This is a story about history, science, and economics. But then … so is every story. There are always trade-offs, always compromises, and always discoveries that generate twists and turns. However, this is a story in which every one of those things is blown up to Brobdingnagian proportions. Huge trade-offs. Massive compromises. Gigantic discoveries. There’s also a conclusion that’s even bigger than the story itself. Just as in all good stories.
The story starts with a thing—a very big thing—called the Superconducting Super Collider. First proposed in 1976, the SSC was intended to be the biggest science experiment in history. At its core it was a particle accelerator, like accelerators at FermiLab outside Chicago or the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland.
Like those other accelerators, the SSC would have allowed investigation of the models behind our modern ideas of physics. But where the recent discovery of the Higgs boson took place at the upper end of the power available from the Large Hadron Collider, the SSC was designed to be more than twice as powerful. And it was to have been built sooner. With the SSC, the Higgs boson might have been discovered decades ago. More than that, the astounding energy levels of the SSC would have enabled testing of other aspects of particle physics. It could have probed problems that continue to tease basic issues with the standard model of physics, and led to discoveries that could have explained such critical issues as the nature of dark matter. The design of the SSC allowed for testing the limits of our understanding and pushing beyond them into genuinely new territory.
It was a device that could have not just revolutionized our understanding of the universe, but also opened up whole new avenues of research, at both the academic level and the practical level. What could it have permitted in terms of engineering or electronics? What fields could it have overturned? What might we know, what might we have known, thanks to the SSC?
We don’t know, because it was never built. It was started, but then America and the world went another way—and generated something that, for most people at least, was equally unexpected.
Construction on the SSC actually started. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan backed the project, and Congress moved forward with siting the structure near a small town in Texas where geology allowed for creating the incredible 54-mile underground ring needed by the main accelerator. By then, the project that had been estimated at $2 billion in 1976 had expanded to a price tag of $4 billion.
It was supported anyway. So were several other large projects. So was a massive expansion of the defense budget. They were all supported on the same basis—there would be plenty of money to cover them.
The idea that there would be plenty of money to spread around, at a time when the U.S. was still suffering from high inflation and a growing deficit, might seem odd. But this was also the point at which U.S. taxes were radically restructured, sharply reducing taxes on the wealthy and corporations, dropping taxes on investments, and bringing the structure from what it had been in the 1960s and ‘70s to something more “modern,” something closer to what it is today.
These changes, Reagan and the Republicans assured the nation, would generate huge increases in revenue. America could spend whatever it wanted, because “supply-side economics” would do for the economy what the SSC was supposed to do for physics: revolutionize everything. America would be living on the fat side of the Laffer curve, with more money for everything—including for the SSC. In fact, by 1987 it was clear that, after a redesign, the cost of the SSC was going to increase. A couple of years after that, it looked as if the final bill might top $8 billion, and some thought it might eventually reach $10 billion. But funding went on, the funders confident that the flood of money was just around the corner.
Only that never happened. Instead, Reagan’s combination of tax gifts to the wealthy and lavish spending on defense generated massive deficits. Republicans were happy to overlook this issue as long as a Republican was in the White House, but, as so often seems to happen, no sooner was Bill Clinton elected than Republicans rediscovered their deep, deep concern over America’s national debt. By that point, more than a dozen miles of tunnel had been bored, and thousands of scientists and engineers had moved to Texas to support completion and operation of the SSC. Clinton asked Congress to support completion because, he wrote, “Abandoning the SSC at this point would signal that the United States is compromising its position of leadership in basic science—
a position unquestioned for generations.” But it was canceled.
On the one hand, that’s understandable. $10 billion is a lot of money. In fact, it’s almost the cost of a single Nimitz-class aircraft carrier. That program also started in 1976, got built. And more, newer carriers were on the way. But there’s another, bigger factor than just routing money to defense that spelled the end for the SSC and other basic science programs.
It’s those tax cuts. The restructuring of the economy that began with the adoption of supply-side economics was so fundamental that the most basic graph of income inequality shows it quite clearly. It created a schism, a break in the way both democracy and capitalism had worked to that point—one that drove America from a point at which the average CEO earned dozens of times as much as workers to one at which that difference was measured in the thousands. It turned the investment class into the can’t-fail class. And over the next 40 years, it split society far more effectively than any accelerator could split apart particles.
The SSC was never completed. But the Super Upper-Income Inflator was definitely put into action. Even as the budget gap was killing basic science research in the U.S., the SUII was funneling all that money and more out of public research and into a very few private hands. The end result of the SUII is that we did not make earthshaking physics discoveries, but we created a nation where Jeff Bezos could fund the entire SSC, still have $100 billion in his pocket, and simply keep any discoveries made for himself.
We created an age in which private fortunes exceed the cost of the largest public works. Where a nation can’t afford an Apollo-like effort, but individuals can, and are, running such programs as a hobby.
Discoveries in physics can be good as well as bad. But stupid economic theories have no upside.