Sunday, October 29, 2006

On to Mars: how space exploration helps pay the bills here on Earth

Editor's note: This column was first published in January, 2004.

Now that we've had time to hear the predictable cracks about President Bush wanting to send human beings to live on the Moon and Mars ("Maybe he'll find the WMD up there," etc.), let's analyze the cost-benefit ratio of the proposal. The argument that the money would be better spent here on earth lacks logic. NASA appropriations are less than one percent of the annual federal budget. For every dollar we put into space exploration, we spend dozens on social programs and other earthly needs. NASA's costs, measured as either a portion of the Gross Domestic Product or the federal budget, are tiny. It would seem we could earmark that relatively small amount money for scientific inquiry without starving any orphans or forcing senior citizens to eat dog food.

Having said that, it must be noted that most arguments in favor of space exploration are almost as lame as the arguments against it. We can't count on discovering vast new resources of anything useful out there, and so far as providing humanity with alternative survival environments, human nature doesn't change through travel, no matter how far we go. If we are inclined to poison the planet and blow ourselves up on Earth, it's reasonable to believe colonists on the Moon or Mars will carry the seeds of the same madness with them.

There's just one good reason to send people to explore and possibly colonize other worlds: A reinvigorated space program will generate spinoff benefits that will pay its own costs, and then some. Historically, that dynamic has been working for decades.

Consider: Human productivity has been greatly increased through applications of the info-tech revolution. Those advances were initially made affordable through the huge decrease in the cost of computer chips, paired with a massive increase in the amount of data they hold. The chips got cheap and efficient because the Department of Defense needed a lot of them for high-tech military equipment, while NASA had to make everything on spacecraft smaller and lighter in order to increase mission payloads (space exploration and national defense have been joined at the hip since the 1950s, for reasons we'll get into later). The big costs of any new technology are the startup expenses, the research and development. Once you've got a production line cranking out a given item, the per-unit cost soon drops from dollars to cents.

So it's reasonable to postulate that because the U.S. poured money into improved technology for defense and the space race, the standard of living for everyone in America, and indeed the world, has been improved. The reason so little credit for that increased productivity (and, by logical extension, wealth) has accrued to expenditures on space and defense is, the money goes out in large, identifiable chunks and trickles back in, via higher profits and salaries, through thousands of private companies.

The thing to remember is, no science occurs in a vacuum. For instance, when former Senator Jesse Helms decried the millions spent researching AIDS, a disease which kills fewer Americans than heart disease or cancer, he was technically correct, but also incredibly short-sighted. AIDS researchers study viruses and how they break down the human immunological system, so what they learn has instant crossover implications for virology and immunology. With deadly viruses locked in a perpetual arms race against human ingenuity, aren't we glad all that money was spent on AIDS research?

What too few of us understand is that when scientists publish their findings in order to get the credit they're due, other scientists read those publications, then use the information in their own projects. And we all profit thereby.

Back to the defense-space program relationship: When Sputnik began orbiting, as explained in Tom Wolf's "The Right Stuff," the U.S. military was very concerned with potential Soviet domination of "the high ground." Our space program has its historical roots in military necessity, which in and of itself is enough to make some of us despise it. It's no coincidence that many of the same people who would de-fund NASA also think too much is spent on our military.

Also, while scientists have said for years that unmanned missions were safer and cheaper than manned ones, Congress wouldn't fund exclusively unmanned programs. That's because we, the taxpaying public, has never had the enthusiasm for robots that we've had for our astronauts. Or, as appropriations committee members used to remark, "No bucks without Buck Rogers."

All that notwithstanding, increased human productivity through the side benefits of the first four-and-a-half decades of human space exploration have expanded human knowledge while creating bonus wealth to help pay for all the things we need on Earth, including feeding orphans and keeping senior citizens from having to eat dog food. Who knows what unanticipated benefits lurk within a Mars colony?

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Price controls on prescriptions: Killing the goose that laid the golden egg

By Mark Dorroh

The fable of the goose that laid the golden egg should be mandatory reading for anyone publicly discussing the "soaring prices of prescription drugs" in America today. The fable goes like this: A poor peasant discovers one morning that his prized possession, a fine, fat goose, has laid a solid gold egg. Each morning thereafter, there's another egg, and soon the formerly poor man is wealthy.

But greed gets the better of him. One day, as he's counting his wealth and wishing he had even more, he gets to thinking, "If there's one egg each morning, how many more must there be inside the goose? It would be the mother lode!" So he cuts open the goose, looking for the source of the wealth, and discovers that all he's got now is a dead goose.

This story has a moral applicable to a number of current issues, none more so than the debate over prescription drug costs and the pending plans to lower them through government price negotiations with drug companies.

To get a full understanding of what's at stake, let's go back in time. In 2004, the Associated Press reported "about a dozen states are exploring ways to buy cheap prescription drugs from Canada and make them widely available to Americans, even though importing the drugs is illegal."

The story goes on to say representatives from the states met with Canadian drug companies which say they can deliver the same drugs bought here in the U.S.A. at 40 to 60 percent off. "Drugs from Canada are generally made by the same pharmaceutical companies, but price controls keep their costs to about half those in the United States," states the A.P.

Those Canadian government-capped prices are why individual Americans in border states make regular trips to Canada to buy at the lower prices. But importation for resale is forbidden. ‘‘Drugs are cheaper in Canada — how do we bring these drugs into the states?’’ asked Tom Susman, acting administration secretary for West Virginia. ‘‘If they work better, and the cost is cheaper, I think it’s legitimate."

The drugs they're talking about were, for the most part, invented by American drug companies. One reason they're more expensive in America is, even though our government taxes the living bejumpus out of the companies and their workers, it does not limit profits that can be made with a popular drug.

Accordingly, investors from around the world know if they put their money into an American drug company, their investment will be risky but potentially more profitable than investments in other sectors. Consider; in 2004, an article in the Journal of Health Economics estimated the cost of researching, developing, testing and bringing a new drug to market at $802 million. Add to that the information in the journal Pharmaeconomics that only three out of ten new drugs recoup research and development costs and generate profits, and one begins to perceive the dimensions of an investor's conundrum. Would any sane investor take such a long-shot risk if the potential for profit was not commiserate?

Everybody knows how betting on a long-shot works. If your horse goes off at 15 - 1, you'll win more money if it wins than if you'd backed the 2 - 1 favorite. Investors also understand the concept of the long shot. The drug company they put their money into may invent the next Prozac and reap billions, or might have a streak of unprofitable projects which don't get back the money spent on research and development.

In some cases the company can be sued out of business, leaving investors with nothing, not even a devalued stock to sell and get back pennies on the dollar. Under those circumstances, would it be wise to cap the "winnings" of investors who choose the right company? I think not.

Look at it from their perspective; if they make no more buying drug company shares than they do buying Sony or General Motors, why not choose the less risky investment? And if that pool of capital dries up due to price caps (or the virtual price caps imposed by government-drug company negotiations), where do drug companies get the money they need to hire scientists to invent the next generation of miracle drugs?

If you think the answer is "federal or state government," please do a little research into the history of government appropriations. Do we really want decisions on which drugs to fund for development made by the same folks who, during the military procurement scandals of the 1980s, bought $3,000 coffee makers and $100 hex wrenches?

On the issue of all the supposedly "unconscionably expensive drugs" available these days, it must be noted that of course drugs cost more than they used to. They also do more than they used to. And dollar for dollar, they're generally much cheaper and more effective than the old treatments, including some dangerous major surgeries now made obsolete by those pricey drugs.


Market "fairness" seems to be an obsession of many on the anti-corporate side of the drug debate, so let's talk about fairness for a minute. Specifically, let us ask the question, "why is it fair for a sports star to make millions, but not the people who invest in companies which invent drugs that save lives?"

For our follow-up questions, let us inquire, "Wouldn't you want those folks to make lots and lots of money, so they'll keep investing in the creation of lots and lots of new, useful drugs?" and, "Is the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars in the next generation of drugs less important than paying tens of millions of dollars to some guy with excellent eye-hand coordination?"

Bottom line: Limiting wages, prices and profits has been tried at various times in various countries, and has never worked. How many useful drugs did the late U.S.S.R. create, despite its extensive corps of world-class scientists? Or for that matter, how many new drugs have been invented by the many world-class researchers working in Canada's price-capped environment?

So here's the deal: We can keep feeding our goose the best, most expensive food we can find and continue thereby to benefit from its golden eggs, or we can feed our goose cheaply and think we're getting a better deal. But the history of invention and investment strongly suggests that the creation of the next generation of life-saving drugs will not be among the dividends of cheap goose food.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Such a beautiful penumbra

Editor's note: This post was initially written as a series of newspaper columns during and immediately after the confirmation hearings of US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito. I flatter myself to believe it holds up well in retrospect, and continues to provide important information on the much-ballyhood issue of "constitutional constructionist" theory as well as the much-despised label "judicial activist."

According to the Oxford Dictionary and Thesaurus, a "penumbra" is "the partially shaded outer part of a shadow." In legal terms, it has come to mean the fringe area of implied rights surrounding defined rights. Within this penumbra of Constitutional rights exists today’s most controversial right of all; the right to privacy.

According to the Legal Information Institute Web site at, "The personal autonomy dimension of the right of privacy has been overwhelmingly developed in cases dealing with reproductive rights ... The Supreme Court first recognized an independent right of privacy within the 'penumbra' of the Bill of Rights in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965. In this case, a right of marital privacy was invoked to void a law prohibiting contraception."

Although lots of Righties would like to pretend otherwise, in authoring the Griswold opinion, Justice William O. Douglas clearly expressed his reluctance in encouraging the high court to engage in judicial activism.

"We do not sit as a super-legislature to determine the wisdom, need, and propriety of laws that touch economic problems, business affairs, or social conditions," he wrote. But Douglas also clearly believed the court was obligated to declare the anti-contraception Connecticut law unconstitutional. His next sentence explains why the Griswold opinion, and by logical extension, subsequent opinions based in the right to privacy, is consistent with constitutional law.

"This [anti-contraception] law, however, operates directly on an intimate relation of husband and wife and their physician's role in one aspect of that relation," wrote Douglas.

According to the Legal Information Institute, "Later cases expanded upon this fundamental right, and in Roe v. Wade in 1973 the right of privacy was firmly established under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. The court classified this right as fundamental, and thus required any governmental infringement to be justified by a compelling state interest. Roe held that the state's compelling interest in preventing abortion and protecting the life of the mother outweighs a mother's personal autonomy only after viability [the stage of development in which the fetus is able to respire outside the womb]. Before viability, it was held, the mother's liberty of personal privacy limits state interference due to the lack of a compelling state interest."

To those who seek to overturn Roe (including Norma Covey, the woman whose desire to have an abortion in 1973 brought the case to the attention of the high court), the right to privacy, since it is never explicitly mentioned in the Bill of Rights, is legal fiction. Many doctrinaire conservatives want it to disappear. One can easily sympathize with them; abortion destroys millions of human lives each year. And Justice Douglas was rather well known for his propensity to identify constitutional rights where none had been noticed previously.

But we who call ourselves Libertarian Conservatives get very nervous whenever this "created" right is challenged.

Why? Because the Constitution also fails to mention the principle of innocence until proven guilt, the right to be married, the right to travel, the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the right to vote and the essential democratic principle of "no taxation without representation."

Douglas wrote about similar implied rights in the Griswold opinion, noting that if only explicit rights were real, a lot of liberties we take for granted would cease to exist.

"The association of people is not mentioned in the Constitution nor in the Bill of Rights," he wrote. "The right to educate a child in a school of the parents' choice - whether public or private or parochial - is also not mentioned. Nor is the right to study any particular subject or any foreign language. Yet the First Amendment has been construed to include certain of those rights."

To me, that doesn't sound so terribly liberal, and it certainly does not sound like the opinion of a judicial activist.

Finally, it should be noted that the right to privacy exists in the penumbra around not one, but several constitutional amendments and the liberties they protect. Those include due process and equal protection under the law as well as the right to peaceably assemble with whomever we choose for any legal reason, the right to not have religious beliefs endorsed by the state and the right to be protected against unreasonable search and seizure.

Are we willing to minimize and restrict all those rights just because they imply that one's own home (or, in the case of a pregnant woman seeking an elective abortion, one's own body) is one's castle?

In the context of future hearings on any Supreme Court nominee, I believe penumbral rights should be discussed extensively. Every American should know who thinks government should have broader latitude to invade the privacy of law-abiding citizens, to what extent ... and toward what ends.


When the confirmation hearings of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito were going on, there was some discussion of schools of constitutional jurisprudence. To my way of thinking, that discussion didn’t go on either long enough or deeply enough.

Here's why: President Bush, during his two campaigns and many times afterwards, has often publicly expressed his desire to nominate “constitutional constructionists.” On the face of it, that sounded pretty good to this Libertarian Conservative. That good feeling faded as I did my research. I discovered that the term "constitutional constructionist" has no single definition. As a matter of actual fact, the term can mean pretty much anything.


An Internet syllabus for a college Justice 401 course at informed me that there were three main schools of constructionism; Original Intent, Textualism and Precedent. The syllabus defines "Original Intent, aka Original History," as a method based in the "intended meanings of [the Constitution's] words." Original Intent judges believe the Framers carefully considered and debated each word "precisely to produce neutral principles of law." The strengths of Original Intent are consistency and the preservation of rights for all time.

Critics of that flavor of constructionism, according to the syllabus, contend that "it can be easily used to disguise ideological ends, that the framers were not of one mind and [that] historical records are lost."

In regard to the alleged loss of historical records, I find myself at a loss: I was pretty sure copies of The Federalist Papers were widely published in 1789 and have been available ever since ... Oh well, live and learn.

On the 2005 court, the syllabus stated, "the leading proponents of original intent are Justice Stevens and to a lesser extent, Justice Ginsburg."

Another school of constructionism, "Textualism, aka Literalism - the Plain Words approach, [relies upon the] ordinary meanings of words." Justice Scalia and the late Chief Justice Rehnquist are named as its chief proponents. To them, "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press" meant exactly that. The idea behind Textualism is to produce "value-free jurisprudence," although we LibCons have a lot of trouble with some of the value-rich decisions written by Scalia on issues involving sex and/or religion.

Under the "Precedent" school of constructionism (otherwise called the "stare decisis" or "let the decision stand" approach), the court looks at its own previous decisions for wisdom and direction. Its leading proponents were former Justice O'Connor and former Chief Justice Rehnquist. Its perceived weakness is hidebound support for outmoded doctrines.

But carefully adhering to precedent does not make reversals impossible; in some cases, it makes them mandatory.

For instance, the court carefully followed precedent in Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education, the 1954 ruling which overturned Plessy vs. Ferguson. Plessy was the 19th century "separate but equal" ruling underpinning legal racial segregation. Looking at evidence presented by plaintiffs and using the precedent approach, the court found separate schools to be inherently unequal, invalidating the conditional crux of Plessy.

Thus did the stare decisis-based Brown decision adhere not only to precedent but also to common sense and common human decency.

The "living Constitution" schools: moral relativism by another name

The schools of judicial thought president George W. Bush abhors are those which seek to treat the Constitution as "a living document," adjustable via current conventional wisdom on social and political issues.

Chief among those methods is "structuralism" which the syllabus says makes courts "more concerned with remedy-making than rule-making ... in other words, the more judges justify their decisions on grounds that they are good for society ... the more divorced they are from any ethical decision-making ... "

Those types of pseudo-jurisprudence look at law as a tool historically employed by the wealthy, white, male or other despised classes (usually ethnic or religious in nature) to keep society's salt-of-the-earth plebeians down and themselves ascendant. The mission of structualist jurists is not to end the injustice so much as to turn the tables on the despised class for the benefit of its perceived victims.

Thus, Hitler justified his persecution of Jews and political dissidents by claiming they had victimized Germans for generations. Stalin said likewise of the wealthy peasant kulak farmers of the U.S.S.R.

In both cases, Nazis and Marxists used a doctrine of remediation of imagined historical wrongs to justify the looting of wealth created by the despised classes. Structuralists are the true judicial activists. They cheerfully use the courts to get what they can't get at the ballot box. Liberals employ judicial activism to effect sweeping social change; conservatives use it to enforce severe doctrines of regressive social policy. When a conservative justice decides the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment only forbids creation of a formal state church, he/she is acting as a structuralist who believes religion, even when government-endorsed, is good for people.

Ditto a liberal judge who decides, in a case involving race or gender, that it's his/her job to guarantee equality of economic outcome rather than to merely uphold constitutional guarantees of due process and equality before the law. Both sides engage in rampant judicial activism while taking to task the other side for doing the exact same thing in its pursuit of a different agenda.

Were God indeed just, She would bring back to life James Madison and Alexander Hamilton just long enough to put paid to this pernicious threat to our essential liberties by Conventional Wisdom Lefties and Righties alike ...