Still more nothing

Continuing my theme of nothing Obama and Congress are doing right now is anything but predictable and boring, I’m going to elevate a couple of comments focusing on political philosophies. Sure, Obama’s good for laugh-a-day headlines – He’s taking on the teacher’s unions by supporting merit pay and quadrupling the aount of money we’re flushing down the crapper through the Department of Education? In five years they’ll all be federal employees – but let’s not bicker and argue about who bought who.

Regarding the economics of Embryonic Stem Cell research, I posited about the lack of private funding ESC attracts. There are no laws prohibiting anyone from experimenting with newly developed stem cell lines. Federal dollars are available for research on the eighteen lines that existed when Bush signed the first stem cell funding bill. States like California and Massachusetts have committed over five billion dollars to ESC research. It’s not like stem cell researchers are finally going to start emerging from bunkers after eight years of exile under Bush.

They just need more money.

Which seems odd. We’ve been told cures for Alzheimer’s and diabetes are just around the corner. The paralyzed will walk again. Damaged tissue will regenerate. We can only hope such amazing treatments eventually become a reality. Many, many people of all ages around the world could benefit greatly. A potentially huge market. Twenty four million people with diabetes in the US alone are potential customers.

If you could help those people and profit at the same time, why wouldn’t you? There must be some reason ESC research can’t attract private dollars. That doesn’t seem to be a question anyone is willing to ask. The most likely answer is the ten-to-twenty year horizon for any FDA approved treatment.

Anyway, pgg and hyperbolist were discussing the practical application of this in the comments:

hyperbolist sez: some social goods, including aspects of human health and overall well-being, do not evoke the same sort of responses in the marketplace such that necessary innovations can be left in the hands of the private sector.

pgg sez:The point the Friedman made so powerfully is this: no government – anywhere, ever, in all of recorded history – has produced scientific innovation or advancement, or for that matter, net social good, at a rate approaching anything close to the profit-motivated free enterprise system.

Hawkish Libertarian conservative that I am, they’re both right with a “however”.

Public health by definition involves the public. As much as I’d like to see how a free market solution would evolve, I recognize why some government action on health matters is needed. Sanitation, sewers, and city water stop the spread of disease, and preventing epidemics is public health job number one. Those programs are typically administered at the local, county, and state level. The feds, naturally, have their snout in the trough. But the most impactful direct action happens at the federalist, not federal level.

Which doesn’t mean the government delivers that service as well, efficiently, or cheaply as the private sector, only that it’s reasonable to assume the government would play a role. How to develop and consistently apply a cost/benefit analysis for health matters is the challenge. No doubt the current climate in Washington is, “why would you assume any health matter is not a federal concern?” Which brings us to Friedman pgg.

I’m going to stay at the federal level here, but there are clearly some areas where government has been essential to innovation. The space/defense programs are one shining example. Interstate highways would be tough to pull off privately (with no eminent domain). Dam and water projects likewise need eminent domain. Having some home-grown engineering talent is a net benefit to the country and we can’t outsource the friggin’ F-22.

There’s admittedly been a large private sector role in all of those programs, but they (sometimes) give enough benefit to outweigh the costs. And you wouldn’t have GPS in your car without Uncle Sam’s satellite and hand-me-down military technology (like computers). Of course for every success lies a litany of failures. The government knows no risk other than electoral risk.

Why take a chance by not throwing money at it since we won’t be the ones cashing the check? What kind of cold-hearted bastard could oppose spending federal money regardless of any potential return on investment after a teary-eyed and theatrically staged Congressional hearing featuring disease sufferers?

Yeah, I’d be the dick roughing up Michael J. Fox with some well-thought-out, functional questions about the stem cell research he’s advocating.

There is no risk too great or cost/benefit too lopsided for government to accept. Who ultimately paid the price after decades of inept federal levee management left New Orleans flooded once a completely predictable and to-be-expect hurricane made a direct hit? Congressional overseers? The Corp of Engineers? Local politicians? They’ll blame Bush when the next direct hit floods New Orleans twenty years and another trillion dollars later.

Now I have no strong moral objections to ESC research and hope its potential becomes at least some small reality. As a political reality there are many people who do. Beyond the life issues are the long-term ethical implications. These also must be considered in the cost/benefit analysis.

In our current Byzantine structure, the best solution is to distill the decision down to the lowest possible level. If federal funding is to occur let it be as money to each state’s education department. Then voters could decide whether (or to what degree) ESC research would be funded. California could be The Stem Cell State and Kansas could be the Drought Resistant Corn State. Private sector investment will follow the talent. Imperfect, but if redistribution must occur why not let voters at the most localized level decide how and where?

Come to think of it, that could work for abortion too. Or abortion for some and tiny American flags for others.

We do have some incentive as a nation to use public funds as seed money for innovation. How and how much to allocate is the eternal question. As little as I think of how our government has evolved, it seems unlikely a scientocracy would make us freer and stronger. Science is an important tool, but shouldn’t be the guiding principal of our nation. The Constitution wasn’t written by scientists. Well, maybe a couple. But they weren’t on the dole.

The Knucklehead of the Day award
Just Another Tax And Spend Liberal