You know that it's budget season in Washington when the news pages become filled with one story after another put out by government agencies trying to get their budgets increased or, possibly, trying to avoid the budget ax.

There's a real art form to this. Champion players of the game know that you need to come up with something that accomplishes multiple difficult goals all at once. First, whatever it is (call it the "McGuffin") must justify a big increase in your budget because after all, that's all that really counts in the end in Washington. Second, the McGuffin must be associated with a seemingly plausible story that can be sold without giving any overt hint that you are just playing a totally cynical game for more money to grow your empire. (This one is relatively easy because the press is ridiculously gullible, particularly in any area that involves growth of government.) Third, the McGuffin needs to be sufficiently catchy that it gets on the front pages and headlines of lots of papers and websites and news shows.

And having read those criteria, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that it is impossible to beat the annual "food insecurity" scam put out by the Department of Agriculture (DOA). For those unaware of it, every year around this (budget) time, the DOA comes out with a report declaring that some 15 to 20% of Americans have been determined to be "food insecure." (This year's report does not seem to have come out yet, but the 2014 version is here.) This is the most cynical and blatant self-promotion by the DOA seeking more money for its food stamp and other nutritional programs. Dozens of free-food-advocacy organizations can be counted on to immediately pick up the survey results, equate them with "hunger," and go to bat lobbying for more money for the DOA. And the gullible press laps it up, running one article after another, never thinking to ask how the DOA can already be spending some $80 billion per year on almost 50 million food stamp beneficiaries without ever making a dent in the "food insecurity" problem (if indeed it is a problem). The "food insecurity" metric has been carefully crafted to be completely impervious to reduction no matter how much is spent on food programs. It's the perfect scam!

So come on, is it really possible to top that one? Yes! Check out the front page of today's New York Times. It's the old NASA "we may have found water on Mars" scam! And where there's water, there must be life!  ("Liquid Water, and Prospects for Life, on Mars.") NASA held a news conference on this yesterday, reporting on a new article they have just released.

“This is tremendously exciting,” James L. Green, the director of NASA’s planetary science division, said during a news conference on Monday. “We haven’t been able to answer the question, ‘Does life exist beyond Earth?’ But following the water is a critical element of that. We now have, I think, great opportunities in the right locations on Mars to thoroughly investigate that.”    

And, he was about to add, if you just give us another, say, $50 billion a year, we can build a lot more space stuff and send it off toward Mars and keep reporting back every year for the next 50 years (at budget time) that we may have just discovered some evidence that there is water on Mars.

OK, he didn't really say that. That would not be in accordance with the strict rules of this art form, where you are never supposed to give away that this is just cynical playing for more money. But let's see how NASA's effort stacks up against the rules of the game:

  • Does it justify a big increase in the budget? You betcha! Do you see Jim's reference to "great opportunities in the right locations on Mars to thoroughly investigate that." We need to send another spacecraft to Mars! Or how about two or three!!! "John M. Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science, [is talking about] sending a spacecraft in the 2020s to one of these regions, perhaps with experiments to directly look for life."
  • Does it give any hint that this is just a cynical ploy to increase the budget? Well, as totally obvious as this game is to any thinking person, the New York Times doesn't mention the subject one single time in its article. Are the people at Pravda just particularly gullible? Try these stories from CNN, the Washington Post, USA TodayWiredand that's just the start of dozens of stories that can be found with a simple Google search of "NASA water on Mars." Really, how naïve are these people?
  • Does it generate lots and lots of high-profile and front-page press stories that just parrot the agency's line without asking any embarrassing questions? See previous bullet point.

And it actually gets a little worseor, I guess, better, if you're looking to win the prestigious Manhattan Contrarian "Most Transparent Self-Promotion By A Government Agency" award. A website called Quartz seems to be on to NASA's game, and points out that the U.S. has agreed by international treaty not to send any spacecraft to a place on Mars near water, since to do that would be likely to contaminate the water with earthly microbes.

[E]ven if NASA was 100% certain that there is liquid water on Mars, it could not do anything about it.  The world’s space powers are bound by rules agreed to under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that forbid anyone from sending a mission, robot or human, close to a water source in the fear of contaminating it with life from Earth. 

So then why are they using the "water on Mars" angle to suggest research missions that actually can't be carried out? Quartz has the answer:

NASA’s hype around the discovery of liquid water on Mars can be explained by its constant need to increase funding for its work.

Is it possible to be any more cynically budget-grubbing than these guys? NASA, you have won the "Most Transparent Self-Promotion By A Government Agency" award for 2015!

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Cross-posted at the Manhattan Contrarian blog.