Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

"Cutting spending" means not buying stuff you might actually need

In the bizarro world of Washington, "government spending" apparently means "causing money to disappear." Actually it means carrying out functions of government, such as, for instance, developing basic knowledge which private investors won't do because knowledge is a public good that they cannot own. As Elizabeth Lopato and Bryan Faler of Bloomberg News point out:

Prospective government spending cuts may slow Alzheimer’s disease research, stunt the careers of young scientists and prevent the U.S. from working with allies on alternate energy, scientists and lobbyists say.

If Congress doesn’t approve $1.5 trillion in savings by Christmas, a broad swath of federal programs will be automatically slashed, including the National Institutes of Health, which funds medical research; the National Science Foundation, which pays for basic science; and the Department of Energy, which runs national laboratories.

I'm not exactly sure why they single out Alzheimer's disease, except for the penny-wise pound-foolish point that the disease imposes huge costs on Medicare and Medicaid so prevention or effective treatment could conceivably save money down the road. But that's true of a lot of diseases. (Unfortunately, so far, it hasn't worked out that way -- medical advances have added to costs, not reduced them. The new emphasis on comparative effectiveness research and better understanding of basic mechanisms of disease could change that dynamic -- but that's not why we do research.)

In fact, NIH has already endured a $317 million cut this year. But if the automatic spending cuts president Obama agreed to in response to Republican extortion kick in -- and they likely will because there is no way 7 members of the phony deficit reduction commission will agree on a plan -- programs like NIH will get totally clobbered, by 7.9%. If that happens, it will be impossible for NIH to make anynew grants for a year or two, because most of its funding is committed to 2, 3 and 5 year grants already. That won't just stunt the careers of young scientists, it will kick them to the curb, shut down whole labs and research groups, and probably put some senior scientists out of work as well. The U.S. will turn over leadership in science and technology to China and Europe.

Why? Because billionaires don't like paying taxes.

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