As expected, the war on science and the environment is underway. The president’s proposed budget is the starting point of a long process of negotiation, but between the Tea Party in the House and the ideologues in the executive branch, the news is bound to remain grim. We now know that finding $50 billion in extra defense money is not easy without entitlement reform, and no one in Washington has the nerve to raise taxes or go near Social Security or Medicare. The result is an effort to shrink funding for university-based science research and the national labs run by the Department of Energy. Research on fundamental earth systems science is also cut as is funding for state environmental agencies and national environmental emergency response.
These cuts are part of a world view that is seriously out of step with reality. Additional funding for the military can always be justified since the world is a dangerous place. The technology of destruction is constantly advancing and keeping up is bound to be expensive. But national security is not the only challenge we face. We are an aging society, and one that might be shrinking were it not for immigration. We are also living on a planet where the human population continues to grow and stress the finite and renewable resources that feed, clothe and house us. Automation and technology are creating a brain-based global economic network and the nature of work itself is changing before our eyes. That reality is not reflected in the president’s budget.
The average American confronts a world of economic stress and young people face an uncertain future in an uncertain world. This sense of precariousness was the political backdrop for the presidential election last fall as voters expressed their unease with the world and the leaders trying to govern it. But President Trump’s prescription for addressing these problems is worse than the disease. Discouraging immigration; reducing free trade; trying to bring back labor-intensive manufacturing and fossil fuels; cutting scientific research, support for the arts, foreign aid and environmental protection is a half-baked effort to return to a past that will never come back.
Most of the economic growth we’ve enjoyed over the past century has come about through the invention of new technology based on scientific research. While in the old days private players such as Thomas Edison, Bell Labs, Kodak, Xerox and IBM could fund their own basic scientific research, the demand for greater and faster returns on capital have made the private sector dependent on the federal government’s labs and federally funded research universities to develop the scientific knowledge needed for technological breakthroughs. This marriage of public science and private enterprise has matured and results in a competitive edge for American business that should not be underestimated.
One of the areas that the great scientific minds of today are focused on is the science of protecting the planet. From understanding invasive species and the global transmission of disease, to developing battery technology and microgrids for electricity, the problems of sustainability are occupying the thoughts and work days of top engineers and basic scientists all over the world. The next arena of economic growth will come from the breakthrough science now being researched.
Instead of fostering this science, President Trump and his colleagues are trying to cut the science budget to provide tax cuts and additional funding for the military. The tax cuts and reduction of regulation are designed to create an atmosphere of freedom that will unshackle free enterprise to invest in businesses and jobs for Americans. Unfortunately for the president and his inner circle, the logic of the market leads away from “America First” toward globalization. Increased specialization, cheap information, low cost communication, inexpensive labor and containerized shipping lead to global outsourcing and network management. Unless carefully targeted, these tax cuts will not even trickle down to American workers.
The result of this budget is not likely to be what the president is expecting. Cutting science and EPA is counterproductive. EPA’s budget helps protect us from the negative impacts of technological development and the science budget helps ensure that technological development continues and is led by American science.
The world economy is governed by the logic of capitalism, but many Americans believe we are getting a bad deal from the global economy. Trump is president because he responded to that belief. People outside the U.S. look at us and think we’re doing quite well, but without question the middle class in America is stagnating. New technology creates economic pressure to keep up, but insufficient income to pay for the new stuff. Free broadcast TV and clean well water of the 1960s have been replaced by rising cable and water bills, while middle class incomes have not risen in decades. It is not clear how to solve this problem. The left calls for income redistribution and the right calls for greater freedom for entrepreneurship. I suspect the answer is more complex than the prescriptions of 19th and 20th century ideology. We will need to get past the ideological bombast of the present and somehow find our inner American pragmatist if we are to get from here to there.
But the need for more rather than less scientific research ought to be obvious. The more we learn the more we invent. While some inventions may threaten the planet, others are needed to save it. The inventions that threaten us need to be regulated; the inventions that save us need to be encouraged. But without new knowledge a brain-based economy can only go into decline. At one time most federal funding for science came from the military. Perhaps we will return to that period if the military is the only place with the resources required to fund science. That would be unfortunate, because the research communities surrounding the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have ensured that federally funded science had a multiplier effect in academia and the broader culture. It takes longer for secret military technology to be commercialized.
The rhetoric of Trump’s critique of the world’s governing elite has an important grain of truth in it. The global high tech economy has left large parts of the American middle class behind. Our elected officials have failed to respond to their needs. The idea that the cause of these problems is large, unresponsive federal bureaucracy is not entirely true. Many of the policies that have muted the worst impacts of downward mobility have come from that government. My view is that we are stuck in an inappropriate industrial age conflict between two ideologies that are increasingly irrelevant. We require capitalism because we know that people respond to individual incentives. Creativity and economic growth require individual incentives. Nevertheless, we require government because too many individuals blindly pursuing self-interest can cause harm to society and the public interest. Regulation and policing is also needed, but it needs to be strategic, flexible and based on real rather than symbolic or imaginary conditions.
President Trump’s budget is a product of an outmoded view of how the world works and the genuine threats to our way of life. There is no question that there are evil people in the world who hope to harm America. However, there is no evidence that a bigger military budget will better equip us to counter those threats. Moreover, there is considerable evidence that America’s relatively clean environment and world-leading scientific research community are central to our economic and personal well-being. This proposed budget makes America weaker and poorer.