Bailout Envy

The following is part of the Observer’s series of occasional conversations with a veteran participant in science and government relations, Dr. Grant Swinger, Director of the Center for the Absorption of Federal Funds. Dr. Swinger was interviewed by Washington correspondent Daniel S. Greenberg (DSG).

DSG: You look upset.

Swinger: I am. There are so many lawyers. He’s a lawyer and his wife is a lawyer.

DSG: Who?

Swinger: The Obamas. And Joe Biden is a lawyer. And Hillary at the State Department is a lawyer. And Bill, who will be hanging around Washington, he’s a lawyer, too. There’s a lot more of them. And most of the others are economists.

DSG: So?

Swinger: Where are the scientists? Not on top for sure and not even on tap. C.P. Snow said we’re the ones with the future in our bones. Remember, in an official report, the National Academy of Sciences said that the day after the election, no later, the president-elect should have a top-flight scientist at his elbow. They said the new president and his science adviser should have a close working relationship — a real tight, inner circle. And that’s been ignored. What is the matter with these people? They’re probably the ones who dropped out of Physics for Poets because it was too difficult.

DSG: President-elect Obama has to deal with a lot of urgent problems. You can be sure there will be a scientist or two in the White House. He’s probably picked them already.

Swinger: Maybe, but that’s not how the Academy said he should do it. And then there’s the money. I thought we knew how to get money. After all, we’ve been at it for decades. But we’ve gotten nothing like these broken down banks and bankrupt stock brokers and failed insurance companies. I now see that the trick is to be insolvent. If you’re in the black, you get nothing. Go bust and it’s a $100 billion for this one, $300 billion for the other, and plenty more where that came from.

DSG: They are important for the economy.

Swinger: It used to be that a bank would lend you money only if you could prove you didn’t need it. Now all you have to do is show you can’t pay it back and they give you more than you asked for. How did we miss out on this?

DSG: That’s an emergency situation. These institutions say they are too big to fail.

Swinger: Why didn’t we think of something like that? There are all these brainy people of ours, scheming away, night and day, filling out forms, writing proposals, and what are they trying to get? Maybe a $50,000 grant for some project. And chances are they won’t get it because of budget cutbacks and a tough pay line and all the usual reasons.  But if you over-spend your credit card limit on a month in Acapulco and can’t pay up, Fannie or Freddie, or whatever they call them, will see that it’s covered in the billion or two bailout for the credit card company.

DSG: Do you think our international standing in science will be jeopardized?

Swinger: Hard to say, but I know we’re okay as far as the Russians are concerned.

DSG: What makes you so sure?

Swinger: Their two top leaders, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, are both lawyers.

DSG: Thank you Dr. Swinger. ♦

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