“But why aren’t we spending it on CHILDREN? Think of the CHILDREN!”

So for those of you who’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of days: Yesterday, something amazing happened.

No, I don’t mean the US soccer Olympic team beating Canada by one point in a dramatic overtime goal. I mean something really amazing. Something mind-blowing.

We took a one-ton nuclear-powered robot rover and threw it 350,000,000 miles, then landed it on the surface of another planet using cables from a flying rocket-powered robot crane.

And it worked. That’s the cool thing about science: It works whether you “believe” in it or not.

However, as always happens whenever NASA does something amazing, a bunch of people have trotted out all sorts of nonsense about how we shouldn’t be spending money on space exploration when there are so many problems back here on earth. I went to a Curiosity landing party at the local museum of science and industry, and sure enough, someone posted something on the Facebook page for the event something to the extent of “I wonder how many children will die from lack of clean water while we land a probe on Mars” or something.

Now, I have been told that it’s technically illegal to beat these folks. And I’m sure their hearts are in the right place; they’re not trying to be anti-intellectual, they just have little sense of the size and scope of the economy, nor how much money gets spent on space exploration, nor how much money we spend every year on things that we really could do without. And they seem to have an either/or mindset as well, as if to say that every dollar that goes to space exploration is a dollar that is taken away from needy children as opposed to being taken from, say, the Pentagon’s budget for paper clips.

Now, I think that doing things like, oh, finding out if there is life on other planets in our solar system represents a better investment of money than, for instance, buying T-shirts with pictures of NFL logos on them–something we typically spend about four times more per year on than we do on trying to learn about the universe.

So I spent some time doing a bit of research, and I’ve put together a handy-dandy chart that shows the cost of the Mars Curiosity mission, compared to the cost of some other things we might be acquainted with. The chart is a little lopsided, in that it shows how much we spend per year on other things, and the cost of the Curiosity mission so far represents seven years’ investment; to make things more representative, the bar for the Curiosity mission should be 1/7th as long as it is here.

Since we aren’t technically allowed to beat folks who complain about the cost of space exploration, hitting them over the head with this chart will have to do instead. (Figuratively! Figuratively! You can’t literally hit folks with it unless you, I don’t know, print it out and wrap it around something first. Which, as I mentioned, is technically illegal.)

So now when someone says “Why are we wasting money on space exploration instead of fixing problems here at home?” you can say “Why are we wasting even more money on Halloween candy, Christmas trees, or perfume, or football games?” I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “We shouldn’t spend money on perfume when there are so many problems here at home.”

Because, you know, spending money on perfume is way more important than finding out whether or not there is life not on this world.

38 thoughts on ““But why aren’t we spending it on CHILDREN? Think of the CHILDREN!”

  1. Awwwww, no Olympics?

    My favorite statistic (I recall reading it in Omni a couple decades ago) was that the arcade video game Space Invaders brought in three BILLION in its first year of existence.

    There are so many trivial things it would be fun to play with on this chart. There are a few things I’ve noticed you avoided (and cleverly so — I see what you did there…)

    I’m amused that we spend more for porn than for cut flowers for Mother’s Day. Priorities, people!

  2. Awwwww, no Olympics?

    My favorite statistic (I recall reading it in Omni a couple decades ago) was that the arcade video game Space Invaders brought in three BILLION in its first year of existence.

    There are so many trivial things it would be fun to play with on this chart. There are a few things I’ve noticed you avoided (and cleverly so — I see what you did there…)

    I’m amused that we spend more for porn than for cut flowers for Mother’s Day. Priorities, people!

  3. Usually the people who whine this whine want the government to fix everything (sometimes these same people think there’s too much government, which combination you’d think would make their heads explode) and so these comparisons might not count since only one is government budget controlled. …Unless you count taxes on those cigarettes, since that’s money in…

  4. Usually the people who whine this whine want the government to fix everything (sometimes these same people think there’s too much government, which combination you’d think would make their heads explode) and so these comparisons might not count since only one is government budget controlled. …Unless you count taxes on those cigarettes, since that’s money in…

  5. But aren’t most of the items on your chart what individuals spend money on and not taxes spent on government programs to help the poor? I think that’s what most people mean when they say funds should go to public benefit programs over space programs.

    Edit: Maybe I’ll just speak for me instead of “most people”.

    • Very true

      These are things that individuals are choosing to spend money on instead of using it toward things like clean water projects. That is, money they can direct where they want to direct it. I don’t know, but I suspect, that the vast majority of those who complain about money not going toward such worthy humanitarian projects as clean water projects are themselves choosing to spend money they have direct control of toward things like alcohol, cigarettes, financing their church ($29 Billion per year in the U.S. and Canada), and the other things on the chart.

      These are choices that they, themselves are making about where money they directly and immediately control is used.

      Complaining about the uses of public funds is one thing – and an easy thing. Putting your money where your mouth is is another.

      (This is not an attack on yourself, for all I know you donate generously toward humanitarian projects, just commentary on the behavior of people in general.)

    • Yes, people do make that argument; in fact, someone has already made that argument on Facebook.

      It’s not entirely 100% accurate; for example, a surprisingly large amount of taxpayer money ends up going to the NFL. The cost of a city to host a single Superbowl is jaw-dropping, and it’s a sunk cost; typically, hosting a Superbowl brings back about one-third the money in revenue that it does in taxpayer expenditure. So that’s one example of taxpayer money being spent on something nonessential. (Fun fact: The taxpayer subsidies for the last seven Superbowls added together is greater than the cost of the Curiosity mission.)

      In a way, though, the argument fails because taxpayer money is individual money, paid to the government. Most of the folks I’ve seen make the taxpayer argument seem to be saying “I want more money to go to feed hungry children, but I don’t want to spend less on roses for Mother’s Day or on Halloween candy to make it happen, and I don’t want higher taxes either…I just want someone else to pay for it.”

      A chart similar to this one could be made for government spending, and that chart shows that the total taxpayer expenditure on space exploration is tiny indeed. And when you compare the space program’s budget to the cost paying for things like tax cuts for the wealthy, the difference gets even more eye-watering.

      For example, when George W. Bush cut the highest tax rate on the wealthiest people in the country, he reduced the amount of money coming into the government by a smidge over $215 billion a year, or almost nine times the total cost of the Curiosity program. (Fun fact: For the same amount of money, it would have been possible to restructure the tax code so that everyone making less than $60,000 a year paid no income tax at all.)

      Most folks don’t see tax cuts as a cost, though they are. In terms of direct costs, one of the biggest expenses, accounting for a quarter of all spending, is defense spending. In 2011, direct appropriations for defense spending hit $928.5 BN, which is more than the entire rest of the world combined spends on defense. And astonishingly, to me anyway, that eye-watering figure doesn’t include all of the costs of the two wars we are currently waging in the Middle East! Some of those costs are considered off-budget appropriations, so aren’t accounted for in the budget; some, like logistics and pay for civilian mercenaries security firms, aren’t considered part of the defense budget; and so on.

      Perhaps most disappointing to me is the amount we spend on interest on the national debt. When we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, almost all of the expenses are financed through borrowing, much of it from China; we currently spend $187.8 BN, or more than 75 times the cost of the Curiosity mission(!), just on interest to service that debt. (Fun fact: When Clinton was in office, we had a balanced Federal budget. Our deficit had turned into a budget surplus, which the Clinton administration had intended to use to pay down the national debt.)

      Even with all this, though, it’s not either/or. The Federal government spends tremendous amounts of money on social and infrastructure projects, both here and abroad. Last year, for instance, we spent $28.2 BN on international humanitarian aid in 2011.

      Now, I certainly do think there are things we spend taxpayer money on that would be better spent solving problems here at home rather than…err, creating them. For example, we spent $11 BN developing the XM2001 Crusader self-propelled howitzer, an enormous mammoth artillery vehicle that has little or no use on the modern battlefield. That $11 BN produced one prototype, which will never see action.

      I personally think that $11 BN could have been spent much more productively on almost anything else…better transportation infrastructure, say, or more schools, or eighteen months of free potato chips for all US citizens.

  6. But aren’t most of the items on your chart what individuals spend money on and not taxes spent on government programs to help the poor? I think that’s what most people mean when they say funds should go to public benefit programs over space programs.

    Edit: Maybe I’ll just speak for me instead of “most people”.

  7. Very true

    These are things that individuals are choosing to spend money on instead of using it toward things like clean water projects. That is, money they can direct where they want to direct it. I don’t know, but I suspect, that the vast majority of those who complain about money not going toward such worthy humanitarian projects as clean water projects are themselves choosing to spend money they have direct control of toward things like alcohol, cigarettes, financing their church ($29 Billion per year in the U.S. and Canada), and the other things on the chart.

    These are choices that they, themselves are making about where money they directly and immediately control is used.

    Complaining about the uses of public funds is one thing – and an easy thing. Putting your money where your mouth is is another.

    (This is not an attack on yourself, for all I know you donate generously toward humanitarian projects, just commentary on the behavior of people in general.)

  8. Huh. I didn’t buy or make use of any of those things. I did, of course, pay US taxes which went towards funding of Curiosity. I consider that good use of my money 🙂

  9. Huh. I didn’t buy or make use of any of those things. I did, of course, pay US taxes which went towards funding of Curiosity. I consider that good use of my money 🙂

  10. Where we choose to spend

    It’s true – these are things that individuals are choosing to spend money on instead of using it toward things like clean water projects. That is, money they can direct where they want to direct it. I don’t know, but I suspect, that the vast majority of those who complain about money not going toward such worthy humanitarian projects as clean water projects are themselves choosing to spend money they have direct control of toward things like alcohol, cigarettes, financing their church ($29 Billion per year in the U.S. and Canada), and the other things on the chart.

    These are choices that they, themselves are making about where money they directly and immediately control is used.

    Complaining about the uses of public funds is one thing – and an easy thing. Putting your money where your mouth is is another.

    (This is not an attack on anyone here, for all I know we donate generously toward humanitarian projects, just commentary on the behavior of people in general.)

  11. Where we choose to spend

    It’s true – these are things that individuals are choosing to spend money on instead of using it toward things like clean water projects. That is, money they can direct where they want to direct it. I don’t know, but I suspect, that the vast majority of those who complain about money not going toward such worthy humanitarian projects as clean water projects are themselves choosing to spend money they have direct control of toward things like alcohol, cigarettes, financing their church ($29 Billion per year in the U.S. and Canada), and the other things on the chart.

    These are choices that they, themselves are making about where money they directly and immediately control is used.

    Complaining about the uses of public funds is one thing – and an easy thing. Putting your money where your mouth is is another.

    (This is not an attack on anyone here, for all I know we donate generously toward humanitarian projects, just commentary on the behavior of people in general.)

  12. Great chart, and wonderful post. To make the chart even more effective, I’d compare each thing for seven years, or compare the ENTIRE NASA budget with comparable numbers. For example:



  13. Great chart, and wonderful post. To make the chart even more effective, I’d compare each thing for seven years, or compare the ENTIRE NASA budget with comparable numbers. For example:



  14. Yes, people do make that argument; in fact, someone has already made that argument on Facebook.

    It’s not entirely 100% accurate; for example, a surprisingly large amount of taxpayer money ends up going to the NFL. The cost of a city to host a single Superbowl is jaw-dropping, and it’s a sunk cost; typically, hosting a Superbowl brings back about one-third the money in revenue that it does in taxpayer expenditure. So that’s one example of taxpayer money being spent on something nonessential. (Fun fact: The taxpayer subsidies for the last seven Superbowls added together is greater than the cost of the Curiosity mission.)

    In a way, though, the argument fails because taxpayer money is individual money, paid to the government. Most of the folks I’ve seen make the taxpayer argument seem to be saying “I want more money to go to feed hungry children, but I don’t want to spend less on roses for Mother’s Day or on Halloween candy to make it happen, and I don’t want higher taxes either…I just want someone else to pay for it.”

    A chart similar to this one could be made for government spending, and that chart shows that the total taxpayer expenditure on space exploration is tiny indeed. And when you compare the space program’s budget to the cost paying for things like tax cuts for the wealthy, the difference gets even more eye-watering.

    For example, when George W. Bush cut the highest tax rate on the wealthiest people in the country, he reduced the amount of money coming into the government by a smidge over $215 billion a year, or almost nine times the total cost of the Curiosity program. (Fun fact: For the same amount of money, it would have been possible to restructure the tax code so that everyone making less than $60,000 a year paid no income tax at all.)

    Most folks don’t see tax cuts as a cost, though they are. In terms of direct costs, one of the biggest expenses, accounting for a quarter of all spending, is defense spending. In 2011, direct appropriations for defense spending hit $928.5 BN, which is more than the entire rest of the world combined spends on defense. And astonishingly, to me anyway, that eye-watering figure doesn’t include all of the costs of the two wars we are currently waging in the Middle East! Some of those costs are considered off-budget appropriations, so aren’t accounted for in the budget; some, like logistics and pay for civilian mercenaries security firms, aren’t considered part of the defense budget; and so on.

    Perhaps most disappointing to me is the amount we spend on interest on the national debt. When we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, almost all of the expenses are financed through borrowing, much of it from China; we currently spend $187.8 BN, or more than 75 times the cost of the Curiosity mission(!), just on interest to service that debt. (Fun fact: When Clinton was in office, we had a balanced Federal budget. Our deficit had turned into a budget surplus, which the Clinton administration had intended to use to pay down the national debt.)

    Even with all this, though, it’s not either/or. The Federal government spends tremendous amounts of money on social and infrastructure projects, both here and abroad. Last year, for instance, we spent $28.2 BN on international humanitarian aid in 2011.

    Now, I certainly do think there are things we spend taxpayer money on that would be better spent solving problems here at home rather than…err, creating them. For example, we spent $11 BN developing the XM2001 Crusader self-propelled howitzer, an enormous mammoth artillery vehicle that has little or no use on the modern battlefield. That $11 BN produced one prototype, which will never see action.

    I personally think that $11 BN could have been spent much more productively on almost anything else…better transportation infrastructure, say, or more schools, or eighteen months of free potato chips for all US citizens.

  15. Fix the graph!

    Why oh why did you screw up the illustration for this excellent data and the excellent point it makes?

    Please, correct the graph so that the other values are for 7 year accumulations, or so that the Curiosity value is for only one year.

    The idiots that need to see this graph do not read the article and do not listen to explanations about how it’s even worse than it looks and have already proven that they have no capacity for estimating and visualizing relative values.

  16. Fix the graph!

    Why oh why did you screw up the illustration for this excellent data and the excellent point it makes?

    Please, correct the graph so that the other values are for 7 year accumulations, or so that the Curiosity value is for only one year.

    The idiots that need to see this graph do not read the article and do not listen to explanations about how it’s even worse than it looks and have already proven that they have no capacity for estimating and visualizing relative values.

  17. I heard a conservative speaker once who said “The US spent almost as much on pornography as they did on organized sports last year” My first thought was…we’d be a healthier society if they spent more on porn than they did on gladiator games organized sports.

    K.

  18. I heard a conservative speaker once who said “The US spent almost as much on pornography as they did on organized sports last year” My first thought was…we’d be a healthier society if they spent more on porn than they did on gladiator games organized sports.

    K.

  19. Good point. When I made that comment it was the first few days of the Olympics and that’s all I was hearing about, I just wasn’t thinking.

    When somebody complains about their taxes being wasted on something I often like to point out that I didn’t support the Iraq war so if they think they should be able to get their taxes back because they don’t support NASA or Obamacare or something similar, then I should get my taxes back for the Iraq war because I didn’t support it, I spoke out against it, and I still think it was a misuse of funds.

  20. Good point. When I made that comment it was the first few days of the Olympics and that’s all I was hearing about, I just wasn’t thinking.

    When somebody complains about their taxes being wasted on something I often like to point out that I didn’t support the Iraq war so if they think they should be able to get their taxes back because they don’t support NASA or Obamacare or something similar, then I should get my taxes back for the Iraq war because I didn’t support it, I spoke out against it, and I still think it was a misuse of funds.

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