One of the biggest weaknesses a democracy must always work to overcome is the short memory of its voters. In March, 2013 the President, Congress, and Senate all failed miserably at governing when they allowed sequestration to occur. Sequestration was a horrible law that said the legislators and President had to come up with a budget agreement by a certain date otherwise massive, irresponsible and terribly damaging budget cuts would slash every part of every department no matter how important. The idea was to hold a loaded gun to their heads to put lots of pressure on everyone so that they would feel obligated to compromise with each other and work together to find some common ground.
But now it is clear that the current US government prefers suicide to compromise, so in March after months and months of ugly debate, they failed to find any common ground and the sequestration gun went off. I know, I know, 2013 was two whole years ago! Why bring this up now?
Because even though this fight is two years past, and not sexy enough of a topic for media outlets to pick it up very often, the damage done by sequestration is still being felt in terrible ways. A good example of this damage is in our science research budget. The terms of sequestration meant that the National Institutes of Health had to immediately cut 1.5 billion dollars from its budget. And worse, the terms of this terrible legislation forbade the institution from picking and choosing where to make the cuts, instead forcing it to cut evenly across all departments. This ensured that every single area of medical research in the United States was greatly damaged all at once.
Many fiscally conservative congress people cheered that a swollen budget was getting a much needed trim, but they fail to understand how damaging a massive cut to science is. Science is a very slow process. Breakthroughs often takes decades of meticulous work. People seemed to assume that we could cut science budgets today, and later on down the road when things were better financially we could pick up the pieces. But science doesn’t work that way. If you cut a lab’s funding, they close their doors and everyone has to scramble to find a new job. The years and years and years of work gets dropped as everyone scrambles to find something else they can do. And if you later put funding back into the system, there is no method of funneling those dollars to the old research that didn’t get finished. Even if you could, the scientists involved will all have moved on to other research projects or perhaps other jobs entirely. Instead, the new money gets pushed into new grants looking at brand new topics starting from scratch. In other words, the sequestration didn’t just cut our research in the US by 5%, it wasted decades of research that had already cost us billions and billions of dollars. Sequestration threw away billions and billions of your taxpayer dollars, far more than it saved.
And yet those responsible for this terrible governance still have their job. In fact, its interesting to note that none of them suffered 5% pay cuts.
Some of you reading this may be screaming at your computer monitors “but we can’t afford to spend money we don’t have!” Which is true. Deficit spending doesn’t work in your personal life, and as Greece has shown us, it doesn’t work for governments either.
But when you make a budget in your personal life, you sit down and prioritize all of your expenses, right? You don’t cut 5% out of your rent, because you know you’ll end up getting evicted. You don’t cut 5% out of your taxes because you know you’ll end up living in prison. Likewise, the US government should have prioritized where budget cuts went. The US population draws huge benefits from science research. Can’t we find savings that are less damaging to the health of the American taxpayer?
Just as one example of a cut that could have been made instead of gutting decades of science research, take the military base in Germany. After World War 2, Germany was in shambles and the Soviet Union was aggressively flexing its muscle in the region. It made perfect sense at the time for the United States to set up a military base, to help stabilize a war-torn region, to protect the residents as they tried to rebuild their country, and so forth. But that was 70 years ago. Today, Germany is one of the largest economies in the world and can easily afford funding its own military which is the 7th largest in the world. What benefit does the US taxpayer gain from having a giant military complex that supports nearly 50,000 US soldiers in Germany? And what does this base cost you? Four billion dollars every year to maintain the base, plus another four billion in military personnel costs. That’s right, 8 billion dollars a year to keep troops in Germany.
Imagine what medical benefits our society would have if we could work up the political courage to close the Germany base and spend that 4 billion on research instead. I say 4 billion because I assume the 50,000 troops would be transferred elsewhere rather than fired.
Our government has no problem dumping trillions of dollars on things that haven’t been needed in a quarter of a century, but slashes medical research projects. Does this reflect your priorities? Are we really a nation of people who prefers war over knowledge?