Kevin Drum, today, on how “slashing” funding for the NIH has resulted in us not having an Ebola vaccine:
What’s more, even without a vaccine we’d probably be better prepared to react to the Ebola outbreak if we hadn’t spent the past decade steadily slashing funding for public health emergencies. The chart on the right, from Scientific American, tells the story.
There are consequences for budget cuts. Right now we’re living through one of them.
Hey, my fellow Libertarians… We won! We trimmed government to the point where it could be strangled in a bathtub. Taxes are low. Regulation is minimal. Government spending is back at pre-WWI levels. We did it, and now we’re going to have to live without the nanny that we slaughtered. [sadface]
Oh, wait. No, that didn’t happen.
Government has grown by 59% in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1999. It’s grown from 17.6% of GDP to over 21% in the same time.
Clearly, we’re not at a loss for a vaccine because government wasn’t spending money. And whether you’re on the Left, the Right, or even a Libertarian, one can make quite a strong argument that research into cures or treatments for epidemic-level diseases may be a “public good”. It is quite true that shareholders for pharmaceutical companies find a lot more value in helping middle-aged men get erections than staving off the next extinction-level-event*. This sort of pure healthcare research is exactly the sort of thing that the market doesn’t do well, and has such widespread benefit to society overall to be worth it.
So. If we can agree that government’s spending a lot more money in inflation-adjusted dollars, and we can agree that both sides of the aisle view this sort of research as a true public good, worthy of public investment, why is its budget getting slashed?
Simple: science spending doesn’t buy votes.
The truth is that the government has plenty of money. They spend plenty of money. Even beyond this, a lack of money has never been a barrier to them spending money, whether they have to borrow it, or print it, or have the fed print it so they can borrow it from themselves. If something is important to politicians, they’ll find a way to funnel money to it.
In fact, the problem is similar to that of many government programs. They’ll find money for sexy new things like rail line extensions, but suddenly are broke when it comes to maintaining the lines they already have. Oh, and the lack of maintenance mentioned in that story cost more lives than Ebola has in the US.
Apparently the war in Iraq was worth $1T. The stimulus was worth $787B. Obamacare (Apr ’14 CBO estimates) will cost $1.383T over the 2015-2024 period.
Compare that to the NIH, which costs ~$30B/year.
It’s not a question of spending. It’s a question of priorities. Incremental scientific advancements to third-world diseases are important, and worthy of funding. But very few politicians will get credit for voting for that funding, so they let the NIH wither on the vine while they spend money on “important” things. That is the libertarian critique: the NIH could have been fully funded if the government wasn’t distracted–as they always are–by anything shiny.