Saturday, 20 October 2007

Bucks, Boomers, and Buck Rogers

That innocuous graphic shows that we have a decidedly nocuous problem.

At the end of the Second World War, which depending on how you define it, killed between 50 and 200 million people (mainly in China), there was a Zeitgeist that War was over. Great Evils had been overcome, the witch was dead, and it was safe to say the name Voldemort.

Literally millions of men, soldiers, came home over the next few years. Some POWs, some victorious occupiers, but in the main, just men wanting to beat swords into ploughshares and forget the horrors they had seen. Maybe start a family, have a normal life.

That led to the "Baby Boom". A huge surge of children, and with the improvements in medical care, infant mortality dropped too. The graph shows the picture 20 years later, as more of the children born in the late 40s and early 50s entered the workforce.

The strains on infrastructure in the 50's, with then extra demands for schools and so on, had echoes in succeeding generations, as the "boomers" children, and then grandchildren, caused peaks in demographic groups. Those peaks have been smoothed out as some people decided to have children later in life. For example, I was born in 1958, my son in 2001, so although he's the child of a tail-end boomer, he overlaps with the grandchildren of early boomers. The peaks are blurred. The demographic shockwaves are still being felt by town planners though.

But now we have the first ripple of what has been called a "tsunami of spending".

From Fox News, one of the few media organisations that gave the numbers:
David Walker, the comptroller general of the Government Accountability Office, Congress' legislative arm, warned the Social Security system will soon have more recipients coming than it can afford to pay out.

"We face a tsunami of spending due primarily to the retirement of the baby boom generation and rising health care costs," Walker said. "So what's happened is we've gone from 16 workers paying into Social Security for every person drawing benefits in 1950 to 3.3 to one today, and we're going down to two to one by the time the boomers retire in big numbers and that's about where it will stay over the long run."
The tax burden on younger people has already increased nearly five times, but it will have to nearly double again in future.

But wait, it's worse than that - in the USA anyway.
Under current law, Social Security won't have enough money to pay promised benefits in 2041 but there is another crunch much, much sooner, the result of the the federal government relying on Social Security to pay for its annual spending.

When Social Security gets payroll taxes it pays out most of the money in benefits. The rest is supposed to go into a trust fund. Instead the government has been spending the money on other government programs, and putting IOUs into the trust. When Social Security needs the money it'll turn to the government waiting for the payback. But the government won't likely have any.
The loan is expected to be called in 2017, when the largest bloc of the boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — will be retiring. By the mid 2020s, the federal government will have to fork over more than $200 billion a year, and then it climbs to more than $300 billion a year.

At the same time, all that is money that was being used for federal programs will no longer be available, meaning everything — from education to defense to the environment — will face a financial crunch.
What was a "cash cow", a convenient place to raid for top-up funds, will soon become something of a Vampire, sucking the fiduciary blood out of government. Ok, so how bad could it be? Things like this happen all the time, Governments take out loans, they get repaid. But this time the numbers are a bit concerning. You see, Social Security is just part of the problem.
Walker said over the next 75 years between Social Security, Medicaid and other entitlements, the federal government will be in a $50 trillion hole.

"Social Security represents about $6.4 trillion of that. Medicare represents $32 trillion of that. The surprising thing is that Social Security is the easy thing to fix," Walker said. Fifty trillion dollars, to put it in perspective, is 95 percent of the estimated net worth of every American including every billionaire. Fifty trillion dollars is $440,000 per American household."
And that gets me to the budget of NASA, and the US Space Programme. Or Program, as they say in the US.

From nearly 2 years ago:
The House Science Committee's Republican chairman and senior Democrat told NASA Administrator Mike Griffin they had little interest in accelerating the U.S. space agency's exploration plans at the expense of science and research.

Griffin appeared before the House Science Committee Thursday to defend his agency's 2007 budget request of $16.792 billion, which would hold science spending to a 1.5-percent increase next year in order to fund a nearly $1 billion increase for exploration. NASA plans to postpone or cancel several major science missions to help free up the additional money its needs to build new spacecraft and launchers while also operating a space shuttle fleet slated to fly 16 missions to the international space station before its retired in 2010.

"I am extremely uneasy about this budget, and I am in a quandary at this point about what to do about it," Boehlert told Griffin. "This budget is bad for space science, worse for Earth science, perhaps worse still for aeronautics. It basically cuts or de-emphasizes every forward looking, truly futuristic program of the agency to fund operational and development programs to enable us to do what we are already doing or have done before."
The near future is likely to be as described by Mark Whittington's article Hillary Clinton Declares War on Space Exploration:
On the surface, the Hillary Clinton space agenda appears to be long on platitudes and short on substance. But then, upon closer examination, one begins to have cause for alarm.

The phrase "a balanced strategy of robust human spaceflight, expanded robotic spaceflight, and enhanced space science activities" stands out because of the complaints that have been advanced by certain people, especially in the scientific community, that the current NASA program is "unbalanced." By that it is meant that too much money is being spent on President Bush's space exploration initiative at the expense of space science, Earth science, and aeronautics.

So, Hillary Clinton proposes to have "enhanced space science activities", "full funding for NASA's Earth Sciences program", and reverse "funding cuts to NASA's and FAA's aeronautics funding R&D budget." There are just two ways to accomplish this.

The first way is to add money to NASA funding and distribute the money accordingly. The United States Senate, by a unanimous consent vote, essentially proposed to do just that by adding a billion dollars in emergency spending to the 2008 NASA budget. Ironically Senator Clinton was a cosponsor of the amendment.

The second way is to gut funding for the exploration account and redistribute the money to space science, Earth science, and aeronautics. This appears to be, according to the New York Times, the approach that Hillary Clinton will pursue as President.

"But in a telephone interview afterward, she said that in the short term she would subordinate Bush administration proposals for human exploration of the Moon and Mars to restoring cuts in aeronautics research and space-based studies of climate change and other earth science issues.

"Travel to the Moon or Mars 'excites people,' she said, 'but I am more focused on nearer-term goals I think are achievable.'"

In effect, Senator Clinton has declared war on President Bush's space exploration initiative. This proposal is consistent with policies enacted by President Bill Clinton, which not only cancelled the first President Bush's space exploration initiative but made even the mention of voyages to the Moon and Mars all but forbidden at NASA.
US Government spending over the next 40 years is likely going to be squeezed tighter and tighter. Unless there's a solid foundation, a set of well-defined long-term plans that will survive partisan attack in the troubled times ahead, there will be no "US Manned Space Program". No matter how you spell it.

I've blogged about the Chinese, Russian, Japanese, even the Indian plans to put human beings in space, and even colonise. I haven't blogged recently about the better-funded, more technically advanced and generally superior US effort, sinply because of my doubts about its viability when subject to the vagaries of the US political process. It's inefficient, and just another way of conveying pork to the electorate. Well, the pork barrel is emptying fast.

And the first Baby Boomer retired last week.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I'm more than surprised that Grorge W Bush can be said to have a "space exploration initiative" or aspirations, any more than he has one on global warming...