Mythical Government Waste

Wasted MoneyConservatives have a special fondness for government waste. As I pointed out leading up to the Fiscal Cliff, John Boehner seemed to think there were wasteful government programs, he just needed Obama to tell him what they were. This goes along with polls that shows that the American people want to cut government spending. But when asked about specific programs, they always want to continue funding those—in many cases they want to increase that funding.

There is one exception. Americans want to cut foreign aid. Of course, that wouldn’t do much because foreign aid is generally a bit less than 1% of the federal budget. But Americans think it is much higher. An American Public Opinion poll from two years ago found that the median American thought that foreign aid was 25% of the budget. So there you have it! In the minds of most Americans, we could balance the budget and then some (Quite some!) if we just stopped handing money out to people who hate us.

This kind of thinking is pushed by the conservative movement without actively lying. It is the reason we have Republican politicians constantly talking about “waste” without mentioning what the waste is. It is just a given that the government wastes money. When they do, they present spending on projects that sound wasteful but almost never are.

This process unfortunately dates back to a democrat, William Proxmire, who gave out the Golden Fleece Awards from 1975 to 1988. Much of the supposed waste that Proxmire noted was good and even critical government spending. He, like his modern day conservative heirs, liked to go after research contracts. It is often easy to dismiss as crazy a piece of research based only on its title.

Last year, “Michael” at End of the American Dream wrote, 30 Stupid Things The Government Is Spending Money On. But there are many other lists to be found throughout the conservative media ecosystem. What’s really interesting is that it contains “wasteful government spending” claims that I’ve heard make the rounds this week:

The federal government has shelled out $3 million to researchers at the University of California at Irvine to fund their research on video games such as World of Warcraft. Wouldn’t we all love to have a “research job” like that?

As it turns out, this program is using video games that have their own social and economic systems to study some social science problems. This is fairly standard stuff. A lot of economists use these programs to study markets. They are in effect large computer models with lots of free research subjects. Now, I can’t say that the research is a particularly great use of money. I don’t know, because I haven’t be able to find more than the briefest of summaries of it. And this makes me think that the conservatives who are complaining about it know no more than I do.

But I do know about other things. The article complained, “The U.S. government spent $200,000 on ‘a tattoo removal program’ in Mission Hills, California.” Here’s the problem: this is part of a gang prevention project. Gang members get out of jail and want to go straight. But they have all these gang tattoos. (In one case, a young man had “Fuck You” tattooed on his forehead!) Does this sound like government waste? It sounds like violence prevention to me.

Some of the items do seem ridiculous. Take for example, “The U.S. government once spent 2.6 million dollars to train Chinese prostitutes to drink responsibly.” Of course, as usual, it sounds worse than it is. This is a program to “establish and evaluate whether an alcohol and HIV intervention center can assist in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS among sex workers in China.” Now maybe that money isn’t worth spending. We could discuss that. But we can’t do anything if the conversation stops at: government teaching prostitutes to drink responsibly, te he!

And some of the “waste” is just pathetic. A great example of this: “The U.S. Postal Service spent $13,500 on a single dinner at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.” There are several problems here. First, $13,500? Really?! That’s the best they can come up with for the “30 stupid things”? But it’s worse, because the government didn’t pay for that dinner. The USPS is independent; the government doesn’t fund it at all. And finally, that dinner was for potential corporate customers—a completely legitimate expense.

What all this shows is that the conservative movement wants to imply that the government is this hugely wasteful institution. The data just don’t indicate this. So they mislead and even lie. It is shameful.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Mythical Government Waste

  1. What matters to these people, of course, isn’t government waste per se (money not accomplishing what it is meant to accomplish) but who that money goes to. There are conventions now held by subcontractors in the Missile Defense Shield racket, which has routinely suffered catastrophic failure because of unforeseeable circumstances like, oh, say, rainfall. Not a problem, as the money is going to the right recipients.

    A few years ago, someone I knew at Kane* (I did not yet know what Kane was, this person strictly refused to tell me, although his/her refusal made me suspect Kane was pure evil) contacted me and offered to throw my way some easy pocket money. It was a study on mobility scooters, and I’d be given $100 for my opinion on what I thought of existing scooters.

    *(Yes, Kane is a rhyming word for a firm made very visible last year. I don’t want anyone to be able to do a Web search and find this and get that person in trouble, especially as I later cite a direct e-mail quote. If you post a response, use "Kane." It probably will never matter in the grand scheme of things but I feel ooky about sharing e-mail info.)

    Anyhoo, it was a nice offer, based on the knowledge that I work with disabled adults. But the people I work with don’t use mobility scooters; they use wheelchairs. So I declined politely.

    I got back an irritated response. "Why not talk with the survey team and take the cash? $100 is budget dust for a project like this." ("Budget dust" is the direct quote, by the way.)

    This wasn’t a case of me being on my moral high horse, refusing money I needed for food. It was $100 I didn’t need, and I merely thought to take it would be dishonest. Yet my refusal was actually taken as insultingly superior.

    Which, I think, tells you a lot about these people. In their heart of hearts, they know what they’re doing is thievery. (In the case of mobility scooters, the vast majority of those who purchase them use Medicare/Medicaid, and so "budget dust" comes straight of of the taxpayer pocket.)

    And they don’t need the money either! People who work for military contractors or equity funds are easily good enough at making contacts to find something else to do and happily survive. Yet they see others getting loaded, others who mock them for not being wised-up enough, and they want in on the game and its benefits.

    So saying no, even to $100, insults them. And in a large part I think that’s what conservatives carping on "waste" is about. If the Post Office — an institution with its own flaws and inherent bureaucratic inefficiencies — nevertheless represents something other than getting the biggest dollar in the fastest way, it’s a threat. Not just to the conservative Randian ideal, but to the mental well-being of people who have discarded inconvenient basic moral standards because it’s currently quite rewarding in many ways to do so.

    Note that in most periods where things we would now accept as unquestionably wrong were occurring, there was no such thing as centrism. If you were a Southerner opposed to slavery, proposing even a gradual transition away from a slave-based economy was not acceptable to slaveowners. You could get killed for printing that. Because slaveowners probably knew what they did was wrong, and didn’t tolerate being reminded of it.

    Human beings do really have an innate moral sense, whether generated by a higher power (no proof available) or by the fact that we don’t outsmart larger and scarier animals via individual bravery but through sharing effort and ideas. People feel it when they violate it. Most of us are aware, quite regularly, of instances where we treat other people shabbily. And if we retain these instances in our minds, and if we keep asking, "was I prudent or just selfish" we can get better at refining our moral sense. It’s never a pleasant or precise experience, yet it’s absolutely valuable. (We may never resolve the question, and things we did years ago may continue to haunt us.)

    When we turn off that internal moral meter and get annoyed at anyone who brings it up (because we exist in a separate world where such considerations are derided or worse) that’s when we’re venturing into seriously scary territory.

  2. @JMF – As I was cleaning up after dinner tonight, I placed a pot down so as not to squash an ant. It was only afterward that I thought about it. I’m not keen on the fact that the ant was in the kitchen, but just the same, it is no problem. And why not let it live?

    But if more come, I will feel entirely justified in wiping them out. I think this is how elites feel. It isn’t that they don’t have a moral sense. It is that they simply think that they are rich and powerful for a reason: because they are better than the prols. I think that’s how it works.

    Now with the $100, I think something else is going on. To the company, you’re doing the survey or whatever is worth a whole lot more than $100 to the company. It’s possible they would be invoicing the government for $10,000 for that interview. And why would that be okay to both them and the government? Because they are the elites; of course they deserve $10,000 for a couple of hours of work.

  3. Excellent ant analogy (and good brief summation of my rant); I’m going to use that one sometime.

    If we can call plutocrat ethics "morality," it’s such a circular form of morality. "How can you justify mistreating others?" "Because I am better." "What makes you better?" "I have the power to mistreat others."

    What you’re suggesting, I think, is that what I (and Chomsky, and others) call an "innate moral sense" is nothing more than an ability to sense unfairness to oneself and an ability to sympathize with unfairness towards others. (We can observe children making this connection.) Your point, as I understand it, is that this basic sense is very shallow, and religion/ideology can easily cause us to disregard large segments of humanity as less human, and therefore not deserving of fair treatment like oneself and one’s kind.

    You’re probably right. I was extrapolating from one example (anecdotal evidence strikes again) where one person wasn’t just confused that I declined to join in the corruption, but actually hurt that I didn’t. I used this one example to suggest all conservatives secretly feel guilty about what they do, which is quite a logical leap.

    But aren’t there other examples? Look at the way conservatives (in any society) get bent out of shape by minority claims for equal rights. Last year, visiting Denmark, I heard over and over horror stories about Muslim immigrants (I also heard other Danes really annoyed by these right-wing horror stories.) "They don’t respect our history or culture, they’re all backwards fundamentalists." Later, on the same trip, I visited the history museum in Copenhagen. I saw quite a few women with Muslim headdress looking at ancient Danish artifacts with interest. One couple was quite affectionate and way past the "schoolgirl hug" age.

    Do right-wingers strike out so angrily at claims to equality from those they abuse/have abused because of a sense of guilt? Or out of fear that one ant might lead to a horde? A mixture of the two reactions? I can’t say — I’m an amateur reader, not a scholar or expert in human psychology (pathology?) by any means!

  4. @JMF – I think you’ve taken my analogy far beyond what I meant–although it is really interesting. I just meant that I think that I matter more than ants. I will not go out of my way to harm them, but I won’t allow them to inconvenience me much at all.

    To me, the issue is entitlement. Am I really better than an ant? I doubt it. But I’ve been raised to think so. That is how it is with the rich. They are surrounded by rich people. Those rich people (implicitly, certainly, but very often explicitly) tell each other that they deserve whatever they have.

    You are talking here about what I call the "War on Christmas" syndrome. There is only a war in the sense that they think (Because Christianity is true!) that it is wrong to treat other religions as equally valid to their own.

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