Sunday, January 31, 2010

In Defense of Obama

This week, President Obama announced that he was ending NASA's Constellation program to return a man to the moon in the current budget and turning manned space flight over to commercial companies. The project was chronically underfunded by the Bush Administration (who was the administration who developed the plan). Although it is not something that I know a whole lot about, having gone to school in Houston with a lot of friends whose parents worked at Johnson Space Center (as in, "Houston, we have a problem"), the Facebooks were atwitter today...or something like that.

On one good friend's wall, I wrote the following. Although this happens to be about manned space flight, it could just as easily describe the situation that Obama finds himself in when trying to decide how to spend government money these days:

I don't know how I feel about Obama's decision about manned space flight. To be honest, I only think about space flight when something goes horribly wrong -- a situation in which I am probably like most Americans. But, what I do know is that space flight, like all government programs (if we want them to continue to be run by the government), requires money. And, since Obama was put in the position of cleaning up the messes of the previous two administrations, we don't have a lot of that right now.

When money is tight, we need to figure out where we are going to spend it and, unfortunately, where it is not going to be spent. Maybe it's because NASA hasn't sold itself well enough or maybe it's because I didn't grow up in the Houston area and didn't know many people involved in the space program until I got to college. But the fact is, compared to other things that I care about in this country -- health care, education, national defense, transportation -- it is difficult to see what value comes from space flight other than a sense of national pride that we beat the Russians to the moon forty years ago.

But, what is more important is to figure out why we don't have any money to be able to spend. The obvious place to start is the bailouts of the banks -- caused by the Bush and Clinton administrations' penchant for eliminating nearly all regulations in the financial market and the ongoing trend since Reagan to starve the few regulators left of any money to do their job ($700 billion). Next, let's look at the war in Iraq which has cost us $700 billion to date and, as the Shoe and Christmas Day Bombers have shown, have failed to substantially increase our safety. The repeal of the inheritance tax -- the tax on money that you literally get for being born to the right family -- has cost us $1.7 trillion[1] from 2001-2008 (including interest on deferred debt obligations) and will cost us another $1.277 trillion (again, including deferred interest payments) over the next ten years.

The whimsies of the past eight to sixteen years were financed by the future and that future is now. I totally agree that taking away space flight might destroy "kids' interest in math and science," but they won't have the resources to be interested if their school buildings -- mostly built in the 1950s and 1960s in this country -- are falling down around them. Without changes in energy technology, fuel will become so expensive that it will be impossible to launch a rocket, commercial or otherwise.

I am not sure that Obama's policies are the best policies for moving things forward (particularly the 3% reduction in government spending for everything except programs for defense and the elderly). But, I certainly do know that he is being forced to make the difficult decisions that every administration before him (except for possibly George H.W.) abdicated. They threw a party, over-ran the budget by $3.1 trillion dollars, have another $1.277 trillion in clean-up costs to come (if the inheritance tax is not repealed), and he's being blamed for not cleaning it up quickly enough.

I sure as hell know that I could figure out a way to save manned flight, get students excited about math and science, and build them new schools if I had and extra $3.1 trillion dollars to work with.

[1] I realized that the $1.7 trillion figure is actually the cost for the entire Bush 2001/2003 tax cut, not only the inheritance tax. Although there were some provisions of that tax cut that helped the non-wealthy class, it disproportionately helped those with the highest salaries.