Professor Thomas Sargent, Nobel Laureate in Economics and Professor at New York University, presented several points in his Graduation Address at the University of California, Berkeley (his undergraduate alma mater) in 2007.
Sargent’s speech was short, consisting of twelve simple precepts about the discipline of Economics, which he called “organized common sense.” President Obama and the current cast of presidential candidates hoping to succeed him should read and reflect on this speech. A link can be found at the website: .
Sargent’s first point is simple: Many things are desirable but are not feasible.
Simple and clear, is it not? My old thesis director at Johns Hopkins, the late Jurg Niehans used to say, time and time again, that just because a theory makes sense, is easy to understand, and clear, that it is not trivial and irrelevant. It is often the easiest to understand and clearest theories that are first forgotten, overlooked, or misunderstood by policy makers. Obama’s State of the Union is a case in point. As Sargent would note, we face, collectively, feasibility constraints.
As we know, in his 2016 State of the Union, President Obama’s called for more funding for cancer research, comparing this project to Kennedy’s challenge to achieve an American on the moon by the end of the 60’s. The JFK-inspired Apollo Program, of course, was political: to show that Soviet Union, which had beaten us in getting a satellite to orbit the earth, that we are better. However, it is hard to see how the Apollo program was, economically, a wise use of our resources as a nation.
Yes, it is desirable to have a cure for cancer (or several of the many very different types of cancers) in our lifetime, or even next week or tomorrow. However, just because it is desirable does not make it feasible. Scientific progress comes when progress comes, full stop. Ideas come from continuous experimentation as well as insight, as a result of much patience and perseverance in research. Furthermore, it is not as if there is little or no funding for cancer research. There are also numerous non-financial incentives for researchers to work hard, with all due diligence, including prestige among colleagues, promotions, and publicity.
Throwing more and more federal money at cancer research, on top of current funding, does not in any way guarantee that good ideas and insight and cures will materialize sooner rather than later. Less competitive and more lax funding standards, coming from more abundant funding, may, in fact, retard the advent of substantive progress in science. Many sloppy research proposals are more likely to get funded, and of course, with more funds available, managers at research institutions and universities are all too prone to find reasons to increase administrative overhead. Thus much of the additional funding may not go to basic research but into the budgets of administrators for non-research related activities.
Yes, we sympathize with Vice President Biden over the loss of his son to cancer, and President Obama’s desire to respond in a concrete way, as well as Vice President Biden’s desire to leave a legacy in memory of his son. We would like to see less incidence of this scourge. But until a cure arrives, likely piecemeal, for various forms of cancer, we have to make do with preventative, albeit less dramatic, measures, such as continued vigorous anti-smoking campaigns, advocating better diet, exercise, steps for managing and reducing stress, and less consumption of alcohol. Our sympathy with Vice President Biden is not a reason to make far reaching policy decisions.
As Catholics and believing Christians, of course, we can pray. We pray to the Holy Spirit for forgiveness, for inspiration in our daily life, in thanksgiving, and in adoration. We can also pray for the same Holy Spirit to guide researchers engaged in cancer research as well as in all other research leading to greater healing in our human condition. The point of this cautionary note on President Obama’s final State of the Union is that more federal funding is not a panacea for the ills facing the human condition. We should not underestimate the power of prayer and perseverance in research.
Paul D. McNelis, S.J.America’s contributing editor for economics, holds
Update: Father Paul McNelis responds to the comments below:
1. Heart disease kills more each year than cancer and is significantly much more prevalent among low-income minority groups, specifically African Americans, starting from a young age. Why should not heart disease get the same priority as cancer from Vice President Biden? Well we know why. But is this a reason for major public spending on one disease and not another
2. On the Apollo program, one comment seemed to say I was calling for environmental spending. I stated the the Apollo program was not a wise economic use of our national resources. Meaning wealth spent on programs. Clearly the brunt of government spending on Apollo went to the aero-space industry, the high end of the income distribution, which created jobs for high-skilled workers who paid taxes. But as someone in university during the turbulent 60's, I cannot help but think that if only a fraction of the Apollo funding went to inner city schools, with better paid teaching in the inner cities, as well as more widespread head start programs, we would would not be in the mess we are in today in our major cities. My feeling is that the tragedy of Lyndon Johnson is that Great Society programs did not go far enough, in targeting inner city education, especially at the primary level. As well as providing better basic health care to people in the inner cities. Like the Viet Nam war, the Apollo program was not a good use of our national resources. Looking back, both are examples of American hubris.
3. Some question my reference to prayer. I would ask the readers to look at the work of Daniel Sulmasy, M.D, now at the University of Chicago, formerly at Georgetown, where we overlapped. The role of religion, prayer, and pastoral care in medicine are receiving serious attention both in research centers around the country, at places like Chicago. and being published in major medical journals. My point is that effective medical care and progress in treatment of the serious disease are now looking in to the spiritual dimension of human person. This is not just coming from me as a Jesuit priest but from leading researchers at the University of Chicago.
4. Tom Sargent's second point is that communities and individuals face trade-offs in their use of resources. The same if true for governments. Spending more money on cancer research will draw more research activity into this area, away from other research areas, like heart disease and other diseases which affect the more more predominantly. There are costs and benefits to any new spending venture.