THE REAGAN administration wishes to sell the weather satellites and impose the discipline of the market on the four winds. First, let's consider the administration's proposition on its own terms. Struggling to keep its budget down, it doesn't want to spend more money on weather satellites. But the technology of weather forecasting is advancing rapidly. With more satellite data pouring through the new giant computers, the forecasts might soon be made immensely more precise.
Under the administration's plan, it would sell the present satellites to a private company, or companies, that would then presumably proceed to use private funds to expand the system. The government would pay the private operators roughly what it's spending now for satellite data. The data would continue to go to the Weather Service for dissemination throughout the country and the world. There would be no difference in the weather report that you get on the radio in the morning as you try to decide whether to take an umbrella. But--if the plan worked--there would soon begin to be a flow of much more specific and accurate forecasts available at a price to commercial users willing to pay. As the administration might put the question, why should the general taxpayer provide free service to businesses?
The answer is, of course, that it's not only businesses that have an interest in more accurate forecasting. Storm warnings are an obvious example. If a city were to fall behind in its satellite bills, when would it hear about the next snowstorm? Among the businesses that need better weather information, the most important is farming. It's not only a matter of cheaper food. If a farmer knows exactly how the wind will blow for the next several days, he can afford to use less pesticide when he sprays. With better rain forecasts, he needs less water for irrigation. And that saves money for the federal government itself, since it is the government that provides most of the water. When the administration speaks of the cost of the additional satellites as hundreds of millions of dollars, that is not the net cost. Net cost is less, if better weather data help the economy to operate more efficiently.
The debate over the weather satellites is another example of the truth that cutting the federal budget doesn't always save money. If it simply means shifting costs from public to private budgets, society doesn't necessarily gain. In this instance society would lose by a substantial amount with the restriction on access to forecasts of value to just about everybody. But it's merely a hypothetical case, since Congress seems totally disinclined to pass the legislation.