Wednesday, June 15, 2011

This is not rocket science (although they should be doing rocket science too)

Brad DeLong first points us to a cringe-worthy announcement by Biden that the government's going to show how tough it is by shutting down a desert tortoise website, which collects and disseminates data on the tortoise. This is the grip that the austerity narrative has - politicians are constantly focusing on "waste", which is (1.) next to useless when it actually makes sense to control government spending, and (2.) exactly the wrong thing to be talking about right now.

DeLong follows up with a point about public investment in science: "Providing scientific information as a public good is one of the core competencies of government. That was what the fracking Lewis and Clark expedition was for..."

Back to the foundation of the republic our founding fathers knew what "provide for the general welfare" meant even if modern libertarians want to scrap that bit of the Constitution, and they knew - Jefferson especially, but others as well - that it included public investments in science. Scientific research is a positive externality - it provides lots of benefits that can't be internalized into market transactions. So, while the market does invest in necessary science, it underinvests in it. Certain science requires public investment for a healthy, vibrant society. That includes studying endangered species, which don't have much market value, and exploring and colonizing new worlds - which may have market value far into the future, but not now. It includes making large investments which may pose collective action problems for private actors. Government is one of many emergent social institutions that the human species has developed to get things done. One of the things a healthy state institution does is invest in science - although as Eisenhower warned we need to guard against militarized science and promote public investments in science for purposes of peace and the expansion of our understanding of the world.


  1. Contra public funding of science:

    Jefferson had nothing to do with the writing or even the ratification of the Constitution, so even if you thought that the folks at Convention Hall had some sort of special insight into the Constitution then Jefferson would not be part of that crowd. Why people associate it with him I can't say.

  2. Oh, and rocket science doesn't exist (as a former NASA engineer I know would tell you).

    Anyway, I have to get back to this article on why the national parks should be run by the Disney corporation.

  3. You're on a roll with these weird accusations today. It's pretty common knowledge that Jefferson wasn't involved with the Constitution, I certainly knew that, and I don't think people commonly associate it with him.

    That having been said, the man was one of the foremost founding fathers. His thinking deeply influenced the men that were at the convention. He was in correspondence with the men that were at the convention and those who were involved in ratification (particularly with Madison of all people!). He served with the first two presidents under the new Constitution and he was deeply engaged in the issues surrounding the implementation of the new federal government under the Constitution. It's entirely reasonable to give some degree of priority to Jefferson's understanding of the Constitution (of course there were several others that it would make sense to give priority to who would disagree with Jefferson on certain points!).

  4. "Jefferson had nothing to do with the writing or even the ratification of the Constitution..."

    Well, Daniel, but Gary has gone way too far here. Madison was in touch with Jefferson during the deliberations, and acted as a sort of rep for Jefferson's views. And Jefferson put his stamp of approval on the resulting document, which helped in its ratification. So he had something to do with both the writing and the ratification!

  5. Daniel,

    No, there is no reason to give him any degree of priority; no more so than say a farmer in western Pennsylvania (it is the ratification that counts - and the only way to get at that is to try to discern the common understanding of the terms, etc. in the text). Be that as it may, Jefferson's correspondence on the matter was quite limited (in part because it took quite a long time for correspondence to cross the Atlantic). Jefferson's main contribution was (along with others) arguing for a Bill of Rights, but he was not involved in any great degree with the document that emerged the summer of 1787. He didn't even get a copy of the Constitution until Decemberish of 1787 and Madison did not get Jefferson's response until Februaryish to March 1788. You can actually read the letter online somewhere.

    In law school people (including two professors) mentioned Jefferson being at the Convention quite a bit - at least a dozen times I corrected people on the matter. I've corrected people innumerable times on-line about the matter as well. People have a hard time groking that he wasn't there because of the hagiography associated with Jefferson - he just had to be there because is one of the "Himalayas."

    Jefferson really wasn't that engaged in the Adams administration actually.

  6. Gene Callahan,

    The state ratification conventions were not terribly exercised about what Mr. Jefferson had to say on the subject; we tend to outsize his influence at the time.

  7. re: "You can actually read the letter online somewhere."

    I have.

    The letters I'm familiar with on the Bill of Rights (that I remember at least) between Madison and Jefferson come later in the year, but perhaps he wrote something earlier.

  8. re: "Jefferson really wasn't that engaged in the Adams administration actually."

    Are you kidding me? He was very engaged in politics during the Adams administration. Ever heard of the election of 1800? Ever heard of the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions? Ever heard of - oh I don't know - the hysterical (perhaps justifiably so) reaction to the French Revolution in America, and the partisan lines that were drawn over it.

    Jefferson wasn't that engaged?!?!?!?!!?

  9. While I disagree with some of the conclusions for the present day that he draws, Tom Woods would say that it was precisely during the Adams administration that Jefferson thought and wrote most deeply on the Constitution.

  10. Gene Callahan,

    The surveys which have been of the state ratification conventions have found that the most mentioned person at those conventions was a Frenchman - Montesquieu. Bizarrely conversation regarding him disappeared from public discourse within a few years after the ratification.

    If you are interested in diving into the state ratifying conventions, I used this source when I was doing research on them in one time:

  11. Jefferson walked away from the Adams administration is my point.

    Because he was involved in the politics of the time against Adams is true, but I wouldn't say him serving under Adams is the same thing.

  12. BTW, the YouTube video I put up earlier has a nice discussion as to why University of Buckingham is the only independent university in Britain.

  13. Not seeing how the government internalizes benefits of funding basic research.

  14. That's the point, Stravinsky: they don't, society at large and private firms do. Well done.

  15. Sorry, not following you. Science is underfunded because private firms don't internalize the benefits. But government doesn't internalize the benefits either. So why should it fund it?

  16. Stravinsky:

    The claim is that all this government funding of science creates knowledge which others can use. While I am sure that is true, there is no evidence that this somehow leads to economic growth or creates more benefits than the costs its incurs. See the video I posted.


All anonymous comments will be deleted. Consistent pseudonyms are fine.