Counting the Zeros

Pork-barrel spending is always a popular conversation-starter. Lists are published of bizarre, eregious, outrageous things that our elected officials are willing to spend our money on. Mouths gape, aghast. The scoundrels! Let's send them less money, get the government off our backs, and if America needs any of those things, entrepreneurs will create them! A leading watchdog of this sort is the Citizens Against Government Waste, in whose website and its annual "Pig Book" I found the following items from the Federal budget for FY 2000:

  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- $10 million a year. "NOAA's Mission is to describe and predict changes in the Earth's environment, and conserve and wisely manage the Nation's coastal and marine resources."
  • Operating subsidies for Amtrak: $180 million per year. The outrage! Not another dime to those knuckleheads at Amtrak, who cannot turn a profit, despite chronic traffic jams on the Interstates.
  • Wood utilization research: $5.78 million. From improved drying and stabilization techniques to the preservation of historic wood items, there is much to find out about this topic. Will the money be spent wisely? I don't know. Could it possibly be worth three one-thousandths of one per cent of our federal budget to work on it? Hard to say.
  • Sustainable agriculture research in California: $393,000. The CAGW notes that no university applied for grants under this program -- not surprising when we consider the kind of grant money available from agribusiness to conduct genetic engineering and pesticide research.
  • Three million dollars for "research and development of technologies for economic and environmentally sound refinement of spent nuclear fuel." Like we needed that.
  • For land acquisition in Wisconsin's wild waterways: $2.5 million. It seems pricey, but it's likely to cost more if we wait.
  • One million for the renovation of a Frank Lloyd Wright- designed house in Buffalo, New York. Which will then be open to the public, including generations of high school students to come. Scandalous.
  • $1 million for Delta State University (in Mississippi) to improve the quality of education; $200,000 for Chippewa Valley Technical College (in Wisconsin) to train health professionals; $921,000 to be divided equally between all 14 county boards of education in the Alabama district of Rep. Robert Aderholt. Is education overfunded in any of these areas?
  • $4,000,000 for New Jersey Transit alternative fuel buses.
  • A whopping $13.5 million for metro transit buses in Minneapolis/St. Paul.
  • All of $458.5 million for the Corporation for National and Community Service. A Clinton program, it administers the Americorps national volunteer program. According to CAGW, each volunteer costs the America taxpayers $27K per year. Doing what? "Serving through local nonprofits, schools, religious organizations and other groups, these citizens tutor and mentor children, coordinate after-school programs, build homes, organize neighborhood watch groups, clean parks, recruit volunteers, and accomplish other things to improve communities." Not particularly cost-effective, perhaps, but healthier than video games.

Total taxpayer outlay for the items mentioned so far: $680,794,000.

Now, to be sure, the examples I chose here are not the worst. There are outrageous examples of federal Pork out there; certain well-committeed members of Congress regularly funnel home scads of money for dubious projects. Distasteful as it is, it does behoove the citizen to page through these awful facts; it might move us to demand a healthier brand of sausage.

This exercise is always presented (however) as it were the Key to Good Government. If only we could make our representatives accountable, stop them from spending our money on shrimp aquaculture research or a Jazz museum in New Orleans, then democracy would bloom and peaceful contentment would reign.

But there is -- as you have probably suspected -- some spin being applied here. Not that the numbers are incorrect or false. However, a great deal depends on how they are presented to the "news consumer". Most of us don't deal in millions of dollars. Six hundred eighty million and change is a considerable sum of money to me -- isn't it to you, too? It is vexing to think that our government wastes this much (and quite a bit more) on (arguably) frivolous constituent-service projects. Vexing, to be sure.

When I moved to the "Defense" category in the CAGW website, I rubbed my hands together, greedy for tales of waste, fraud and graft that dwarfed all others. But no: it listed little more than a few non-defense items that had been tacked onto defense appropriations bills. The page informs us that "from containing Middle East terrorist threats to maintaining soldier morale, defense spending meets myriad essential needs." No weapons systems made it into the "Pig Book".

For that information, we have to visit another site: The Center for Defense Information, which specializes in telling us about military expenditures. Out of the embarrassment of riches there, I chose two specific weapons systems -- the ones that seemed to me most obviously frivolous and unnecessary.

First, we have the F-22 Raptor, the next generation of fighter jet. This plane is unnecessary simply because the last generation of fighter jet, the F-15 Eagle, is superior to any other fighter flying today. The only planes that come close are Soviet MIGs, which have consistently been outmaneuvered by F-15s in battle, and which Russia now lacks the funds to adequately maintain. In all likelihood, the F-22 could make mincemeat out of the F-15 in mock dogfights at airshows, but aside from that, it has no mission.

Next we have the Ballistic Missile Defense System. This isn't being deployed yet, of course, but the W. Bush administration wants it. The ostensible mission would be to intercept and destroy missiles fired at us by rogue states (or, it has been suggested, to safeguard the earth against meteor collisions). And it might be nice, after all, if Iraq gets upgraded SCUDs that can reach US territory, to not have to worry about being blown up by the first volley of them (Saddam Hussein wouldn't get a second chance, we can be sure of that.) However, if I were a terrorist and wanted to deliver a weapon of mass destruction against the United States, I would not load it into an expensive, conspicuous, failure-prone ballistic missile! No, I would place it in a suitcase, sneak it across the Mexican border, rent a car and drive it to ground zero, right under the nose of the Galactic Empire.

But I am not a trained military strategist, so there could be subtle aspects of these two weapon systems that escape me. I do know how much they cost, though:

For the F-22 fighter: $3.95 billion requested for FY 2001; $61.9 billion spent to date.

Research and Development for ballistic missile defense: $4.2 billion requested for FY 2001; $95 billion spent since the program began in 1983.

Those orders of magnitude will get you every time. The United States Military spends a million dollars every 3.2 minutes. Or in other words, the combined price tag for those thirteen pork items I mentioned above would equal 3.5 hours of US military spending. Does our nation need a vigorous, well-provisioned national defense? Certainly. Do US taxpayers understand what portion of their wealth is being shoveled down the gullets of defense contractors? I doubt it. The first step toward becoming an informed citizen is learning to count the zeros.

Lindy Davies, May 15, 2001

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