Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“Liberty is the only thing you cannot have unless you give it to others.”     William Allen White

October 25, 2007

Government Funding of Science: Inherently Susceptible to Junk and Superstition.

by tarran

I recently discovered the thoroughly enjoyable podcast put out by Skepticality magazine, and was browsing through some past ‘casts, when I stumbled across an interview (in Podcast #59) with Lori Lipman-Brown, a lobbyist in the employ of the Secular Coalition of America. The interview was pretty wide ranging, but at one point it focused on a battle in the U.S. House of Representatives concerning stem cell research. She recounted how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had attempted to use an interpretation of Christian theology to buttress her position. She criticized Nancy Pelosi as follows:

“We were flabbergasted when we heard her start saying that ‘stem cells are a gift from God’ and that ‘stemcell research is biblically based’ in her arguments. I mean she was going to vote the right way, but this was her argument to get other people to vote the right way. And the reason this is really horrific is-our argument is whether or not you allow stem cell research to progress shouldn’t be based on your theology, because if it is just a competition between whose theology is right. I mean President Bush, when he vetoes these bills, he bases it on God and the Bible also and his interpretation. … Making this a competition of whose theology wins is not appropriate. What you need to do is to say ‘Look this is science, this is not – we can’t have the government imposing anyone’s theology – you know, this is research, this is not about what someone’s religious belief is.” – I transcribed this myself – any deviation from what was actually said is a mistake rather than malice – tarran

In effect, she was opposed to a minority being able to block some bit of government funding for research based on moral objections rooted in superstitious beliefs.

Roman Scientific Research Into Agricultural ForecastingThis seems a reasonable position at first blush, but is, in fact, a highly immoral and, frankly impossible proposition. Let us turn to our old friends the Nazis for a demonstration, since they make for great reductio ad absurdum argumentation. Imagine if the Nazi party had managed to win a majority in the U.S. House. A representative from the Illinois delegation rises up and proposes a bill that in order advance scientific knowledge on the subject of hypothermia, he wants the NSF to oversee research using human subjects who are subjected to extremes of temperatures and stressed to the point of death. When challenged about the morality of killing people, the legislator dismissively says “they’re just Jews, it’s OK”. When the non-Nazi legislators protest that “Jews are human too,” the Nazi legislator could argue that the non-Nazis are trying to impose their twisted expansive morality upon the Nazi majority, who were elected fair and square by a majority of the American people!

This is not an impossible scenario: the Nazis did conduct these gruesome experiments, and we living in the modern era definitely benefit from their research. The systematic understanding developed by the Nazis of hypothermia has saved countless lives in the subsequent years. It is even possible that at this point more people have been saved as a result of the research than were killed in conducting it. However, I don’t think anyone reading this, were they confronted with the question of initiating such a research project, would accept such an argument. Our moral decision that murdering human beings is so wrong that public money should not be spent on it is just that, a moral decision. The fact that it is almost universally held by the entire population does not change the fact that we are applying a personal moral judgment to public policy.

The fact here is that when the government funds research into stem-cells, it is offensive to a large segment of people who are forced to pay for it. These people feel it is immoral. Now, if they tried to outlaw stem-cell research from being conducted at all, one could make the case that they are imposing their morality on everyone else. However, it is the people who are demanding that taxpayers be forced to fund this research who are imposing their morality upon the rest. Those who find stem-cell research to be immoral are being forced to support it. This is just as outrageous as when atheists are forced to take a loyalty oath that includes the words “under God” while attending government schools.

This is, of course, an inevitable conflict when taxes are levied to pay for some charity like scientific research. Somebody somewhere is going to see their hard-earned money spent on things that they don’t approve of.

Moreover, I am puzzled by the support shown by many in the “skeptical” community toward government funding of science. This community is dedicated to stamping out “junk science”, which is a quite worthy goal. However public funding of science is far more junk-science friendly than non governmental sources. One only need to look at the Soviet Union’s support for Lysankoism and dismissal of Einstein’s theory of relativity as a ‘bourgeois theory’ to see some extreme examples of this. The reason why is quite ably explained in a working paper written by W. N. Butos and T. J. McQuade, Government and Science: A Dangerous Liason?:

Science, in the absence of outside intervention, is a decentralized system of social interaction operating according to generally understood rules, the basis of which are the institutions of publication and citation. There is no controlling authority, because power is distributed (not necessarily evenly, but still widely) across the population of participants. The institutional arrangements of science explicitly cater to the self-interest of all of the participants. The process of interaction constrained by these arrangements results in observable side-effects stabilized by negative feedback – the corpus of scientific knowledge and the generally acknowledged reputations of participating scientists. This stabilization is
not such as to preclude variation of the side-effects in response to environmental changes. And these relatively stable side-effects provide not only general and nondiscriminatory benefits even to nonparticipants but also the incentive for a positive feedback effect on participation in the system.

But science in and of itself generates no revenue and so the expenses associated with scientific pursuits must be funded by other sources. Since very few scientists are independently wealthy, it is common for them to be employed as teachers in academic institutions, receiving both a salary for personal maintenance and some financial support for the operational expenses attendant to scientific activity. Scientists can also be supported directly by private donors or by corporations. And they can be financed through grants of public funds. It is not surprising that these different funding sources should have different effects on the practice of science, and an examination of such effects leads directly to a consideration of intervention in science, for it is through funding that organizations outside of science can most easily affect the actions of scientists, introduce new incentives, exercise control, and alter the adaptive characteristics of the knowledge-generating system as a whole.

The three broad sources of outside funding (donors, businesses, and legislatures) have an obvious similarity: in none of these cases is funding, or its continuation, without strings attached. Donors may be motivated by civic duty or a desire for the immortality of association with a fundamental advance or with a large institution, businesses by the indirect profitability of such funding, and legislators by the benefits produced by the spending of the funding in their districts or on the enhancement to their electability from being associated with the promotion of a good and popular cause. But the first two of these source types have constraints which are more or less tied to the scientific results produced. The third, however, measures success not necessarily by the science produced but by the perception among voters and constituents that they might benefit from the particular funding. The funding constraints are therefore much less pressing for government funding (for the amounts potentially available through government taxation, borrowing, or money creation are huge) and yet are the least connected with the success (in terms of usefulness to other scientists in follow-on research) of the scientific activity itself. This characteristic, compounded by the organization of the government funding apparatus into a small number of large bureaucracies, has potentially corrosive effects in several ways, as we will see. We divide these effects, for ease of exposition, into incentive effects, “Big Player” effects, problems of boom and bust, and problems of bureaucracy.

Incentive effects: Under government science incentives matter, just as they would markets. These altered incentives will affect the institutions involved in the administration of science, including funding agencies recipient institutions, and also how scientists behave. Funding agencies are not autonomous, but operate as a bureaucracy within the government sector. Their incentives emanate, at least in par from the legislative and the executive branches, thereby establishing a political dynamic for explaining their behavior along any number of margins, including the areas of science receiving funding, institutional recipients, and its geographic disbursement. There is also a symmetry of interests between the funding agencies, including the military, and recipient institutions (industry and universities). This carries implications for the dynamics of government science because it creates a potentially powerful lobbying nexus whose interests are geared to sustaining and expanding government funding.

Big Player effects: The source structure of science funding matters in the sense that, while an environment with a small number of large funders provides the potential for those desiring to control the direction (or, in the extreme, even the content) of science to have systemic effects, whereas in an environment with a large number of small funders the effects of individually power-oriented operations are much more likely to be localized and constrained. This effect is the analog of the Big Player phenomenon in markets. Following Koppl and Yeager (1996), government is a Big Player in science whose behavior is capable of dominating the flow of signals guiding the direction and intensity of scientific research. The magnitude of government’s influence exposes science to self-reinforcing path dependent processes that may be analogous to herding and bubbles in financial markets. However, while in markets the prospect of self-correction is strong because underlying market realities sooner or later prevail, science has no analog of resource constraints for its products and has to rely only on its internal coherence as established by its own critical procedures. Big Player effects are known to produce herding and bubbles in financial markets. The corollary in science is the funding opportunities provided by government for designated areas of research, such as AIDS or environmental issues. Because such government-funded research enthusiasms are inextricably linked to the political process, the presumption must be that the direction of research is driven by the same incentives and constraints as any other politically- based funding program. This suggests that the basis for such funding is arbitrary and no more or less justifiable than any other possible use of taxpayer funds. Moreover, the development of the direction of research itself is likely to be sustainable only for as long as the funding continues, after which new funding objectives will replace previous ones.35 Government funding, in this sense, is not too unlike Congressional Omnibus Transportation Bills: a predictable amount of funding will occur, but for what and for whom is always up for grabs.

Problems of boom and bust: In recognizing that government science operates along a significant political dimension, we propose that the path of science will also reflect the shifting funding priorities of government institutions, both elected and otherwise. It seems clear that the level of government intervention in science can be explained in part by “public choice” considerations. But economists have long understood that the cyclical activity or dynamic stability of the economy reflects the effect credit policies of central bankers and very possibly the electoral cycles of representative democracies. In economics we can think of fiscal policy’s effect on the average level of economic activity as opposed to monetary policy’s affect on the dynamic stability of the system.

In proposing a similar kind of distinction for analyzing government intervention in science, our discussion considers such intervention in the context of the dynamic stability of science. Windfall funding for science is like artificially cheap credit for business – the immediate effect is a growth in investment (including employment) and, with a lag, output. The general quality of the output is not necessarily compromised, although by making it possible for people who would otherwise work elsewhere to pursue a scientific career the tendency may be to lower the average quality of the practitioners. What may be noticeable is an increase the “far-outness” of the investigations pursued – in the sense of the resulting papers being of little or no interest to other researchers and generating minimal, if any, citations and follow-on publications. One would expect to see, in the distribution of government science funding, bursts of heavy funding in some areas, cutbacks or neglect in others, with the identities of these areas changing as the political winds change direction.36 When the Russians threaten to lead the way into space, astronautics and space science is favored, building up an impressive edifice of research capability and trained scientists ready to push the discipline further. When the Japanese threaten to develop a “fifth-generation” computer, attention switches to computer science and the growth in space science funding becomes insufficient to maintain the talent already developed. When the Japanese are no longer seen as a danger to national prestige, political attention wanders away from computer science and its newer PhDs find employment in the area of research they have been trained for much harder than expected to come by. It is a scenario of localized booms and busts – “science cycles” – accompanied by a real disruption of individual lives and waste of talent and resources similar to that characteristic of business cycles.

The problem with temporarily unconstrained funding is that it fosters unstable growth. Lavish funding results in more scientists being trained as the recipients of funds require assistants to pursue the funded projects; in turn, these assistants, if they are to become researchers in their own right will require funding of their own.37 Private funding sources naturally limit the growth of the system of science in a way that has a relatively direct connection to the perceived usefulness of the science itself to other scientists, and this sort of stabilized growth is likely to be more durable and productive than spurts of growth and retrenchment based on factors external to science.

The danger to quality of output and integrity of behavior comes with the downturns in funding, when the rate of increase of funding ceases to keep pace with the structural growth fostered by prior funding. At this point, scientists are in competition with each other not merely for scientific reputation but for their very livelihood.

Problems of bureaucracy: Concentration of funding in large government-financed organizations brings to bear the usual symptoms of bureaucracy – success measured by budget rather than results, unwillingness to take risks which may subject the organization and its managers to criticism, and a concentration on areas of research likely to be politically popular. And, as pointed out by Greenberg, bureaucratic control of the funding process has led to conservatism (“calcification”, as he puts it). While this may not affect the general quality of research work, it will tend to channel scientists seeking funding into more conservative, more obviously “acceptable” lines of inquiry, and will make it more difficult for mavericks to be funded. Again, bureaucratic effects are competently discussed in Greenberg (2001).

Bias-free research is impossible. The incentives that produce junk science cannot be eliminated. Rather we would be better off seeking to limit the damage that people who chose to produce junk science can do. That can best be accomplished by having the government to return the money taken from taxpayers to fund scientific research to the taxpayers, and get out of the game entirely. There is a significant demand for scientific research, so it will continue. But under a regime of voluntary donations, scientists could work with those who wish fund stem-cell research while having to face far less opposition to their work.

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21 Comments

  1. Tarran, this is nonsense! In the first place, your basic argument regarding the role of majorities in making decisions is essentially opposed to the rule of law. If the majority can never impose its will on anybody, then how do you stop crime?

    Second, your suggestion that all scientific funding be eliminated would have the effect of reducing scientific funding to a tiny fraction of its current value. This in turn would have extremely deleterious long-term effects on our economy. The Internet was the result of the DARPA research effort, and the Web was designed by a physicist working at a government-funded lab. If we had embraced your philosophy forty years ago, there’d be no Internet, no Web, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation!

    Comment by Chepe Noyon — October 25, 2007 @ 2:42 pm
  2. If the majority can never impose its will on anybody, then how do you stop crime?

    By victims, or their agents imposing their will on the criminals? Google a guy named Gustave Molinari for an explanation.

    Second, your suggestion that all scientific funding be eliminated would have the effect of reducing scientific funding to a tiny fraction of its current value. This in turn would have extremely deleterious long-term effects on our economy.

    Chepe, you might want to read the working paper I linked to. Note, the 19th century was chock-full of scientific advances despite a lack of subsidies.

    The Internet might have been invented on the government dime, but it displaced some nascent networks, including Fidonet which immediately leaps to mind. The idea that if the government didn’t fund something, nobody would is refuted conclusively by the numerous instances in history where useful, expensive research has been carried out and marvelous inventions have resulted.

    Even if you were right, and you are not, I wouldn’t really care. I am a moralist, so spare me your utilitarian arguments. :) As I have said elsewhere, if you could invent a cure for cancer had to steal a penny from someone to do it (the cure wouldn’t work if the penny was donated) I would be condemning it.

    Comment by tarran — October 25, 2007 @ 3:00 pm
  3. “By victims, or their agents imposing their will on the criminals?”

    I see. The mugger approaches you, snarls “Your money or your life!” and you say “I impose my superior will upon you!” You’re dead. Smooth move.

    “Google a guy named Gustave Molinari for an explanation.”

    Could you be more specific? I did as you suggested, got 21,800 hits, started reading the first hit, got a few pages in, and found nothing whatsoever that answers my question. You sent me on a wild goose chase.

    “Chepe, you might want to read the working paper I linked to.”

    The paper you linked to is 47 pages long. Would you at least do me the courtesy of citing the page number that addresses my concern before sending me off on another time-consuming wild goose chase?

    “Note, the 19th century was chock-full of scientific advances despite a lack of subsidies.”

    Are you serious? The amount of scientific progress being made today is orders of magnitude greater than what was accomplished in the 19th century. I believe I read somewhere that the amount of scientific information coming out in one day would require an individual five years to read. The total scientific output of the 19th century (in terms of published work) would fit in one room.

    “The idea that if the government didn’t fund something, nobody would is refuted conclusively by the numerous instances in history where useful, expensive research has been carried out and marvelous inventions have resulted.”

    I agree with you that some useful research has been carried out without government funding. However, government funding accounts for about two-thirds of total research funding; if we eliminated it, then total research funding would be about one-third of what it now is. That’s a huge drop. Moreover, it would hit hardest in basic research, which is what provides the foundation for the applied research done by corporations. Thus, we’d experience a subsequent decrease in the overall productivity of the research we do fund. All in all, the results would be catastrophic for our economy.

    “Even if you were right, and you are not, I wouldn’t really care. I am a moralist, so spare me your utilitarian arguments. :) As I have said elsewhere, if you could invent a cure for cancer had to steal a penny from someone to do it (the cure wouldn’t work if the penny was donated) I would be condemning it.”

    I see. You urge upon us a philosophy that rejects utility in favor of ideology. If we were to accept your philosophy, our society’s greatest contribution to the world would be the lesson we teach the world about the price of placing ideology above utility: extinction. We’d earn a society-wide Darwin Award.

    Comment by Chepe Noyon — October 25, 2007 @ 4:55 pm
  4. Chepe,

    Let’s take your points in order:

    I see. The mugger approaches you, snarls “Your money or your life!” and you say “I impose my superior will upon you!” You’re dead. Smooth move.

    And how does the mugger kill me? If he has access to weapons, then I have access to weapons too. To get me to give up my money he has to somehow impose his will upon me. I would do what you do now: take reasonable precautions to defend myself. If I was in a violent area I might go armed. If I had property that I wanted to protect I might hire a security service to protect it. If I liked police work, I might start a security company and sell security services to clients, much like people hire lawn service companies today.

    Could you be more specific? I did as you suggested, got 21,800 hits, started reading the first hit, got a few pages in, and found nothing whatsoever that answers my question. You sent me on a wild goose chase.

    I don’t know what version of Google you are using, but the version I used popped up a Wikipedia article on the man as the first hit which is barely a page. It contains a link to the Molinari Institute, which has, prominently displayed, the paper that is at the center of the Wikipedia article, The production of Security. It’s only about 10 pages long, which should be well within your capability.

    The paper you linked to is 47 pages long. Would you at least do me the courtesy of citing the page number that addresses my concern before sending me off on another time-consuming wild goose chase?

    Of course. Try pages 2 – 5.

    Are you serious? The amount of scientific progress being made today is orders of magnitude greater than what was accomplished in the 19th century. I believe I read somewhere that the amount of scientific information coming out in one day would require an individual five years to read. The total scientific output of the 19th century (in terms of published work) would fit in one room.

    Yes, and that is an artifact of the fact that in the 19th century, productivity was low and so there was less surplus labor available to devote to non-subsistance activities. yet, despite all of this, the steam engine was invented and perfectd, the automobile was invented, kerosene was invented, then gasoline, was invented. Bessemer blast furnaces were invented. The toilet was invented and the telephone was invented. During that period Newton’s laws were expanded upon until the entire edifice of Newtonian dynamics and Classical Electromagnetism had been constructed. Lorenz started laying the groundwork for the development of special relativity.

    That’s just the stuff off the top of my head.

    I agree with you that some useful research has been carried out without government funding. However, government funding accounts for about two-thirds of total research funding; if we eliminated it, then total research funding would be about one-third of what it now is. That’s a huge drop. Moreover, it would hit hardest in basic research, which is what provides the foundation for the applied research done by corporations. Thus, we’d experience a subsequent decrease in the overall productivity of the research we do fund. All in all, the results would be catastrophic for our economy.

    No. this is a fallacy. A popular fallacy to be sure, but a fallacy nonetheless. Let’s assume that the money spent by the government on scientific research was never taxed in the firszt place, and that there were not tax-policy induced distortions encouraging people to engage in scientific research. This money would represent additional savings in the cash balances of the people from whom it was originally levied. Now these people are going to do stuff with this money. As they spend their newfound wealth, it will migrate to the pockets of people who are interested in investing it. These people will invest the money in areas that they perceive as being most profitable from a psychic perspective. Yes, much of the money will be invested in directions that provide a shorter term benefit than basic research would. But this money would be invested in things that provided a benefit, not a loss. furthermore it would be invested towards producing more of what people want rather than being diverted to areas that are not as desired.

    Thus, there is no way it would be devastating to the economy. To the contrary it would be beneficial to the economy, since now people with savings would be investing their money in the things that they actually desired the most.

    I see. You urge upon us a philosophy that rejects utility in favor of ideology. If we were to accept your philosophy, our society’s greatest contribution to the world would be the lesson we teach the world about the price of placing ideology above utility: extinction. We’d earn a society-wide Darwin Award.

    Uhm, chepe, I advocate for a non-violent society where people are not subject to agression. Such societies, when they have been attempted, have been wildly prosperous especially in comparison to their neighbors. To the contrary, societies with strong governments such as Cuba, England and Zimbabwe, to name a few, tend to be miserable hell-holes to varying degrees. Furthermore, societies where several governments are fighting each other to attain supremacy, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Yugoslavia tend to be the ones on their way to extinction.

    I suggest that it is the acceptance of governments that is more likely to put a society in line for a Darwin award, not the absence of one.

    Comment by tarran — October 25, 2007 @ 8:26 pm
  5. Well, Tarran, it seems that on every major point I find myself in wild disagreement with you. Let’s go over them:

    Your notion of security, and that of Molinari, is good for dealing with violent crime. It is utterly useless against other forms of crime. How do you hire a security firm to protect you against fraud? If somebody sells you a used car and you find that they misrepresented it, do you direct your hired goons go and break his legs? And in fact, how does your security firm handle violent crimes after the fact? Your daughter comes home weeping; she was raped. So what does your security firm do? Lynch the guy she thinks might have raped him? And what if HIS security firm wants to protect him? Does your security firm have a war with his security firm? This is craziness!!!

    I read the first 5 pages of the economist’s paper and I skimmed the rest of it. I’m actually impressed — it makes some good points. But it completely fails to support the thesis that the economy would be better off without government funding of research.

    I get the impression that the writers of the paper (and you as well) have only a vague notion of how science gets done. First, let me point out that there’s a range of activities that fall under our consideration. At one extreme, we have the mathematician considering really abstruse, pure mathematical concepts. At the other extreme, we have Microsoft building Halo (Yes, in most accounting systems, that work is counted as R&D because it’s software Development.)

    Now, industry is very good at handling the stuff closer to the “D” end of “R&D”. They spend a lot of money on it and they do a lot of good work. On the other hand, industry won’t touch the “R” end.

    A good way to think about this problem is to consider this in terms of the payback time for any given research task. Over at the “D” end of R&D, the payback time is usually short: a few years. But the further you move toward the “R” end, the longer the payback time. A good industrial research facility operates with a payback time of at least ten years. And that’s still what’s called “applied science”. Pure science has even longer payback periods — decades.

    Consider, for example, the integrated circuit. This is a technology that has bestowed hundreds of billions of dollars of economic benefits on us. How’d we get it?

    The starting point was atomic physics and quantum mechanics, which got started in the early 20th century. There was roughly fifty years of pure scientific research, unfunded by any corporation, that laid all the foundations. Then came Bill Shockley at Bell Labs, the transistor, the early integrated circuits, Intel, and so on. Integrated circuits were commodity items by the 1970s. In other words, 50 years of basic research and 25 years of corporate research led to this technology. Without the basic research, we would never have gotten off the ground.

    Moreover, scientific progress is never linear. It’s easy, after the fact, to trace a line from today’s valuable technologies to yesterday’s pure research. But when you look into the future instead of into the past, you really don’t know what will pay off. And most sciences assemble bits and pieces from different fields to yield their results. You have to pursue all of science on a broad front in order to get individual scientific discoveries.

    You claim that a dramatic reduction in research spending would be good for society, because people would spend the money on consumer goods that would make them happier. Yes, it would make them happier — for the short term. But over the long run, a society without a strong scientific foundation will find itself economically depressed. Right now you and I are enjoying the fruits of government research from many years ago. Our parents sacrificed their immediate well-being for our own well-being — and the ROI of their sacrifice is enormous. Sure, we could all have a gay old time if we didn’t invest in the future — but we wouldn’t have a future.

    You made quite a leap in the end when you flipped from talking about utilitarianism to strong government. The two have nothing in common. My point remains unaddressed: societies that give higher priority to ideology than pragmatism fail in the real, practical world. They may die nobly, but die they will.

    Comment by Chepe Noyon — October 25, 2007 @ 10:46 pm
  6. I don’t have time to get involved in this one, but I couldn’t help but laugh at this line:

    Our parents sacrificed their immediate well-being for our own well-being

    We’re still paying interest on their “sacrifice”.

    Comment by Jeff Molby — October 26, 2007 @ 12:32 am
  7. Yes, Jeff, in some areas they left us with a debt and in others they gave us a benefit. All in all, it’s obvious that the benefit exceeds the debt — in terms of material well-being, we’re much better off today than they were in the Fifties.

    Comment by Chepe Noyon — October 26, 2007 @ 10:03 am
  8. in terms of material well-being, we’re much better off today than they were in the Fifties.

    Ok. Come see me when you get to the “causation” part.

    Comment by Jeff Molby — October 26, 2007 @ 7:01 pm
  9. Jeff, do you question the role of technology in the improvement of our lifestyles? Do you believe that the R&D paid for by the government in the Fifties has played no role in the development of that technology? These things seem obvious to me.

    Comment by Chepe Noyon — October 26, 2007 @ 10:50 pm
  10. To me as well. Your 10:03 assertion went farther than that, though. You looked at the increase in “material well-being”, compared it to the cost of the government funding and concluded that it was a worthwhile investment.

    You neglected to account for the many other factors that have contributed to the growth in “material well-being” such as the increase in annual labor hours per household, the decrease in transportation costs (paved the way for cheap imports), and god knows what else. You also didn’t account for what the free market would have accomplished in the absence of government funding.

    Eliminate all of the ancillary variables, subtract the total cost (including interest) from the total benefit and then we’ll talk about whether “it’s obvious that the benefit exceeds the [cost].”

    Comment by Jeff Molby — October 26, 2007 @ 11:35 pm
  11. OK, fair enough. Neither of us have any data proving a direct relationship between government R&D spending and GDP. Lacking such data, we are reduced to broad assessments of the progress of the economy. Me, I look at the technological improvements that are the result of government-funded R&D, and I think they’re worth the money that was spent. You look at the same results — such as the Internet and the Web — and dismiss them as not worth the money spent. OK, different strokes…

    Comment by Chepe Noyon — October 27, 2007 @ 12:04 am
  12. Oh, Chepe, Chepe, Chepe,

    Your notion of security, and that of Molinari, is good for dealing with violent crime. It is utterly useless against other forms of crime. How do you hire a security firm to protect you against fraud?

    Uhmmm, you don’t. That’s what consumer protection organizations are for. For example Consumer Union tests products and publishes reports on how shoddy they are. Hell, they used to do drug testing back before there was an FDA. People who depend on repeat custom for their livelihood will work to preserve their reputation, and in the end the only way to do that is to produce a good product. Sooner or later the reputation of a shoddy businessman takes a dive.

    If somebody sells you a used car and you find that they misrepresented it, do you direct your hired goons go and break his legs?

    In the absence of fraud statutes, fraud prevention can happen in one of two ways. The owner of the market, for example E-Bay or Elance would require people selling goods via their market to put up bonds or agree to other anti-fraud guarantees. Alternately, if two people are doing business, you could put in an arbitration clause into a contract as standard boilerplate.

    Of course, in the end should you be defrauded, you would not have the option of breaking legs. The most you could do is to attempt to sue to recover damages. If he won’t cooperate, you publish your accusations against him. If he ends to commit fraud alot, eventually he will have trouble finding people willing to do business with him and will be forced to either take up a life of autarky or to clean up his act.

    And in fact, how does your security firm handle violent crimes after the fact? Your daughter comes home weeping; she was raped. So what does your security firm do? Lynch the guy she thinks might have raped him? And what if HIS security firm wants to protect him? Does your security firm have a war with his security firm? This is craziness!!!

    Again, you, or your daughter sues her attacker. If he refuses to cooperate in reimbursing her for the injury he caused you publish his name far and wide, and that will make it harder for him to find a victim next time. Contrast this with the present system, wherein a bunch of guys kidnaps the rapist, locks him up in a cage, and forces your daughter to pay a portion of his maintenance.

    AS to competing security firms, I suspect since wars between security firms would be very costly to their bottom lines, they would tend to negotiate agreements.

    You know, hundreds of very intelligent people have been researching this stuff for well over a century now. They have actually analyzed all of the objections you are throwing out.Here’s a nice little library on the subject.

    I know you hate being given lots of reading, but, frankly, this is a complicated subject.

    Now, back to the actual topic at hand:

    But over the long run, a society without a strong scientific foundation will find itself economically depressed. Right now you and I are enjoying the fruits of government research from many years ago. Our parents sacrificed their immediate well-being for our own well-being — and the ROI of their sacrifice is enormous. Sure, we could all have a gay old time if we didn’t invest in the future — but we wouldn’t have a future.

    Except as the writers of the paper pointed out, there is no correlation between GDP growth and funding for basic research. The time-lag they are finding is effectively infinite.

    Read pages 19-24 again. They explain the incentives that promote basic research in the private sector.

    Again, you are emotionally, and without evidence, that someone has to force people to invest in things that will improve their lives. This is poppycock. What you are doing is substituting what you think people should invest in in place of the investments they would actually desire to make. sure, if you get away with it, you are better off, but by necessity, you have left them worse off since you have prevented them from investing in the stuff that they want the most.

    At this point, I ask yo to do a thought experiment. Let us assume that the United States suffers some sort of disaster that wrecks the economy – for example a bacterium that gobbles up all petroleum products such as plastics and oil etc. Overnight, the U.S. economy is thrown back to a level of productivity similar to that of the early 19th century, let us say we need 7 people farming to feed every 10 people again. At this point, would you increase, maintain or decrease the funding for the NSF?

    I think most people would say that the funding should be decreased since now people have to devote more of their labor to subsistence and the previous levels of investment are no longer a good idea. So the NSF budget would be slashed, and scientists would go back to working the fields or whatever. Yet as time progressed, the economy would continue to grow and people would invent new productivity multipliers and, who knows, within a century or so, things could be back to 20th century levels of wealth creation.

    The point being is that there is some level of investment that you think is a good idea. That level changes depending on changing circumstances. I too have some level of investment that also fluctuates, but is probably different from yours. Extend this over millions of people, and you have millions of different levels of interest in funding basic research. So, Mr Noyon, which of these millions of people is right? What makes you so special that you should be permitted to override their desires with your own? ;)

    You made quite a leap in the end when you flipped from talking about utilitarianism to strong government. The two have nothing in common. My point remains unaddressed: societies that give higher priority to ideology than pragmatism fail in the real, practical world. They may die nobly, but die they will.

    Chepe sweetie,

    Every society eventually falls. The more peaceful anarchic ones tend to survive about 300 years. Compare that with the U.S. which is wracked by war every generation, and suffers massive dislocations such as the Great depression every 50 years or so.

    Utilitarianism, as you are arguing for it, is what you get when a persons life or property can be seized based on a perceived benefit to the majority. Let us ignore the fact that what really occurs in such situations is that some elite is making that decision based on their personal judgment. To act, they need a mechanism to actually carry out their thefts. I could, for example, conclude that you should be forced to write a computer game for the benefit of society, but without some mechanism to put my idea into practice, my idea would just be an unfulfilled wish. Thus, a society that is premised upon utilitarian lines must have lots of aggressive violence. Now, the only way one can have lots of aggressive violence, and not have chaos and wholesale death and destruction is in the presence of a strong government. Thus, the ideal utilitarian society is one that has a strong central government.

    Furthermore, it is literally impossible to make utilitarian calculations. For example, let us say that I propose to seize your company for the good of society and hand it over to a person whom I judge to be more able at managing it. Obviously this hurts you. How much? Are you 15 Hendrics less happy? Is that offset by me being 6 Hendrics happier and the person who I give the job to being 12 Hendrics happier?

    Of course, you could argue that one should look at GDP or some other such measurement. Except that these measurements are quite ridiculous. Take GDP for example. All goods and services produced in an economy are multiplied by some conversion factor to arrive at a dollar figure. How are these conversion prices arrived at? I may judge gold to be a wonderful thing and worth 100 bushels of apples. You on the other hand think that 1 oz of gold is worth half a bushel of apples since you hate gold and really like apples. Whose conversion factor should we use?

    Utilitarian calculations are literally impossible. And thus, utilitarianism really boils down to people in group A pushing people in Group B around and laying claim to B members’ labor. In other words, utilitarianism, in practice boils down to oligarchy. Oligarchies tend to be fine and dandy for the oligarchs and a chore for everyone else. Needless to say, oligarchies are not in any ways guarantors of prosperity.

    In the end, you are behaving somewhat like a North Korean peasant who thanks “Dear Leader” whenever anything good happens regardless of whether the Dear Leader was involved or not.

    Comment by tarran — October 27, 2007 @ 1:11 am
  13. Oh, Chepe, Chepe, Chepe,

    Oh, tarran, tarran, tarran, tarran. How’s that for one-upsmanship? ;-)

    I’m sorry I don’t have the time to respond to your lengthy post in equal detail. You have taken the time to explain your thinking with thoroughness and civility, and you deserve a commensurate response, but I have a busy day ahead of me, so I must perforce be less complete.

    Your arguments in the matter of private versus public crime prevention suffer from several weaknesses. In the first place, you rely heavily upon group economic sanctions to enforce fair play in the marketplace. I remind you that such mechanisms are already in use and still fail to prevent economic crimes. Consumer Reports has been publishing for decades, but criminal prosecutions for fraud have not withered.

    A second weakness in your argument is its reliance on civil suits. I have noticed other libertarians relying on civil litigation to replace criminal law. This is a bad idea for four reasons:

    1. It makes it easier for the rich (who can afford expensive lawyers) to perpetrate crimes against the poor (who cannot). This is unjust.

    2. Civil litigation is slow. A typical criminal case is resolved in about a year; a civil case takes maybe twice that.

    3. Civil litigation is expensive. Even when both sides can afford it, taking a case to trial usually costs more than $100K.

    4. But most important, civil litigation in the absence of controlling law substitutes the majority opinion of a jury for the majority opinion of all society. How can you possibly be better off relying on the majority opinion of a small group than a big group? How do you know you won’t happen to come up with some oddballs on the jury? If your daughter were raped, and two of the jurors were fundamentalist Christians who held that girls who dress provocatively deserve to be raped, and another three jurors were guys who’ve been turned down too often and regard all women as teases — well, I think you can see where this goes.

    Civil litigation is no substitute for criminal law. The history of law shows a clear trend: societies start off with private justice and a rough-and-ready kind of tort law adjudicated by senior leaders; they find that this approach is too time-consuming and fails to command the respect of the losers (who often resort to violence); they attempt to ameliorate the problem by defining the most clear-cut types of crime and handling them according to an established procedure; as they build experience, they add to the body of criminal law, thereby codifying the best practices that have emerged from the case-by-case tort litigation; and eventually they have a large body of criminal law. What you are suggesting is a reversal of this process to the level last seen several thousand years ago.

    You express a belief common to libertarians: that all social policies must be based on objectively provable arguments. The problem here is that values are fundamentally subjective. There is no objective basis for even the most elementary social rule. For example, there is no objective way to prove that murder is wrong or should be forbidden. The only basis for our strictures against murder is common social consent — majority rule. Libertarians seem to hate the notion of majority rule, but there is simply no way to determine social values without somebody, somewhere laying down rules, and I prefer the majority to any small group.

    Lastly, I couldn’t let this one get by:

    Every society eventually falls. The more peaceful anarchic ones tend to survive about 300 years.

    Actually, it’s the other way around. The longest-surviving polity was the Byzantine Empire, which lasted for just over a thousand years — and was neither peaceful nor anarchic. Another record-setter was, believe it or not, the Mongol empire founded by Ghengis Khan. A tiny fragment of it lingered in the region east of the Caspian Sea until 1921. Mongols weren’t very peaceful or anarchic, either. By contrast, the more anarchic societies survived only as long as their more organized neighbors didn’t bother to molest them. Among these are the Tuareg of North Africa, the Inuit of North America, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, and the Bushmen of southern Africa. Yes, it’s possible to have an anarchic society that endures — so long as you live in a hostile environment that nobody else wants to live in and you keep your population density way down.

    I must go now. I have enjoyed my time here and I must say, the discussions here have been more civil, informative, and reasoned than I usually find elsewhere on the web. However, you have violated my trust and I therefore deem it unsafe to continue participation here. Goodbye to all, and best wishes.

    Comment by Chepe Noyon — October 27, 2007 @ 11:03 am
  14. However, you have violated my trust and I therefore deem it unsafe to continue participation here. Goodbye to all, and best wishes.

    Chepe, what are you talking about?

    Comment by tarran — October 27, 2007 @ 12:18 pm
  15. Tarran, you accessed my email address.

    Comment by Chepe Noyon — October 27, 2007 @ 12:37 pm
  16. You’re upset because I googled you?

    It can’t be anything else because that’s the only thing I have ever done with your email address. I certainly haven’t emailed you, or given it to anybody. I haven’t broken any confidence because:

    I I haven’t said anything about you that you haven’t said publicly on this forum.

    II You haven’t given me any confidences to protect, except for your email address which, again, I haven’t given out to anyone.

    Why do you feel unsafe? Has someone been threatening you?

    Comment by tarran — October 27, 2007 @ 3:03 pm
  17. tarran, you violated my privacy. I post under a pseudonym because the web is full of nutcases. A previous pseudonym of mine was compromised by another blog and a nutcase from a third blog found it and harassed me with nasty emails. If this pseudonym has been compromised (which I am unable to verify at Google), then I must abandon it anyway.

    Comment by Chepe Noyon — October 27, 2007 @ 3:27 pm
  18. Chepe What the hell are you talking about !?!

    Violated your pseudonym how?!?

    Comment by tarran — October 27, 2007 @ 3:37 pm
  19. Tarran, you identified me. You used your control over the BBS software to penetrate the anonymity that I clearly desired. Sure, you haven’t done anything untoward with that information — yet. But if you violated my privacy once, I have no reason to believe that you won’t violate it again. You yourself operate under a pseudonym and presumably value your privacy — why don’t you accord me the same privacy?

    Comment by Chepe Noyon — October 27, 2007 @ 4:09 pm
  20. Honestly, rather than posting your bio on the internet, and going apeshit when the server logs show a strange IP address as having downloaded it, why do you bother posting it at all?

    If you don’t want someone to know your email address, why do you give it to them?

    If you are looking for someone to get angry at, pal, I suggest you get a mirror, because the only one “violating” your privacy is yourself.

    Comment by tarran — October 27, 2007 @ 6:11 pm
  21. I came to this slapfight to quote Hanlon’s Razor:

    Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

    :)

    Comment by CommiePuddin — October 27, 2007 @ 6:16 pm

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