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Your tax dollars at work

Forget securing borders and providing healthcare to the needy, we must instead save dead or dying languages:

Thousands of languages are threatened with extinction, and the U.S. government is trying to help save some of them, from the one used by Cherokee Indians to a language spoken by a small group of people in Tibet but never written down.

The project awards $4.4 million to 26 institutions and 13 individual scholars to investigate the status of more than 70 languages among the 6,000 to 7,000 in the world.

28 Responses to “Your tax dollars at work”

  1. Heartless Libertarian Says:

    Yet another reason why I would support an Amendment to give the President a line-item veto.

  2. Steve K. Says:

    Thanks for the heads up – you’re that last true patriot, Uncle. All that cipherin’ and figurin’ and fancy book learnin’ – it don’t amount to nothin’.

  3. SayUncle Says:

    it don’t amount to nothin’

    When it’s a dead language, you’re right. I don’t take issue with preserving languages. I take issue with $4.4M of our dollars being wasted on it.

  4. Steve K. Says:

    I raise my Miller Lite to you. Since I can’t conceive of any possible value that “dead” languages could have, therefore, by definition, they HAVE no value. Studying the evolution and development of human language — nothing of practical use could ever come from that. Hell, the entire field of linguistics is wothless, really — case in point, that pinko Noam Chompsky. His linguistics studies have contributed a sum total of zero to the world. Certainly to nothing practical like, say, theoretical computer science.

  5. SayUncle Says:

    If someone wants to save them, it should be a private venture.

  6. Steve K. Says:

    If someone wants to save them

    Again, preserving these languages and the record of human cognitive abilities that they embody is an eminently practical business. There are obvious direct practical benefits for the field of linguistics, and indirect (but no less obvious) potential benefits for computer science, developmental biology, neurobiology, and for the treatment of speech/cognition disorders.

    But your inability to recognize their inherent value demonstrates exactly why the “Market” should not be the be all end all of determining research priorities. Markets are sometimes good at making predictions in the short term, and they have some value in predicting events in slightly longer time frames. But there are any number of potential topics of research that would appear to be pointlessly esoteric which, 50 or 100 years from now, or even 5 or 10 years from now, will turn out to have been eminently worth pursuing. Science builds on accretion of knowledge and the unpredictable connections that people make while sifting through that accumulated knowledge.

    In the 1930s, Bell Labs wouldn’t have been to likely to fund research into the mechanics of bat navigation, but gee whiz, that turned out to be rather useful. And in the 40s – the connection between mathematical game theory and community ecology/evolutionary biology wasn’t exactly smacking people between the eyes.

  7. SayUncle Says:

    I’m not doubting the vailidity of the study or science, just questioning who ought to pay for it. I’m not convinced it’s me.

  8. Steve K. Says:

    Looking back at my comments, I suspect I’m not making my point very well. So, another try…

    I’m assuming that you’re one of these nutjub libertarians who thinks that all public financing of science and the humanities needs to be halted, predicated on the notion that there ‘s a magical oracle called the Free Market which is capable, at all times and under all circumstances, of perfectly and optimally deciding where the resources of society should be allocated.

    $06.13 of my money this year will go to preserve “dead” languages? I don’t find that important. That’s stealing! It’s an OUTRAGE!!!

    $09.21 will go to study insect locomotion? OUTRAGE!!!

    The assumption is that, if it’s worth studying, the market will determine that it is worth studying. Companies (well, their shareholders, actually) will be falling over themselves to fund basic research into string theory, or astronomy, or plant biogeography, because the benefit to them and their investment is obvious. And millions of people will contribute billions of dollars into charities which support investigations into glacial dynamics, or the evolution of brown algae, because the benefit of such studies is obvious to everyone.

    What WON’T happen is that most of the money spend today on basic research will instead be diverted to solving big and small engineering problems, or to studying “cool” things like nuclear fusion.

  9. Steve K. Says:

    Err..got the decimal places a couple of orders of magnitude off in my examples.

  10. Steve K. Says:

    What WON’T happen is that most of the money spend today on basic research will instead be diverted to solving big and small engineering problems, or to studying “cool” things like nuclear fusion.

    Or that overall funding for science will go waaaaaay waaaaay down. None of this will happen, because people in aggregate always come to rational conclusions.

    Even though the system of funding we have today for the most part works well, we need to scrap it and rely on faith that everything will work out super keen in the end.

  11. SayUncle Says:

    “I’m assuming that you’re one of these nutjub libertarians who thinks that all public financing of science and the humanities needs to be halted,”

    Not at all, just those that seem, well, pointless. Like cataloging dead languages and building indoor rainforests, etc. While I’m critical of some of the boondoggles that Nasa wastes my money on, there is no doubt that it has benefitted me.

    I’d rather have my $15.34

  12. Steve K. Says:

    Not at all, just those that seem, well, pointless.

    Dude. No offense, but you’re a dipshit.

    The point of funding basic research is that no one can predict what whether that research might actually turn out to be of use.

    Understanding insect locomotion sounds stupid and pointless, but golly gee willikers, there’s lots of insights from its study that can be applied to robotics.

    Another stupid and pointless topic of research is the embryonic development of roundworm vulvas. (No joke, that’s a pretty hot field right now). Har har. Them eggheads are studying the naughty bits of worms. Har har. But understanding the development of this simple organ has led to great strides in the understanding of how much more complex human organs develop, which amazing enough, actually has lots and lots of practical benefit.

    I’m not going to try and convince you of the value of linguistics anymore — try reading a book about the development of programming languages or history of computer science sometime, and then spend some time reading the current CS literature as well.

    When people like you, those who find vast fields of scientific reseach to be stupid and boring, get to decide what scientists study, the unmarked doors which open onto previously unfathomable fruitful areas of study will slam shut, because to the aggressively ignorant, going down the paths which lead to these doors seems “pointless”.

  13. SayUncle Says:

    “Dude. No offense, but you’re a dipshit”

    Nice.

    “The point of funding basic research is that no one can predict what whether that research might actually turn out to be of use. ”

    And that’s why there’s a lot of useless research.

    ‘I’m not going to try and convince you of the value of linguistics anymore ‘

    I didn’t realize you were trying before. I never said anything along the lines of ‘linguistics aren’t valuable’ just that this funding seems costly and pointless. Unless, of course, there are many cherokee and tibetan words used in C++ that couldn’t be replaced with other words.

    ‘When people like you, those who find vast fields of scientific reseach to be stupid and boring, get to decide what scientists study, the unmarked doors which open onto previously unfathomable fruitful areas of study will slam shut, because to the aggressively ignorant, going down the paths which lead to these doors seems “pointless”. ‘

    I’m not deciding who does what just questioning why i’m paying for it.

    You keep implying i’m making arguments that I am not making.

  14. SayUncle Says:

    Ah, I see now. You’re posting from a .edu extension. Makes perfect sense 🙂

  15. Steve K. Says:

    Oh, and:

    $4.4 million / 270 million = $0.02. Rounded up. The liberals are stealing slightly more than one and a half cents from me this year to preserve dead languages. It’s got to stop, now.

  16. SayUncle Says:

    Liberals? Seems like the congress is currently run by non-liberals. And your math is a bit wrong as you left out the countless other studies, pork and BS projects that we’re also paying for. here’s a good start. And not all people pay taxes on income. Last year I found data for was 2000 and 96,817,603 taxable returns were filed. Sure, there’s other taxes that aren’t on income but we’ll stick with it for now. CAGW identifed $27.3B in pork (as a rough start since it doesn’t include excess defense spending or the costly war on drugs or other items that i’d consider wasteful and pointless) so:

    27,300,000,000 divided by 96,817,603 = $282 (rounded).

    I’d rather have the $282 or, heck, even the $0.02.

  17. Steve K. Says:

    Ah, I see now. You’re posting from a .edu extension. Makes perfect sense

    Ok, that was actually funny.

    🙂

    And that’s why there’s a lot of useless research.

    Back to banging my head against the wall. NO ONE KNOWS WHAT THE USEFUL RESEACH IS BEFORE IT’S BEEN DONE. Cripes. That’s why it is ABSOLUTELY A REQUIREMENT that LOTS OF USELESS RESEARCH be done if there is to be scientific progress. Why is that not obvious? Sheesh. Criminy.

    Look, no one knew that studying bat echolocation would lead to the development of radar*. Studying it might have been useless. But not studying it because the masses thought it was silly would have turned out to been a big mistake.

    * actually, that’s a very misleading statement and not exactly true, either, but for the purposes of this argument it’s going to be true. I’m too lazy to come up with a better analogy.

  18. SayUncle Says:

    I understand and don’t disagree with your point but I can see no benefit to possibly be yielded from cataloging almost lost Cherokee and Tibetan languages. Seriously. None. At all. Heck, maybe if it were at least Latin, there could be some benefit but you’ve lost me on that one.

  19. Steve K. Says:

    I never said anything along the lines of ‘linguistics aren’t valuable’ just that this funding seems costly and pointless.

    Do you honestly not see how studying the variation of languages could contribute to linguistic theory, or why it would be tremendously useful to people who study languages to have as many extant languages as possible left to examine?

    CAGW identifed $27.3B in pork

    Since money is wasted subsidizing the sugar industry, we need to end all public funding for science? I’m not following you here.

  20. Steve K. Says:

    I can see no benefit to possibly be yielded from cataloging almost lost Cherokee and Tibetan languages.

    As I said at the very top — since I see no benefit in it, by definition there must be no benefit in it, since, well, I know everything.

  21. Steve K. Says:

    You keep implying i’m making arguments that I am not making.

    But that’s what’s so darn fun about arguing on the internet! 🙂

  22. SayUncle Says:

    ‘As I said at the very top – since I see no benefit in it, by definition there must be no benefit in it, since, well, I know everything. ‘

    Well, now you get it 🙂

  23. tgirsch Says:

    For the record, the correct way to figure what your bill was is neither to divide the cost by the number of citizens, nor to divide the cost by the number of taxpayers, but to divide the cost by the total amount of the budget (to figure out a percentage) and then use that percentage to figure your portion. And even that’s too simplistic.*

    In this case, this project makes up 0.0000018333% of the federal budget, meaning if you paid $10,000 in federal taxes, your cost is about 1.833˘. If you paid $5,000, it would be 0.9167˘. If you paid $1 million in federal taxes, your cost for this project is $1.83.

    Meanwhile, the nation will spend $68.9 billion on defense research and development+, and nobody ever gripes about potential waste there, lest they be described as “weak on defense.” The budget will have grown by 17.8 billion in this area over the last three years (over 43%), and here we are griping about a measly $4 million.

    Now I’m all for strong defense, but give me a friggin’ break. You can’t tell me that there isn’t a shitload of fat in the defense budget. I just pity the poor slob who actually tries to fix that. No, much easier to gripe about a piddling college research program that would save 99% of taxpayers less than $1 each.

    * – You’d actually have to figure out ALL of your Federal taxes, including FICA, and also figure how much other revenue the .gov gets from non-personal-income-tax sources in order to get a true figure, but this yields a good ballpark.

    + – That’s $287.26 for our $10,000 taxpayer.

  24. SayUncle Says:

    ‘ nobody ever gripes about potential waste there’

    I just did, look up.

  25. kevin Says:

    Uncle

    All basic science research is worthless. Unti a year or five or fifty form now when some clever little bugger suddenly realizes that the development of Indo-european into Turkish provides the perfect conceptual map for a particiularly nasty efficiency problem in computer languages.

    the government has to do this work, becasue the market doesn’t allow companies to spend a great dela of time or money on basic research, as a rule. What you are actualy arguing for is an end to basic science research.

  26. tgirsch Says:

    By golly, you did. But in an offhanded remark buried in a comment, as opposed to a front-page post dedicated to the $4.4 million. 🙂

    In fact, I’m willing to bet you’ve spilled far more virtual ink griping about the nickel-and-dime stuff than you have about stuff like the military budget.

    kevin:

    Nah, Uncle probably just wants the states to pay for it, not the feds… 🙂

  27. SayUncle Says:

    I’m not arguing against science, just jackpot schemes to spend money. And I’d have no issues with states doing it since they have, you know, universities. And nickel and dime stuff in sheer volume adds up to big money.

  28. tgirsch Says:

    Uncle:

    First of all, even if the languages project were canceled, this wouldn’t magically return $4.4 million to the taxpayers; it would just make that $4.4 mil, itself a part of a larger “research” budget, available to some other (presumably equally-useless-seemeing) research project.

    Second, even if you added up all the nickel and dime stuff, you’d be lucky to save three or four percent of the federal budget. In fact, if you eliminated everything the government does except for defense, homeland security, medicare, social security, and interest on the national debt, you’d only shave 16% off the budget.

    No, if you want meaningful savings, you’re going to have to look at the “big three”: Defense, Social Security, and Medicare.

Remember, I do this to entertain me, not you.

Uncle Pays the Bills

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