Pennies for NASA - Ignoring the Cost at All Cost

I consider myself a skeptic.  I try to live my life by reason, guide my choices by science and defend my positions without faith.  However, my political philosophy, which I think is rationally derived and is deeply rooted in individual liberty, often clashes with the leftist/statist strain within skeptical society.  This was so exposed on my drive to work this morning as I listened to one of my regular podcasts.   
I think it is relatively clear that the federal government of the united States is in a dire fiscal situation, along with much of the developed world. In spite of this fact, there is a segment of the population clamoring for an approximate doubling of the budget for NASA under the cleverly misleading moniker "Penny4NASA". The gist of their platform is described at the head of their homepage:
NASA’s budget currently represents 0.5% of the US budget, and has been relatively unchanged for 25 years. We are calling for their budget to be increased to 1% of the US budget.
The site contains some links and videos intended to educate the public and gin up support for one of the most universally beloved government programs in history. One of the videos contains the following quote from Neil degrasse Tyson, a widely respected, highly adored and well spoken astrophysicist:

...I’m tired of saying this, but I’m gonna have to say it again, the NASA budget is four-tenths of one penny on a tax dollar. If I held up the tax dollar, and I cut horizontally into it, four-tenths of one percent on a tax dollar does not even get you into the ink! So I will not accept a statement that says, “We can’t afford it!”’

I hate to be the bearer of bad news to Dr. Tyson, but "we" can not even afford to keep NASA's budget the same in our current condition, let alone increase it by any fraction of a penny on the dollar.  "We" are massively in debt beyond what the rosiest predictions indicate "we" will be able to pay back, and the government's ability to paper (literally) over this fact will come to an end sooner or later.  If your definition of "afford" is, "having access to credit without any demonstrable means of sufficient repayment of this or any other debt", then you may think that I am crazy for saying this.  

Granted, the NASA budget is small potatoes compared to the entitlement/warfare/never-ending-stimulus spending nightmare we are in, but that does not mean it can be ignored.  

Ignoring the cost of the program is explicit in the Penny4NASA platform.  At first blush one might think that they are advocating for everyone to give (or rather have taken from them) a penny to support NASA.  That might sound ok, but wait a minute!  They are talking about a penny of every "tax dollar"!  That's a little bit different, especially since most people don't even know how much they pay in federal taxes.  Go ahead and calculate it if you would like; I'll wait here and hold my breath.  Just don't forget to include paycheck withholdings along with the lump sum you might send the IRS in April (ignore any interest you might have earned on the  withholdings just to safe).  While you're at it include payroll taxes that your employer pays that he or she might otherwise have paid you, tariffs and customs duties on all the goods you purchased that were imported or contained components that were imported, estate and gift taxes etc.  It's a little bit more than a penny now isn't it?  It gets better.  The call to action is to raise the funding of NASA from 0.46% of the federal annual BUDGET to 1% of the federal annual BUDGET.  If you just calculated your annual federal taxes based on Dr. Tyson's allegory to the "tax dollar", you calculated your contribution to federal REVENUE.  Do you want to make any guesses as to how that stacks up against the federal  BUDGET?  Not well!  According to The Hill, "CBO has predicted that in 2012, the U.S. will have its fourth consecutive year with a budget deficit over $1 trillion."  I cannot begin to tell you how to calculate your projected increase in "contributions" required to meet an increased budgetary obligation made by an entity that is serially delinquent with its bills, but my guess is, it's more than a penny.   

To further the case for increasing NASA's funding, the group provides this chart of the NASA budget history:
Which may be a little bit misleading if you don't understand that total federal spending during the approximate time frame did this:

When you look at NASA budget history in terms of absolute 1996 dollars as in the following graph (orange trace), which I plucked from Wikipedia, the situation for NASA is a little bit less dire.
NASA_budget_linegraph_BH.PNG (786×544)

There are way more problems with this movement to forcibly take your money for great works of national pride, but I have a day job.  So, I will be back for more later.

Related Post:

Pennies for Flying Cars - Another Tale of the Unseen

An elephant: A mouse built to government specifications. -- Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love


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  3. I thought the quote from Tyson was a great illustration of an aspect of public choice theory. His pet agency only gets a small part of the total slop from the Federal trough, and that's supposed to justify a larger share. Unfortunately there are individuals in every single agency, lobby, and interest group making similar claims for their pet projects. Add them all up, and (as you point out) the expenses greatly exceed the income.

    1. Thanks for such high praise, and I agree with you of course on your point about public choice theory. I think what worries me particularly about Dr. Tyson is that he is so well educated, so well spoken and so respected that it is easy for him to whip up public support for his pet boondoggle. I think he means well, and I think he really believes that NASA funding would be worth it. I clearly think he's drinking the cool-aid on this one, but I hope that some people are swayed by the fiscal irresponsibility of it and the rest are swayed by the fact that theft is immoral even for great public works.


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