Thursday, November 5, 2009

A Krugman from the physical sciences

Having a Nobel Prize winning economist (and in my opinion one of the greatest in history) writing a popular newspaper column has done tremendous good. Before Paul Krugman we had no one who was a great expert on economics writing a weekly popular newspaper column for the general public on economics and political economy. The result was that far too many people learned harmful, or extremely harmful, misconceptions from Robert Samuelsons posing as economists.

Wouldn't it be great if we could have a Paul Krugman for the physical sciences? In fact, we have what looks to be an excellent candidate, Nobel Prize winning physicist Burton Richter. Dr. Ricter is a finalist in the Washington Post's America's Next Great Pundit Contest.

It's extremely important in today's far more advanced world that the public and politicians understand scientific and technological issues and how they relate to politics, economics, and society in general. Ricter's two contest columns show an exceptional ability to meet this need. The first one is especially good, "Separating partisanship from technology". Here is a sample:
So many things in front of our Congress involve science and technology issues, including limiting greenhouse gases, renewable energy programs, equal treatment for all on the Internet, nuclear weapons reliability, computerizing medical records, computer vulnerabilities, etc. It is odd that Congress has no organization of its own to analyze these sorts of things. It has a trusted Congressional Budget Office to referee arguments on program costs, as was done recently on the cost of the Senate health-care reform bill, but Congress has nothing to analyze the impact of technology.

It was not always so. In 1972 Congress decided that knowledge was power and created the Office of Technology Assessment, so that it would have its own nonpartisan organization to look into the effects of technology on legislation and on the country. In 1995 it decided that ignorance was bliss and abolished OTA as part of the Gingrich revolution, in order to save about $20 million out of a congressional budget of $2 billion. It has been blissful ever since, getting its information on science and technology issues from outside organizations that too often have serious conflicts of interest.
And I would add that that $20 million the Republicans "saved" was just 1/350,000th of our $7 trillion GDP in 1995. The smarter science and technology related policy, legislation, and spending that $20 million could have contributed might easily have resulted in an increase in GDP of $20 billion, 200 billion, or much more, and then there are externalities and international benefits. It was an incredibly high return investment. Talk about being penny wise, pound foolish. This was stupid even by Republican standards.

Wouldn't it have been valuable if we had a columnist like Burton Ricter writing about this at the time. Like Paul Krugman, a columnist like this could do tremendous good.


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