Monday, September 3, 2012

Ignore the Election. Try a Little Science.

As far as economic growth goes, forget about the Presidential election. Neither party is focused on what really matters: basic scientific research. All great surges in economic growth have resulted from scientific advancement. When humans acquired enough scientific knowledge to engage in agriculture, they were able to grow large surpluses of food. These surpluses were used to support the development of settled societies, with cities, specialized workers, the centralization of knowledge through educational institutions, and control over resources like rivers and their floods. Human populations increased exponentially, as did human wealth.

The leap from a largely agricultural world to an industrialized world began with the development of the steam engine at the end of the 18th Century. The steam engine allowed humans to harness very large quantities of power derived by burning wood, and later fossil fuels. The vast increase in power offered by the steam engine led the way to the railroad, steam ships, giant factories that provided economies of scale, and even a few early cars.

In the 19th Century, the harnessing of electricity led to the telegraph, telephone, small and large scale lights and lighting systems, and all manner of machinery and equipment. New technologies for extracting and utilizing fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas vastly increased the amount of power available to humans, especially through the use of the internal combustion engine that powers almost all motor vehicles today. With that great increase in power came an enormous improvement in living standards.

In the 20th Century, advances in knowledge of electromagnetic radiation gave rise to the radio, television, cell phones and the wireless computers used today (variously called smart phones, tablets, etc.). Advances in agriculture have eliminated a great deal of the hunger that plagued much of the world before World War II. Developments in material sciences led to the semiconductor revolution, which is the foundation of all modern computers. The Internet, invented by [fill in the name of your favorite politician], has revolutionized communication.

In short, the big score comes when humans make major scientific advances and find ways to exploit them. Money printing and interest rate manipulation by the Fed, supply side tax cutting, deficit spending, scorched earth treatment for Medicare and Medicaid, and just about all the other hooey that politicians can't stop talking about don't amount to jack compared to the effectiveness of scientific advance in fostering economic growth. Much and perhaps most of today's political debate revolves around how to split up a seemingly inadequate pie. But the supposed conflicts between the 1% vs. the 99%, older folks vs. younger ones, taxpayers vs. beneficiaries of the social safety net, and so on all become less consequential if the pie expands at a faster rate.

Don't expect private financing sources to support basic scientific research. Private capital wants to reap its profit within a few years, and concentrates on applied science. But applied science doesn't provide lasting prosperity (ask the Japanese, masters of applied science, about this point). Support for basic scientific research is essential to long term prosperity. If there's one item in the federal budget that should be boosted, this is it.

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