Oct 1, 2022 - Economy

Who's really spending longtermist billions

Illustration of a giant Benjamin Franklin peering over the earth

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

A 1,260-pound spacecraft, traveling at 13,680 miles per hour, obliterated itself on Monday by smashing — deliberately — into an asteroid moonlet called Dimorphos.

Why it matters: The $324.5 million program, known as DART, is just part of the broader NASA project known as "planetary defense" — which, even now that DART is largely over, will continue to be funded to the tune of $142.7 million per year.

Yes, but: The $142.7 million is $55 million more than NASA asked for; Congress is telling NASA to hurry up and spend more money, more quickly, to reach its mandate of identifying 90% of near-Earth objects greater than 140 meters in diameter.

The big picture: This is the sort of spending that governments are supposed to be bad at.

  • A 2010 report by the National Research Council (NRC), with the wonderful title "Defending Planet Earth," admits that the roughly 100 lives per year lost on average to asteroid impacts is probably "trivial in the general scheme of things."
  • The catch, of course, is that the average conceals massive variation — and that a large impact could pose existential risk. (Just ask the dinosaurs.)

The problem of asteroid impacts, concludes the NRC, is simultaneously “extremely important” and “extremely rare.”

  • Asteroid 2005 ED224, for instance, is only 50 meters in diameter — about the same size as the Tunguska event of 1908, and much smaller than anything NASA is looking for. It's the closest thing to a present risk that Earth faces, but when it passes our planet on March 11, there's only going to be a 0.0002% chance of collision.

What they're saying: Charitable foundations are necessary, wrote Stanford professor Rob Reich in a highly influential 2013 essay, insofar as they "take on the long-run, high-risk policy experiments that no one else will."

  • "Public officials in a democracy do not have an incentive structure that rewards high-risk, long time horizon experimentation; they need to show results quickly from the expenditure of public dollars in order to get re-elected."

Between the lines: The best-case outcome of the planetary defense budget — essentially a billion-dollar insurance policy of unknowable utility — is that it's wasted and never needs to be put to the test.

  • If it does get put to use, the politicians who funded it will almost certainly all be long dead. And yet, those same politicians, over the past decade, have joined forces across the aisle to provide the planetary defense project with a nine-figure annual budget.

The bottom line: The longtermist project in philanthropy is dedicated to the proposition that wealthy individuals can and must step in to protect the planet from risks that governments are too myopic to address.

  • The DART program stands as an implicit rebuke to that thesis — especially since there is no chance that it would have ever been funded via private philanthropy.
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