Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Bubblegum Argument

I have an unreasonable request. That even those who hold the same position that I do on any matter avoid giving stupid or dishonest arguments in favor of that position. I do not wish to be associated with such dishonest people.

One area in which I have an interest is in the area of space development. I spend a lot of time reading about issues in the area of space science. This weekend, for example, I went to the C-span and picked an interview with NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin to listen to while I exercised.

Okay, I have strange habits.

Nonetheless, in that interview Griffin give an old and deceptive argument in defense of NASA funding that no honest person -- or, at least, an honest person who gave the issue a moment's thought -- would ever use. I call this, "the bubblegum argument."

Before describing the argument, I want to note that I happen to encounter this argument often in discussing the NASA budget. It is not the only place where it is used. One can expect it to come up any time a person with a lack of concern with honest facts wants to con taxpayers out of a little more money.

The Bubblegum Argument

Griffin said that we should not be concerned about NASA's budget because it amounts to "less than the price of a pack of bubblegum per day for each American."

Oh, sure. Pocket change. A few coins here and there -- we would barely miss it. "There's nothing to see here, folks. Just go about your business. Move along. Don't mind us. It's trivial, really."

In real terms, NASA's budget is over $16 billion per year. This amounts to more than $60 per year per person -- or about $0.17 per day.

See, what did I tell you. Pocket change. Less than the price of a pack of bubblegum per day. Certainly, this is not worth the trouble.

Countering the Bubblegum Argument

Now, for all of those of you out there with families, I ask you -- out of whose pocket does the money come when your young child wants a pack of bubblegum? Yours, right?

This is not a simple oversight. This is an act of deliberate deception. People making this argument what those who hear it to think that their contribution is not worth worrying about. Therefore, the divide the cost among the whole population -- including people who have no money to spend. The money that they are not putting into the pot has to come out of somebody else's pocket. That "somebody else" is now spending more than $0.18 per day.

In this case, we are talking about a government funded program. Therefore, the number of "payers" is not even the total number of people with jobs. The amount should really be divided among the total number of people who pay taxes. There are a lot of potential bubblegum buyers who do not pay taxes. Thus, they are not contributing to the $16 billion that NASA will spend this year. If they are not paying, then somebody else has to be paying their share for them.

In its effort to deceive people into thinking that their contribution is trivial, the bubblegum argument ignores these facts as well.

Now, let's just go back to the original bubblegum value of $60 per year.

How many people do you know who could really use $60 per year. Let's say, we set up a stand in the middle of downtown any city that will give $60 to any person who simply signs a sheet of paper. We are talking about every man, woman, and child. A family of four can come up with their kids in tow and collect $240. Grandma and grandpa will get $120. The single mother waiting tables at the diners can pick up $120 for her and her child.

This is after-tax money.

Pocket change?

Not really. The bubblegum argument tells us to ignore the fact that there are a lot of people out there who would love to be able to afford the price of a pack of bubblegum per day. If they had that money, they would not be spending it on bubblegum. They would be spending it on food, clothing, shelter, and to cover their heating bill in the winter. Or maybe the family of four can take a nice trip into the mountains for a weekend.

Finally, if this is such a trivial amount, then it seems that there are a lot of other organizations out there who should be able to come to ask and ask for "the price of a pack of bubblegum per day."

How about campaigns to find cures for cancer, heart disease, diabetes, leukemia, Parkinson's disease, AIDS, malaria, Alzheimers, cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, blindness, schizophrenia, osteoporosis, hepatitis, . . . we are now up to 15 packs of bubblegum per day and we are only talking about fighting disease. We can add funds for exploring the oceans, understanding earth quakes, researching global climate, building super computers, research into alternative energy, agricultural products (such as drought-resistant food types), improving farming techniques in underdeveloped countries, building roads, building power plants in impoverished parts of the country.

Every one of these people are knocking at your door telling you that all they require is the price of a back of bubble gum per day to do great things. If every one of them gets it, you will not be able to afford a pack of bubble gum. So, you have to tell some of them, "No," or, "Not so much."

Alternative energy research gets about a nickel per day.

If we have to say, "No," to somebody, who do we say it to first?

There is one legitimate way to look at budget issues -- and the bubblegum argument is not it. You look at the costs. You compare it to the benefits. And you compare the value of those benefits to the value of the benefits that you can get if you put that money some place else.

So, we need to look at the $16 billion going to NASA, look at what we can get, and look at that value compared to the value we can find elsewhere.

Value in NASA

We find four areas of value coming out of NASA.

(1) Airplane research. Many people forget what the first 'A' stands for in NASA. It is 'aeronautics'. NASA tests airplane technology. As a result, we get safer and more fuel efficient airplanes.

(2) Earth-use satellites. This includes weather-monitoring satellites (to save our lives when hurricanes threaten), as well as communications, global positioning system, and earth-monitoring satellites. A lot of private money goes into communication satellites, but NASA maintains the infrastructure that makes this industry possible.

One of the major new areas for earth-monitoring has to do with climate change. Global warming is threatening to impose trillions of dollars worth of costs on us. It would be nice to know how best to avoid the worst of those costs.

(3) Space resources. The only way to get more resources on Earth (raw materials, energy, and food) is to cut deeper and deeper scars into our living planet. The only alternative to cutting deeper and deeper scars into the living earth is to harvest what we need from the dead of space. Energy from the sun and whole asteroids of raw materials are waiting for us. Space is also where we can do research on deadly diseases and manufacture goods that produce toxic wastes on Earth without having the expense of disposing of them. (Protection from cosmic rays require heavy shields of whatever matter we can put into them -- which might as well include the waste products of mining and manufacturing.)

(4) The survival of humanity. This is like buying insurance. We do not know if the money we spend moving creating a space-born community capable of surviving the loss of earth will produce a benefit -- just as we do not know whether the money we spend on health insurance will come back to us in reduced bills. These are a "just in case" expense. The next time you look at an image of a distant galaxy, I will bet good money that somewhere in that image are the remnants of a civilization that did not do what it needed to do to ensure the survival of their species when they had the chance.

If we look at these values, we can justify the $16 billion per year. Saving our own lives and the lives of our friends and family members, saving the earth, and saving humanity if our quest to save the earth fails, are easily worth at least this much.

As I said, NASA is not the only organization to use the bubblegum argument. We can find versions of it whenever dishonest people want to con an individual to give up some portion of his hard earned money. It is a fundamentally dishonest practice that aims to make an individual's contribution seem smaller than it is in fact, in order to manipulate his support for some program.

Honest people may want to consider taking some money away from people who use this type of argument as a simple reminder to them not to try to gain financial support through deceptive practices.

2 comments:

Robert said...

I would just like to say that we actually get a lot more out of NASA than what you just listed. Alot of the materials and plastics as well as computers and communications systems were pioneered from our space race with the Russians (Praise the Russians for providing us competion in what amounted to be a peaceful scientific race... if only all our conflicts could be so ordered as to produce something useful with such minimal loss of life). And this is just what I came up with in about 30 seconds of thinking, which I guess makes the bubblegum argument even more ridiculous, as they have plenty of tangible benefit to show for it.

Although I imagine that NASA is too used to having to justify their budget to people who can't see what benefit it provides. I have a friend who once told me that space is stupid and we should just focus stuff thats useful. I was aghast and went into a little rant that told him that all of his satellite TV and cellphone communication, not to mention invaluable scientific research have come from the space program. I've since convinced him, but how many other ignorant fools keep demanding the same answers? Its not really much of an excuse, and I would certainly hope for better from someone like Dr. Griffin, but I think I can let it slide since I know what the actual benefits are.

Bubblegum. It's Greatest Website EVER! said...

I love your rebuttal to "the bubblegum argument."

It would make my blood kind of boil if there was someone out there who wanted to participate in The BUBBLEGUM WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP but couldn't because some program had taken his last money with the argument "oh, it's enough for a pack of bubblegum."