing out money to anyone, DoE included. Regulation has nothing to do with funding research. You should stand on your own to feet, stop complaining and do something productive, why don’t you start a business??

    There haven’t been any ‘tax cuts’ in many years and your still talking about it? Overtaxing and Overspending are not the same thing. Just because the government is overspending on entitlements, idiotic projects and other areas it has no business being in does not mean the richest 1% is being ‘under taxed’. If you want such a socialist society go live in Europe, you wont have trouble finding it there.

    The tax cut on long term capitol gains by Bush is a huge driver of new jobs and investment, by allowing a lower tax rate when people invest there money into businesses they create jobs, lots of them.

    Just to be clear, if the government was going to piss away money, I would love for it to be on projects that advance science and technology in this country forward. But the squeaky wheel gets the grease and your an easy target with a small wheel, cutting money from any of the big programs creates to much uproar.

  • Derek

    [bug in their commenting system caused double comment, saving an edit saves the edit and creates a new post if there is any text in the leave a reply field at the bottom.]

  • G

    Derek is absolutely right. Our deficit is $1.5 trillion dollars this year – it shouldn’t be difficult to understand that this is not sustainable. So, you don’t want to cut basic science (and I agree). What else are we going to cut then? Department of Education? Social security? Medicare? I’d imagine though, that John and others posting here are unwilling to cut those as well. People are acting like petulant children – even though you see how bad things are getting you still want more and more spending and of course you want “the rich” to pay for them. It’s great when you can get stuff with other people’s money.

    And you can’t tax your way to prosperity. Taxes alone will not solve the deficit. Look, historically it’s very simple: when the government raises new taxes, it spends more than it actually brings in (A 1987 study done by Ohio University economics Richard Vedder, Lowell Gallaway, and Christopher Frenze found that for every one dollar of additional tax revenue the government turns around and spends $1.58 — in 2007, Richard Vedder and Jonathan Leirer updated the study and found the same results) Just raising taxes will not solve our problems.

    I think that you’ll find that many reasonable people would actually be in favor of raising some taxes if spending cuts were enacted as well.

  • yonemoto

    why is no one considering the possibility that we are already overinvested in science and maybe this is the correct move? Forgetting economic woes and debt ceilings, if President Obama tomorrow announced $10 trillion dollars to develop warp drive in 10 years, you don’t think frauds and charlatans would scurry towards that money? Respectable physicists, integrity be damned, would slap together proposals to fit within the funding guidelines? Research institutes would build expansive new facilities and graduate student rolls would swell to fill the need for cheap research labor? But the bubble would create a problem – too many PhDs with middling characteristics competing for increasingly hierarchified jobs – drowning out PhDs with real talent…

    Warp drive aside, these are all things that we are seeing today, in science. For example, Retractions are up (google retractionwatch, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg). The employment prospect for freshly minted PhDs is dismal.

    The problem is that you can keep throwing money at a problem, but at any given time there is a real limit on how much you can innovate. And precisely because heretofore science has been thrown about as “it’s a matter of utmost national interest” no one has really attacked this problem with a clear head. What people don’t see, is that the federal science behemoth has really done a good job at smothering nonprofit science foundation competition. A nonprofit foundation can allocate, say $100-200k on a funded project, which is barely enough to support a research associate (including salary, benefits) and moreover government funding (NIH, NSF) negotiates on an individual basis with research institutes OVERHEAD which most nonprofit foundations cannot pay, so greedy institutes just pass, and the foundations quit giving money (their endowments were being eroded by inflation anyways). Meanwhile having access to nearly blank check scheme means that equipment and reagent prices also stay high, making it more difficult for nonprofit funding to suffice, and also shutting out small researchers (say at primary undergrad institutitons). Finally the government granting scheme is precisely the wrong type of reward system. Study after study has shown that for creative endeavors (versus mechanical or rote endeavors) connecting payout to performance actually causes decreased performance and probably results in ethically questionable behavior. Yet, RO1 and program project grants basically are up for competitive renewal on exactly a performance-basis.

    Government science has really done a great job of slowly trashing the scientific landscape over the past 50 years. Cutting in the sciences is going to be painful, but not cutting in the sciences is doing no one any favors.

  • Paul

    @Derek… How can you say that there hasn’t been any tax cuts in many years? Obama cut taxes.

    How do you come up with your number on how much you think the rich should be taxed? Seems to me that if a slight increase on taxes for the rich would substantially help out with the problems we are having now it would be a bad idea not to do it. They get the most out of the system why shouldn’t they pay a little more, especially since it won’t really have any effect on them.

    Just giving a company money doesn’t mean that they will create more jobs. Especially if the business is already making money. If they are just starting sure having more money is going to help them out. If your already doing well, the only reason you are going to hire more people is if it’s going to help you make money.

    Really I feel the problem with the cuts we are talking about now along with the tax cuts is that we aren’t doing anything to stop the main problems. When the majority of the money isn’t in these types of programs, and you have programs that continue to cost more and more money. Along with cutting taxes for everyone we are going to have a hell of a time solving the problem.

  • Tom

    @G – You are right on one count. Everyone has a sacred cow whose expenses should not be cut. But you itemized only the things that you thought John and others might also like to see kept intact – and missed the 800 lb gorilla… defense/military spending.
    Since taxes are at an all time low, it is unclear to me how you consider an increase equivalent to “taxing your way to prosperity :-/
    While the study you mention sounds credible, I would say that the conclusion might be that we just stop all taxes, which of course is a ludicrous conclusion. We need taxes, everyone agrees. It is all about where the dividing line should be (when are taxes “too high”), and that line is seldom based on income, and usually based on idealogy about what government should and should not be a part of.

  • John

    Derek says: “The tax cut on long term capitol gains by Bush is a huge driver of new jobs and investment, by allowing a lower tax rate when people invest there [sic] money into businesses they create jobs, lots of them.”

    Then why did this not happen in the past decade? How many jobs were created in eight years of Bush tax cuts?

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  • Valatan

    @conservatives:

    Stop talking about the current deficit like its a long term structural deficit, when you know that a decent chunk of it is two wars and a stimulus, which no one intends to keep on the books long-term.

  • mushroom

    Obama cut taxes? When did that happen? If you had said that he did not raise taxes I would have understood it. Tax rates will remain the same as they have been for the last few years.

    To be fair, I think it makes sense to cut spending across the board until the deficit is eliminated. Government should do more with less like the rest of us have to when the budget is tight. That includes the military. If we have to close down the War on Terror, so be it. We could maybe just secure the borders instead.

    The money spent by government produces very little compared to the cost. Layers of bureaucracy are black holes that suck in more and more of the allocation while less and less are available to do the ‘good’ that was originally intended. Coupled with the immutable law of unintended consequences, government spending mostly produces only more government spending, more government, and noticeably less freedom.

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

    Mushroom HE LOWERED YOUR ******* TAXES LAST YEAR! There was not a “rebate check” there was a decrease in taxes collected for those making under $250k. At least have the decency to not make a bold faced lie in the first sentence you type.

  • Solomon

    @G Cutting all science funding from the federal budget would only decrease the deficit by a couple percent. Compare that to the combination of defense, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which combine to make up about 60% of all federal spending. If we want to fix the deficit, maybe we ought to concentrate there.

    To be fair, Social Security is, pretty much by the definition of how it works, revenue neutral at worst, since it has benefit reductions built in if it ever runs out of reserve funds.

    Medicare (particularly, say, part D) on the other hand is going to need some major fixes to its revenue stream. Part of fix was introduced in the ACA through a new focus on the use of generic drugs and the idea of funding medical care based on (desired) outcome rather than quantity of care provided. Of course, this isn’t nearly a big enough change to solve the revenue problem; but, it’s at least the beginnings of movement in the right direction.

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  • mushroom

    Thanks for playing but lowering the amount withheld does not necessarily mean people paid less in taxes.

    Technically, what was done was a change in the IRS rules to institute a temporary tax credit (credit not cut) that ran for two years. This appears to mean that there was no change in the actual rates, despite what some news outlets claim.

    The withholding credit averaged around $35 per wage earner per month. It is unclear to me whether this meant an actual decrease in tax liability. In other words, was your refund smaller by the same amount? If it was then taxes did not decrease.

    I usually don’t get refunds, and I know that my check to the Feds last year was larger than in the past with little change in my income.

    So I guess I’ll let you slide on calling me a liar. But you can still kiss my a$$.

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

    Math is hard. These issues are very complicated, not everyone understands them the first time through. Especially if they try really hard not to.

  • John

    The House Appropriations Committee released more details here. For the DOE/OS, it just says “Science”..

    Unbelievable.

  • Derek

    Taxes are at an all time low? You don’t see the problem with taxing one group of americans more then the other?

    Taxes are certainly not lower then they were pre-WWII/pre-Rosvelette. If you cared about fairness you would support a flat tax, everyone pays their fair share, no loopholes. As it is a huge percentage of Americans pay little or no income tax, the rest are in a system that penalizes you, the more money you make the higher percentage you have to pay.

    No one here cares about fairness in our system, just making sure of get your piece of the pie. Like cousin Pookie.

  • Valatan

    @Derek: you could make the exact same argument for just charging every american $10,000 in taxes (the real number, of course, would have to be much higher), or whatever the number comes to? But everyone agrees that a raw constant tax rate would be horiffically unfair.

    There’s certainly a diminishing returns/Maslow hierarchy-based argument supporting a progressive tax structure–if 100% of your income is going toward paying rent and buying food, you have much less ability to pay taxes than someone who has those things covered after the first 30% of their income. Why is it fair to take the same 35% off of the top of both groups? The hardship from this will be much more severely felt by the first group.

    And anyway, it’s not like the 50s were spent by rich people mostly avoiding being prosperous, and sitting on their heels because they got insufficient ROI on their investment and time. And the top tax rate was 90% back then.

  • mushroom

    Sean, you link to a simulation of then-Senator Obama’s campaign proposal. The actual reported numbers are an average of $400 per year per taxpayer — as I said, about $35 a month, or $8 a week. It was done by a tax credit not a reduction in the tax rate.

    Apparently English is even harder than math.

    This is described by several sources as equivalent to the tax rebate checks Bush sent out — which also did not reduce the tax rates. The reasoning behind the withholding change was that people were less likely to save an incremental amount. Still there were no rate changes. The federal tax brackets have not changed since 2003.

    I have no particular animosity toward President Obama. I hate all politicians, parties, and bureaucrats equally.

    From my federal tax tables, just to pick a number that’s easy to find at the bottom of a column, if a married couple filing jointly had $50,000 in taxable income, their tax liability was:

    2005 — 6766
    2006 — 6741
    2007 — 6714
    2008 — 6694
    2009 — 6661
    2010 — 6659

    The annual drop is due to bracket inflation, I suppose. But there has been no change in the percentage by bracket since 2003. A tax credit doesn’t change that; a tax cut to the rates would. A tax credit from the Feds can be considered income by some states in some cases, just as a rebate or refund can be considered income.

  • John

    Paul Krugman’s piece in the NYT captures another nuance here.

  • Truly Anomalous

    I think it is fairly clear that a large chunk of the current deficit was created by (a) Bush’s wars (Iraq was certainly a war of choice) and (b) Bush’s tax cuts…

  • Paul

    @mushroom do you really think that tax rate is the only thing that matters when talking about taxes? That is the kind of math that has gotten us into these problems in the first place. Someone should tell Obama that. Then he can raise taxes on the rich and he won’t really be raising taxes.

  • Matthew Saunders

    John,

    1. Everything has a cost.

    2. The only constant is that there will always be change.

    3. We live in worlds that other people have created; the US’ economy and money are ideas that were created for a purpose and not something fundamental like gravity. They are tools.

    4. Tools are made for particular situations and particular environments. When those situations/environments change…

    5. What are you willing to do to ensure that your lifestyle continues? Are you willing, say, to overcome any reluctance you may have to incorporate, say, your neighbours into your tribe? Yanno, get to know them, what they are good at, what they aren’t good at, what they like, dislike, are skilled at, etc? Be willing to form your own economy in a sense?

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  • Andrew

    Derek: The largest portion of the discretionary spending budget goes to the military. The military serves to defend the assets of the rich. The middle class and poor are largely in debt–if the country were to go to shit, they would lose no money–they’d probably come out ahead as their massive debts go away. The rich would lose their investments and property.

  • John

    Derek says “Taxes are at an all time low? You don’t see the problem with taxing one group of americans more then [sic] the other?”

    No. A progressive tax structure is crucial for a free democratic society.

    Matthew Saunders, not sure what you are driving at here…we have pretty close relationships with our neighbors, within our community, and in our professional community.

  • Derek

    “you could make the exact same argument for just charging every american $10,000 in taxes (the real number, of course, would have to be much higher), or whatever the number comes to? But everyone agrees that a raw constant tax rate would be horiffically unfair.”

    Charging every American $10,000 in taxes would be idiotic. Charging every american a flat 15-20% is perfectly reasonable. I find the claim that if 100% of your income going to food and housing you cant afford the taxes invalid. I see people on various welfare programs all the time. They have cable, they buy TV’s and game consoles etc. Your logic is the reason why we have so many americans who pay $0 in federal taxes. There is nothing wrong with asking everyone to pay a equal % of income or a federal sales tax with no income tax. (in the case of sales tax, exceptions for basic living items such as food granted)

    “The largest portion of the discretionary spending budget goes to the military. The military serves to defend the assets of the rich.”

    What a load of crap. The military serves to equally protect the citizens of this country unlike so many of these other programs that benefit specific groups of people, in this case scientists! If you want to cut military funding it would equally affect us all. I specifically don’t mention military funding because I like what it provides to each and every citizen. If the majority wanted to defund it though, what could be MORE fair!

    “No. A progressive tax structure is crucial for a free democratic society.”

    Obviously, I do not agree. The society would be just as free if everyone paid an equal share. No tax credits for investments, no loopholes, just a nice simple flat tax. If you don’t like it, you can always use the freedom of speech that would undoubtedly still be available without the progressive tax structure.

  • Andrew

    Derek: If you’re rich, having national military-protected security is the difference between having a billion dollars and a few millions of dollars that you squirreled away in gold.

    If you’re an average, middle-class mortgage holding american, having national military-protected security is the difference between having more debt than assets and having your mortgage payment go to zero because we’ve run the printing presses to make the dollar worthless.

  • Marty

    Derek,

    Apparently you are a person with some strong opinions. It is good to have opinions — I’d much rather live in a republic/democracy where the people think about big issues, learn about them and act/vote accordingly rather than a place where the voters are apathetic, uninformed and vote basically on emotion (or not vote at all).

    But… Having opinions obviously becomes counterproductive and even outright damaging if one becomes overly attached to them and doesn’t reevaluate them when conflicting information appears. That’s one of the great things about the scientific method — it demands testing whether one’s ideas/hypotheses/opinions are correct. And people who don’t respect the value of testing their ideas before taking irreversible actions are bound to make some decisions that have far-reaching, unintended (and frequently very damaging) consequences. For example, George W. Bush didn’t appear to place much importance on the scientific method or careful thought, and unsurprisingly (and not coincidentally) he wasn’t afraid to take very costly measures (in terms of lives and treasure) based on his own “feelings” and ideology. There are so many examples of that in history, one couldn’t begin to enumerate them.

    So where do you stand? Do you believe it is important to test your ideas and adjust them accordingly, or are you ultra-confident in your ideology? I ask because you have totally ignored John’s very pertinent question (#33):

    Derek says: “The tax cut on long term capitol gains by Bush is a huge driver of new jobs and investment, by allowing a lower tax rate when people invest there [sic] money into businesses they create jobs, lots of them.”

    Then why did this not happen in the past decade? How many jobs were created in eight years of Bush tax cuts?

    This is a chance to test your thinking and make a cogent argument that the rest of us can hear. If you really believe in what you said in comment #27 and it is actually thought out and based on real-world evidence, then it should be straightforward for you to intelligently and calmly answer John’s question. Otherwise, it is easy for the rest of us to conclude that you are just another ideologue with a bunch of poorly thought-out opinions, someone not worth worth taking very seriously.

  • ACF

    “Seems to me that if a slight increase on taxes for the rich would substantially help out with the problems we are having now it would be a bad idea not to do it. They get the most out of the system why shouldn’t they pay a little more, especially since it won’t really have any effect on them.”

    And you, sir, are no better than a bully and a rapist who does what he does because “he can.”

  • ACF

    To some posters (and Sean), consider the following three scenarios. In each case, I am a farmer who grew one apple (without any cost), and someone wants to buy my apple for $1 (pricey apple!). It is the last day of December.

    1. My income for the year was $20,000. The buyer purchases my apple for $1, and I am not forced by the government to pay any taxes.
    2. My income for the year was $100,000. The buyer purchases my apple for $1, and I am forced by the government to pay 25% in taxes.
    3. My income for the year was $1,000,000. The buyer purchases my apple for $1, and I am forced by the government to pay 35% in taxes.

    These scenarios represent a progressive tax structure. It uses the physical force of the government to steal the fruits of my labor in proportion to how much previous wealth that I have created, as judged by those who chose to exchange the liquid symbol of wealth they created (dollars) for the service I rendered.

    As far as I’ve seen from some of the comments, the only justification for this fundamental violation of individual freedom to trade value for value is that the government has tanks so it can take money from the more productive. A more eloquent statement of this is “from each according to ability, to each according to need.”

  • Derek

    @Andrew, perhaps are military budget is to big, but thats not really the point here. The military protects the rich and poor alike, equally and thus the value, wether wanted or not, is distributed equally.

    @Marty, you make a vague reference to GW Bush acting on his feelings and ideology and not careful thought. I am not sure what in particular you speak of so its hard to put this in context. I would argue that in the arena the President plays in, careful thought, ideology and “feelings” are intertwined because there are so many variables, often so much unknown and usually many conflicting opinions and evidence.

    You are also asking me for factual references which don’t exist or at least have no way of being accurate. If I cannot product this then my opinion must be invalid. ……Very clever….. Looking at job stats, or GDP before and after a tax break doesn’t take into account countless other factors that may be occurring at any given time.

    John, who started this discussion off, provided no factual references for his opinion. I am providing my opinion based on my understanding of the world, tax breaks for investment, such as the Bush long term capitol gains cuts is doing to new drive investment in the stock market, into peoples own startups etc. Please find a report that says tax breaks for long term investment causes a reduction of capitol into business which in turns reduces jobs. Good luck with that, it doesn’t exist.

    ACF, Probably not as bad as the rapist, thats a bit extreme, but I agree its really easy to say ‘tax the other guy’. Thats great until your the other guy. The “Rich” are already paying a highly disproportionate of taxes. How about the novel approach of less spending.

    Why don’t we just fast forward to the 23-rd century when we are past all the petty concerns such as Money and we can focus on bettering ourselves and our fellow man.

  • Valatan

    Ah, Derek, dragging out that old ‘welfare-driving Cadillac queens’ canard. Who are these cable owning welfare millionaires you’re talking about? Do you actually know them? And anyway, welfare is a wildly different issue than progressive taxing, and you’re confusing them both. Also, welfare was very, very deeply cut under Reagan, Bush I and Clinton.

  • tim rowledge

    the physical force of the government to steal the fruits of my labor in proportion to how much previous wealth that I have created,

    Well. First of all your taxes are the rent you pay to be a member of a civilised society. Don’t like that? Then try moving to somewhere like Somalia for a while and see if it works better for you.
    Next, nowhere near all rich people could possibly claim to have ‘created wealth’. Take a look at the figures for inherited wealth sometime.
    Next, if you ‘created $1m wealth’ there’s a really good chance that you did so with immense support from the tax revenues collected by this evil government. Farmers – to use your example – benefit hugely from subsidies and the bigger the farming corporation the more they manage to get. Does your corporation transport anything? Thought so – you benefit disproportionately from the govt. funded roads. Or air travel. Or railways (in some countries anyway). Or postal services. Do you employ people – surely you must, a corporation has to have workers – then you benefit from public education. Unless of course you’ve successfully lobbied against public school budgets in which case you probably have to hire people from other countries and spend money on lobbying for more H1B type visas to be released.
    Nobody produces wealth purely by their own work, cleverness, virtue, whatever. It’s all massively interconnected and needs a working civilisation to function. Narrow-minded libertarianism is as stupid as it’s polar opposite.

  • http://cosmicvariance.com JoAnne

    I have one question for the folks here who are arguing so vociferously against the progressive tax system and increasing the taxes on the top 5% earning families. Are you actually in this top bracket? If not, do you plan on being in this top bracket soon? And if not, why do you care so much?

    With two wage earners in technological fields, I am in this top bracket (barely, but there) and I wouldn’t mind paying the extra taxes that are actually small compared to my income. I have done well by this country and I don’t mind giving back.

  • Paul

    I wish I could make an argument you understand but no matter what is said you will still believe that everyone should pay the same percentage. Seems to me it’s people who look at the tax rate in a very simple way, don’t bother with any consequences other than. Oh everyone should pay the same percentage that’s only the only way. Don’t bother to make any real analysis of the situation and how it would effect the entire system. I find also that those people in general don’t even understand many of the basics of the tax system or how people go about paying more or less taxes no matter how much they make that year.

    Even if you are going to be in the top 5% tax bracket very soon heck next year why would you care a whole lot? If you are just barely in the bracket you will be basicly be paying the same effective tax rate anyway. With other things put in who knows you might end up paying less.

    I might be able to support something like that but only after a certain income level, make it so no one pays taxes on first certain amount, after that they play a flat %. But this also seems far to simplistic for what we want for this country.

  • chris

    oh my, the us conservatives speak out. how funny to watch this hypocrisy from a safe distance.

    so you invade country after country with super pricey hightech weapons and in addition spend almost a trillion bucks a year on “defense”. you scare away from taxing big capital and *then* you say that firing scientists or stealing candy from the kids are the only viable options?

    what a screwed up country.

  • Derek

    @JoAnne, congratulations. I am not in the top 5% and that is really besides the point. Just because you are OK with a tax increase does not mean you should impose it on everyone else. If there were a flat tax and you wanted to send in an extra 5% of your income as a donation I am sure there are plenty of entities who would be happy to have it. The point is, that is your choice and it shouldn’t be a mandate.

  • Derek

    It seems this discussion has digressed from a topic about de-funding science into something else.

    @John, I understand why your upset that the DoE is having its budget cut but the problem goes back to what is the government’s mandate and why are they spending so much money. DoE is just one of many now or future casualties.

  • Derek

    @chris, yes, the primary solution to our problems is to steal all the candy from children. Why did you even bother to post, troll.

  • John

    Derek, #67 warning: no name-calling.

  • yonemoto

    It’s so funny to read liberals harp on about wealth redistribution via taxation, when it’s pretty clear that absent a cut-and-dry flat tax with no loopholes, the wealthy (and, especially the wealthy liberals) will just find tax sheltering devices to not pay their “fair share”. Meanwhile, the real agent of income disparity (as it has been for thousands of years – if you doubt me, you should read “The Great Wave: price revolutions and the ebb and flow of history”) is still inflation, which, in a compounding fashion disproportionately hurts the poor over the rich… And the mechanism of which is an indirect transfer of wealth to the bankers and the politically connected.

    Oh, and what’s the irreversible driver of inflation? Government spending and debt expansion.

  • Valatan

    @yonemoto:

    Where does anyone say anything about wealth redistribution in this whole thread? Also, where is anyone arguing that there should be lots of tax loopholes? I think most non-wealthy people oppose tax loopholes.

    And inflation is zero right now.

  • Kyle

    @Matthew, #50: It’s hard to decipher your tone here, because I can’t tell if you are poking fun at John by assuming he would never ‘lower’ himself to know and work with his neighbors in that way or if you’re poking fun at what a ridiculous notion such a system is on its face.

    If the former, John’s already answered for himself. But if the latter, why? For those of us who are under- or unemployed, bartering skills and goods is a viable option and is already taking place at the individual, neighborhood, and (small) community level. Basically, that’s what has to happen when no cash is flowing through the system and whatever credit one has is precious.

    Sorry if this comment is not germane, but whenever a conversation veers toward tax policy it becomes mostly theoretical. The original post is about the very real effects that economic policy and financial decisions have on real people — ranging from radical lifestyle changes to giving up careers in science to watching America’s research professions die on the vine.

  • John

    George Will, a conservative columnist, gets it right

  • Gabe

    Cam you do it better and more efficiently than the private sector? That is the question and the burden of proof is on you, not the private sector to show this. You are receiving the funding and the cash, so show that you are worth it. Otherwise you have no right to win that the “ultra rich get to keep their tax cuts.” I was unaware 250K in NY state made you rich or in Farifax, VA or Boston, MA. Your job is not protected and I suspect if the government creates the right enviornment many laid off scientists would be picked up by private sector R&D programs.

  • Andrew

    Yonemoto: Today in America, inflation is the friend of the middle class. The middle class is stuck with huge loans for houses that are underwater; they are stuck with net worths below zero.

    The more inflation, the less they owe on the houses, the lower their debt.

    George Will is right, but no one listens to him; he’s practically a bleeding heart liberal compared to the politicians ruling the House.

  • Valatan

    @Andrew:

    that depends entirely on how wages perform in the face of inflation–historically, wages trail prices.

  • http://cosmicvariance.com JoAnne

    @Gabe: The private sector no longer performs research in fundamental science. They dropped that long ago when they realized it does not help their profit next quarter. So, it’s not a matter of doing it better or more effectively, it’s that government sponsored research is the only game in town. And without fundamental research, we won’t have the fuel for the private sector in 5-10 yrs.

  • Derek

    @john, oh yes because comment #64 was so much better then name calling. Typical.

  • http://cosmicvariance.com JoAnne

    @Derek: Sorry, but I have to ask. If you are not interesed in government sponsored fundamental research, why are you reading this blog? I’m not being pithy here, I truly don’t understand – it seems like a total disconnect to me. In answering, please keep in mind that ALL fundamental research is government sponsored.

  • dukemeiser

    I’m confused. Why is it that I, as a taxpayer, have to fund science? If it’s worth studying it should be making enough money to pay for itself. And some people will say “But look at all the wonderful things science has done for us!” If it affects my life, somebody made money on it. Paying somebody to think about how old the universe is is a waste of my tax dollars.

  • Valatan

    @dukemeiser:

    Fundamental research pays off on timescales far too long to be an attractive investment option for investors. Look how long it took for there to be commercial lasers. Or for Peano, Boole, and Turing’s research to turn into IBM and our computer infrastructure. If you’re going to advance knowledge, you have to study things that aren’t profitable.

    Or else our whole scientific infrastructure woudl still be centered around crop rotations and iron casting.

  • Nobody

    How does cutting 100K/job create jobs? I can make 3 new jobs for every one lost here!

    Government is wasteful (central planning doesn’t work), if you diversify the money (back into the hands of the individuals by NOT taxing them) then it will be used more efficiently. More bang for your buck = higher standard of living.

    I only wish they slashed the DOE’s budget 100%. But this is nothing compared to entitlement spending and america’s imperialism.

    @JoAnne Why are random people hitting this post? I, for one, hit it in “What’s Hot in Google Reader” RSS feed. I won’t be back.

  • John

    I really like the story about Michael Faraday, the mid-1800′s experimenter in electricity, who when asked by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, what the value of studying electricity might be, said “one day, sir, you may tax it!”

    dukemeiser, if we don’t collectively fund people to think about things like the age of the universe or the fundamental structure of matter and spacetime, you can be sure that somewhere else they will, and then you may not reap the benefits that come later, and which you are enjoying right now as you type on that fancy computer.

    Nobody: I had an intimate two-year journey through Medicare and Veterans Administration when my dad got sick, and eventually passed away. I was absolutely amazed at the efficiency and effectiveness of these organizations. It is not even close to true that central planning does not work, and these are two fine examples. And Medicare is the only brake we have on rising medical costs right now. I shudder to think of private-sector-only/for-profit health care.

    you don’t wish they slashed DOE’s budget 100%. The DOE is the civilian organization in charge of nuclear weapons production, stewardship, and cleanup. We don’t want this in the hands of the military – that was one of the wisest moves we made at the end of WW2. As for the science end of DOE, this is simply not the way to balance our budget. As I said in the post, it’s a breathtakingly stupid move, ultimately ideologically motivated. (Or else explain why the same science, funded over at NSF, isn’t cut as well.)

  • David

    I think one forgets why the budget cuts … it is so easy to forget… or maybe we get help to forget…
    But we just need to notice that 7 years of the creation of the Iraq war agains weapons of mass destruction the expenses in the war were more than one trillon dolars. (see details in the report to congress: http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RL33110.pdf
    and the $1.3 trillon in tax cuts “to benefit” the economy (ended up in the economic financial collapse when President Bush completed goverment).
    This give us more than $2.3 + trillon dolars … that went down … and are now part of the deficit. Solution, cut spending in research, science, benefits… etc… What makes us forget?

  • Claude

    I’m very disappointed that fundamental science is the victim of budget cuts as opposed the warfare/welfare state. That said, there is certainly a lot of economic misinformation in this topic. First off, government destroys wealth, it doesn’t create it. Every dollar the government receives ultimately comes from either the citizen directly or from the printing press (which of course destroys the value of the currency). This is not to say that government never produces useful things; but on the whole, government subsidies and expenditures are not used as efficiently as they would be if the people were able to spend their own money.

    No, inflation is NOT good for the economy. Large increases in the money supply (through the Fed and fractional-reserve banking) lead to large scale malinvestment and ultimately to the bubbles and busts such as the one we are currently experiencing. Yes, inflation cheapens debt but it also destroys savings and stifles and kind of sustainable economic development.

  • Anonymouse

    @Dukemeiser: You do know that basic research done by precisely the same branch of scientists as Professor Conway created the world wide web, don’t you? If you don’t want to pay for basic research, you can non-hypocritically put your computer away and stay off the world wide web.

    @Derek: I don’t know where to begin. Arguing to defund something which has a track record of producing jobs and is part of the reasons why America is both a super-power and economic leader, when simple arithmetic makes it clear that such cuts will save less than 1% of the so-called problem is exactly what Dr. Conway called it — breathtakingly stupid.

    And I don’t mean to be offensive, but your usage of homophones in writing is really awful…

  • ian

    Commenting on Derek’s “If you cared about fairness you would support a flat tax”. Absolutely not, if you mean a fixed dollar amount per tax return.

    If one cares about fairness, a sufficiently graduated income tax is the way to go. An “equal percentage of net income” contribution also has merits. That’s also a “flat tax” in the obvious sense of “flat percentage”.

    I am going to write a letter to my Senator about the importance of supporting basic science, as it seems the Senate is really going to be the crux of this debate. It’s 2011, and with everything we have learned in such a wide variety of fields, and all the obvious progress that has created, I really feel the philosophy should be “full speed ahead” across the range of physics, bio, and so forth.

    Fortunately I’m from a small state, and nearly everyone is comparatively illiterate, so my letter will count more.

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