Issue Date: March 28, 2011
Federal Budget Debate
Kudos to Rudy Baum for making a strong statement regarding the current budget debate in Congress (C&EN, Feb. 28, page 3). It seems that we in America are incapable of having a civil debate about how we got here, what we do about it, and how we avoid getting here in the future, without personalizing the argument, promoting various ideologies, or simply throwing rocks at each other’s heads.
In regard to his comment about environmental protection, it is ironic that in a country like China, where seemingly everything already is under government control, they have no environmental law. If you want to know what that would be like for America, those of you who didn’t grow up in the Los Angeles Basin in the 1960s, spend a week in Shanghai. I was just there for five days, and the air is so polluted from car exhaust and factory emissions that the city is blanketed in a thick haze. It is not possible to go for a run or even a swim in the hotel indoor pool without having your lungs burn.
It’s unfortunate, given space limitations, that C&EN will not be able to publish all of the “flame mail” that Rudy is about to receive from the armchair economists in our ranks. It would be quite amusing, I’m sure.
Thank you, Rudy Baum, for so eloquently articulating what government should rightly be about and how to finance that. I’m certain that you will receive an avalanche of letters protesting your courageous editorial. Let this letter stand as a bulwark against those wrongheaded protestations.
The preamble to the U.S. Constitution describes six motivations, one of which is to “promote the general welfare.” That laudable goal seems to have been forgotten in the current brouhaha about the proper role of government.
The general welfare includes prevention of conditions that lead to disasters like Bhopal, attention to our infrastructure that will forestall tragedies like the collapse of the I-35 freeway bridge, investment in promising new technologies that may mitigate the effects of global climate change, and provision of safety nets for those who most need them, such as disadvantaged children. Current proposals would gut the government’s ability to do any of these.
Without massive government expenditure, we would not have put men on the moon or created the interstate highway network. Looking to our past, we would not have expanded across our continent via transcontinental railways. Looking to the future, our country will not continue to be the acknowledged ideal to which all others aspire unless our government continues to provide financing for education, infrastructure, innovation, and other aspects of the general welfare.
Our current body politic seems to believe that the benefits of government can fall, like manna from heaven, without the need to pay for them. The citizens of my parents’ generation, having suffered through two devastating world wars and a horrendous economic depression, knew that commitment to one’s country includes a willingness to pay taxes. I was imbued with that knowledge from an early age, from my Republican father no less than from my Democratic mother, so I know better. Balancing the federal budget requires increases in taxes (mine as well as everyone else’s), not just reductions in unproductive expenditures.
I read Baum’s editorial “A Fundamental Divide” with disappointment. Baum presents a number of flawed assumptions that would require more space than a letter to address. So I’ll focus on his concern about the Republicans’ budget and its impact on R&D funding.
Government funding for science is discretionary spending, as is national defense. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are nondiscretionary. Our rapidly increasing nondiscretionary spending is limiting the money available for things like science, police, and senior centers. For decades, Democratic and Republican politicians have not had the courage to reform these entitlement programs, and the result has been ever-increasing debt. Debt has the consequences of fewer public services and lower quality services.
Our spending is now unsustainable, and our debt is inhibiting economic growth now and in the future. Baum uses Chinese government spending as an example for us. However, the Chinese are in a better position to invest because they have a high savings rate and relatively low debt.
To deal with the debt we need to cut spending, reform entitlements, and raise government revenues. Republicans are trying to do this, but cutting spending always brings tidings of apocalypse from special-interest groups.
Regarding tax revenues, empirical data from 1945 to the present demonstrate that simply increasing taxes does not significantly affect tax revenues (Hauser’s law). In contrast, tax revenues are proportional to gross domestic product. Economic growth is what grows tax revenues, and historically, cutting taxes has sparked economic growth and large increases in tax revenues.
Ronald Reagan understood this, and his policies replaced the malaise of the 1970s with the dynamism of the 1980s and 1990s. We need to recapture that dynamism today, which means we need to return to the policies that produced it. Until then, R&D special interests will increasingly compete with other special interests for diminishing resources.
E. Todd Ryan
Clifton Park, N.Y.
As Baum shows once again in his editorial, everyone is expert at advocating for their own gain. And no one is more expert than those who wish to accomplish their gain with other people’s money. Forget politics. Forget left versus right. Let’s get down to basics independent of ideology, and keep it very simple: Balance the budget.
The federal government, as well as every state government, should require a balanced budget every year. No exceptions. No funny business (like the fiction that Fannie Mae is not a branch of the government). Those who believe that we should not degrade the lives of future generations via global warming surely must also believe that we should not degrade their lives by leaving them so indebted that they are virtually slaves to paying for our profligacy.
Once we require balanced budgets—which just means that we pay for what we want (what a concept!)—we can debate what we really want. We might discover that much of that on which we now insist falls by the boards in light of the requirement to actually pay for it ourselves. The dishonesty of spending that which we do not have is corrupting, and we should immediately put an end to it.
Bernard H. White
I am writing to support Baum and the views he expresses in the editorial “A Fundamental Divide.” He has not shied away from controversy in his editorial writing in the past, and he certainly hasn’t this time. Every word he writes in this one is accurate, and the meaning he attributes to facts and his interpretation of the present political situation and its potential consequences are right on target.
The current highly polarized political environment, seemingly divided among people who are willing to consider scientific evidence and plain old facts and those acting on blind ideology, is poisonous and dangerous. Not only is it bad for chemistry as a discipline and an industry, but it is bad for scientists, our nation, and the world.
I hope Baum continues to write such editorial analyses with equal clarity and the conviction that nothing but the whole truth and its full implications are acceptable.
William M. Riggs
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