That Which is Not Seen: Oil & Tang Edition

I think that most (okay, all) public policy choices have advantages and disadvantages, costs and benefits. We can decide whether or not to pursue each, or compare them, by looking at the costs and benefits of each.

And if we really want to make a strong case we call one choice good (by being ignoring or being ignorant of the costs) or bad (by being ignoring or being ignorant of the benefits). I offer an example of each below.

First, an example of the latter. Dr. Boudreaux’s recent column shows how many people conclude that petroleum is on-net bad, because they blatantly ignore or are ignorant of the numerous benefits. It’s really a fantastic column.

In praise of petroleum – Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: A young woman approached me recently after one of my economics lectures and showed me a photograph of a pelican covered with oil from the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Waving the photo in my face, she asked, “How can you tolerate this?” Good question. It made me realize that every newspaper across the country should publish a front-page picture of asphalt. Any old stretch of road will do. Photograph it. Print it. Post it on websites.

And now for the former. A few weeks ago I contacted NASA and requested one of their free (yeah, I know, not really free, just work with me here ;-)) 2011 Spinoff books. This is a NASA publication (grab the free 15MB PDF) in which the organization argues that all of the money spent on NASA is good because of the various technologies that have come from it. Now maybe Tang and various other technologies were worth it? But there are at least two items missing from a coherent assessment.

1. What is the value (NPV?) of all of the technologies compared to all of the money spent on NASA over the years? I don’t know the answer, and I’d be very leery of anyone who claimed to know.

2. What might have been created with those resources but never was because it was crowded-out and taken by government? This we can never know. It’s Bastiat’s “what is unseen.”

Additional links:
NASA Spinoff Homepage
It’s Worth Seeing Again: The Broken Window Fallacy
The Truth about Fracking