President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget will never actually determine how the government spends your money: Potus proposes and Congress disposes. But that’s no reason for relief. In fact, it makes this document even more of a nightmare. It doesn’t direct funding, but it does put the Trump administration’s underlying philosophy of governance on display. And it’s a harsh one.
The science cuts make this most visible. Now, stipulated, governments don’t have to fund science. Since World War II, though, America has; the rationale comes from a 1945 report written by Vannevar Bush, then-director of the US Office of Scientific Research and Development. In Science: The Endless Frontier, he wrote: “Since health, well-being, and security are proper concerns of Government, scientific progress is, and must be, of vital interest to Government.” Basic research would drive innovation, and that would be the engine of the American economy.
Built into Bush’s idea was the notion that if the free-enterprise, free-thinking citizens of the United States created any problems in pursuit of that progress, well, progress could solve them, too. Industrial revolution polluting all your rivers and air? Keep going, and we’ll eventually build power sources that don’t cough out poison. Cigarettes giving you cancer? We’ll figure out a cure. Pouring antibiotics on every damn thing until even the most basic infection can resist the drugs? We’ll make new ones. Scientific advances would surf the wave of calamities both natural and synthetic. Problems lead to solutions lead to problems lead to … you get it.
It was a good deal. Policymakers wouldn’t have to quash the rugged individualism that made Americans want to out-do their peers, or the rugged collectivism that made corporations want to do the same. In fact, government could encourage all that and rely on ongoing scientific research to hedge against the risks.
In other words, Bush was selling insurance.
Pay the money in, and if nothing happens, great! You get to know more about the universe. But if something does, you’re ready. Which is why President Trump’s proposed budget is, from a philosophical perspective, nuts. It either fails to account for the future, or holds it in escrow for the rich.
I’m not just talking about the cuts to both basic and applied research. These are egregious—“unsafe at any level of enactment,” as Tom Frieden, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Obama, tweeted. The AIDS treatment cuts alone could kill a million people, according to The New York Times. A cap on a specific kind of National Institutes of Health grant would nuke academic research. It could make weather forecasting worse. And so on.
Pay the money in, and if nothing happens, great! You get to know more about the universe. And if something does? You’re ready. Which is why President Trump’s budget is nuts.
The more telling cuts are in the programs that enforce regulations or the law, or that protect citizens against abuses and dangers. Eliminating the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Flood Hazard Mapping and Risk Analysis program, for example, would save $190 million … and cost the knowledge of where climate change-powered sea level rise will inundate cities. Reducing the Department of State’s Global Health budget by almost a quarter would allow HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria to spread further and faster. Cutting $129 million out of the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement budget would allow polluters to keep polluting. You can’t pull $126 million out of public health preparedness and response programs and not realize what that looks like. The philosophy of the Trump budget is that the United States doesn’t need insurance anymore.
Here’s one possible explanation: The budget doesn’t understand risk.
“When you have disasters, whether it’s a financial meltdown or national catastrophe or terrorist attack, right afterwards there’s a tendency to think it’s a big deal and take all measures,” says Robert Meyer, co-director of the Center for Risk Management and Decision Processes at the Wharton School at Penn. “The problem is that when we go ahead and take a preparatory action, most of the time the feedback we get is that the preparation is not worthwhile.” After the big hurricanes of 2005, for example, flood insurance purchases went way up. But two years later, people couldn’t recall why they were still cutting those checks.
Now, this explanation is actually terrible. Some premium is always paying a dividend for the feds. In a sense, the science budget is an aggregated risk pool. Maybe this year it won’t be a hurricane or sea level rise, but it might be Zika, or an oil spill, or a terror attack. The government gets all the positive feedback it could possibly want. “Given the large degrees of aggregation of risk they’re dealing with, you do get higher payoff,” Meyer says. “Which makes a decision to look away from these things even more shortsighted.”
So here’s another explanation: The budget doesn’t give a crap.
Sure, a government doesn’t have to buy science insurance. This is where the philosophy part comes in. Maybe society decides it’s not worth spending a gazillion dollars on cancer or diabetes; maybe public health outcomes would be better with more money spent on prevention, on primary care, on emergency rooms. Maybe an agricultural policy that didn’t massively favor the production of high-fructose corn syrup would have a bigger impact on diabetes than trying to figure out how to get embryonic stem cells to turn into islets of Langerhans inside a pancreas. Maybe making tobacco prohibitively expensive and sunblock as cheap as water would dent cancer numbers more than drugs targeted at someone’s genome. Maybe deep space exploration is, while super-cool, not where the government wants to spend money at this time.
More on the Science Budget
Science insurance does, on the other hand, allow a government to avoid becoming proactively hyperprotective. (Hey, check it out—a libertarian argument for science funding, almost by accident.) All of those broad policy changes I just halfway pitched would push money away from entrenched corporate interests and toward … well, other corporate interests, probably. Whatever; how about, do it all! Fund the science. Change the tax code. Embrace the “and.”
Research says facts and statistics don’t convince people to buy insurance. One approach that does work, though, is to build it into their costs. “Like, make it part of their mortgage each year. Automatically, you get flood insurance,” Meyer says. “But you can opt out. Then the weight of thinking is, am I really sure I don’t want flood insurance? You’re not infringing on freedom of choice. You just kind of make investments in protection and safety the default.”
Again, I can imagine what that might look like—a sort of “science safety net” akin to the social safety net, built into the federal budget’s mandatory spending just like Medicare and Social Security. I don’t know what the priorities would be, or how they’d flex according to new problems (and solutions and problems).
But that’s not what’s happening in the Trump budget. It doesn’t find new priorities; it just abandons the old ones. So it’s hard to avoid concluding that President Trump’s budget doesn’t care about risk—because his administration doesn’t think it has to. The brunt of that risk will be born by the poor, by people of color, by women, by urbanites. Rich people can afford to pay for the things this budget would not—medicine, clean water, dry land. A metaphoric dome of money protects those people from inbound killer asteroids, metaphoric and literal. They don’t need insurance; they are paying for life out-of-pocket.