Thursday, October 09, 2008

Planetariums and presidential politics

In Tuesday's presidential debate, John McCain accused Barack Obama of asking for $3 million for the Adler Planetarium to get a new "overhead projector." Now, for me, an overhead projector looks like this:
A typical overhead projector
If three million dollars were being spent on that, I'd agree it is a horrid waste of money, since I can buy one of those machines for $160 at OfficeMax.

BUT, that is not what the Adler Planetarium wanted. They needed a new Zeiss star projector, which looks something like this:

Zeiss projector
complete with computer controls and precision optics. Combined with other multimedia equipment, these machines are the centerpiece of any planetarium. And such technology ain't cheap; it takes more than a 60 watt light bulb and a screen to get this puppy to work.

There are many other bloggers (three separate links there) who discuss this issue in more detail; I won't repeat their arguments here.

Basically, the money was a request for a science education project in Chicago. If people want to debate if that money is worthwhile, fine. If people want to debate if and how projects should be specified in the federal budget, fine. But to state that this request is for an "overhead projector" is an intentional effort to mislead the public, the sort of mis-statement that McCain has claimed to oppose throughout his career (a stance I admired him for). And this seemingly throw-away statement does far more than just try and make Obama look bad -- intentionally or not, it belittles the fine folks at Adler Planetarium who have dedicated their lives to science education, at the cost of being grossly underpaid and underappreciated for their significant talents in both science and education.

Finally, let's look at this year's federal budget. The budget deficit for fiscal year 2008 was about $438 billion. So, let's take this three million off of there. Now the federal budget deficit would have been $437.997 billion. In fact, let's take off every earmark "pork" project in the 2008 budget, about $10 billion. Now the budget would be down to $428 billion. Hmm, not much better. In fact, we would have to cut 90% of the non-military, non-mandatory federal budget ($487 billion in fiscal year 2008) to solve the budget deficit. 90% cuts in homeland security, education, energy, transportation, health, science -- everything, except the military, social security, medicare, and interest payments on the debt. Face it, folks, pork barrel spending is barely a drop in the bucket of our federal budget deficit.

We've got big budget problems. While $3 million may sound like a lot, it's peanuts compared to the choices that will have to be made if we want to cut the deficit significantly. This country has big problems with finances, infrastructure, external security threats. Whether Adler Planetarium gets its $3 million or not will not affect any of those problems in the slightest. Instead of railing against science education, let's have our presidential candidates talk about things that are important, like the trillions of dollars that have been lost in the stock market. (Let's see, for $3 trillion, I could buy a million Zeiss overhead projectors...) Or the 10 million people who are unemployed (if we cancel the Adler planetarium outlay, we can give each of them 33 cents). Or the 30,000 American soldiers that have been wounded in Iraq. Or the fact that Osama Bin Laden is still a free man, despite having killed over 2700 Americans. Compared to these issues, the Adler Planetarium doesn't seem like an issue that should decide who our next president should be.

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