Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Alternatives to Spending on Space Development

Today, I will take up one of the most commonly heard objections to spending money on space development - that we have real problems on earth that deserve the money. The argument I will address says that we should cancel space development and use the money to fight poverty, provide education, clean up the environment, cure cancer, bring peace to the middle east, and accomplish any number of other tasks.

However, if we were to list the things that people waste money on - from most wasteful to least wasteful - we would find space development far down the list.

Here are some items that would be nearer the top of the list:

Video Games: Nearly $25 billion. This is half again as large as the annual NASA budget. While NASA uses the money to expand our knowledge and understanding of the world around us, the video game industry invites people to waste huge amounts of time accomplishing nothing of value. In fact, the greatest cost of the video game industry is not the billions of dollars spent on the games and game equipment. It is in the huge loss of (potential) labor hours and brain power on the part of people who are distracted from real-world issues by these game. They could otherwise have been spending a portion of that time educating themselves on real-world issues and working on potentially intelligent and informed solutions.

Movie Industry: $65 Billion. There is practically nothing in the movie industry that is of real value. Even when it deals with real-world concerns, it often misinformed and presents fallacious arguments - the most often form of rhetoric being an appeal to emotions that themselves are manipulated by editing, music, and other techniques.

Sports Industry: Over $400 Billion. Some of this money goes to promoting physical fitness. Yet, it is hard to deny that the money spent on the tickets to a football game can be better spent finding a vaccine for malaria. I know people who can cite sports statistics with ease who could not locate Afghanistan on a map.

Restaurant Industry: $600 Billion. Stop at the grocery store on the way home, pick up something to eat, save $20, and donate the money to cancer research. This amount wasted on the restaurant industry does not include the health care and other costs of obesity - which not only would include money spent on food one does not need (or food that gets thrown out), but avoidable health care costs as well.

Let's add vacation cruises, gambling, smoking and other forms of drug use, television (particularly sit-coms and "reality" television), cosmetics, jewelry, and food packaging.

There are countless other examples.

Defenders of these industries will often talk about the jobs created and their contribution to the economy. Yet, they seem to think that everybody in their industry would not be able to find work elsewhere. If we move $100 billion from the sports industry and used it to find child health care services instead, the sports industry will suffer a loss of jobs, but the child health care industry would likely have a few new job opportunities.

I will not pretend to be a paradigm of virtue when it comes to the proper use of one's time and money. However, objections that would take this form qualify as "ad hominem" arguments. Desirism admits that a person will aim to fulfill his or her current desires - good and bad. However, it further asks about the quality of the desires, measuring them by their capacity to fulfill other desires. It is almost certainly the case that if people (including me) liked computer games and dining less, and liked contributing to medical research and early childhood health care more, it would be a better world.

Any time and money that I waste on these things does not make false any of the claims that I have made in this post. It does not make it the case that there is any sense to the claim that the fate of the world depends on diverting a few billion dollars from space development - an industry with the potential to save the planet - and move it instead into "something else". There are trillions of dollars out there available to be moved from less useful activities, before one even begins to eye space development as a source of funds for these other projects.


Anonymous said...

So in other words we should remove money from industries that allow us to have fun and enjoy life?

While I support more money going into R&D (including space programmes), saying that money spent on entertainment is a waste seems a little simplistic. Whats the point in living if you cant unwind and have some fun?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

No. We should promote a disposition to have fun and enjoy things that are more useful.

Any scientists have fun and enjoy their studies. In graduate school, more than once I felt a sudden pang of guilt enjoying a good book I could not put down even though I had to study for my next class before realizing that the book I was reading was the assignment for that class.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

My email shows the following comment (from an anonymous contributer), which mysteriously is not showing on this page.

I'm with Anon here.

While I agree that humans should generally promote such healthy dispositions, it should not be such an absolute rejection of other "non-productive" forms of enjoyment that we endorse. The problem here is that such a disposition would lead inevitably to one-dimensional, boring people, making life somewhat... well, boring. The amount of fun one can have through studying is great, but not limitless.

In addition, I don't suppose you would argue that everyone should become a researcher or similar "for the good of humanity". It's simply not a convincing reason to remove sport and entertainment from the realm of human activity.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Now for my response....

Consider the context of this discussion - which is that we must reduce the $20 billion spent on space development in order to fund other "more useful" programs.

Mine was not an all-or-nothing argument about shutting down whole industries, it was an argument to those who make this claim that there are other places to get the money.

If the response is,"Every dollar spent in these other areas is being wisely and necessarily spent - and the only place where money is being wasted is in space development," I consider the responee absurd.

If the response is, "It is not the case that every dollar spent on these activities must be stopped," I may or may not agree, but it misses the point.

If we are going to reduce a less useful effort to fund a more useful effort, space development is far down the list of things to reduce.

True, or false?