Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

Jeff Jacoby: Your tax dollars paid for a fish to use a treadmill

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 9: Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) speaks with reporters after a vote at the U.S. Capitol, May 9, 2016, in Washington, DC. Senate Democrats defeated a procedural vote on an energy bill, which increases funding for the Department of Energy and Army Corps of Engineers. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Sen. Jeff Flake speaks with reporters after a vote at the US Capitol.

Arizona’s Jeff Flake, who occupies the US Senate seat once held by Barry Goldwater, shares his famous predecessor’s dismay for profligate government spending. “Let us be honest with ourselves,” Goldwater wrote in 1960, when federal spending totaled $92 billion. “Broken promises are not the major cause of our trouble. Kept promises are.”

That hasn’t changed, as Flake points out in the introduction to “PORKémon Go,” the latest in his annual Wastebook series, which each year compiles scores of examples of preposterous and wasteful federal outlays.

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In 2016, federal outlays were $3.87 trillion — a budgetary metastasis that must have Goldwater spinning in his grave — yet Washington, as always, is promising to spend more.

“Politicians in both parties are pushing to further loosen bipartisan budget caps and revive the corrupt practice of earmarking tax dollars for pork projects,” writes Flake. “The incoming president’s agenda includes $1 trillion for infrastructure, $5 trillion in tax cuts, and nearly $500 billion more for defense.”

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It can be hard for taxpayers to wrap their minds around sums so vast, which is why Flake’s yearly anthology of outrageous spending focuses on small but vivid illustrations of how easy it is to squander other people’s money. The new Wastebook rounds up 50 fresh examples of egregious projects funded with federal dollars, and describes them with good humor, bad puns — and nearly 1,100 detailed footnotes.

Flake’s cases read like excerpts from The Onion.

 At the University of California San Diego, a $560,000 stimulus grant from the National Science Foundation funded a study measuring the endurance of fish on a treadmill. The fish in question were mudskippers — amphibious creatures that can use their flippers as legs — and the researchers forced them to run on a specially designed enclosed treadmill until they collapsed from exhaustion. The study found that with higher levels of oxygen in the chamber, the mudskippers could “exercise longer and recover quicker.”

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 A $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health was used, in part, to analyze the partying habits of fraternity and sorority members on college campuses. The researchers’ conclusions were not exactly jaw-droppers: “Members of Greek letter organizations consume higher quantities of alcohol, report more frequent drinking, and experience more alcohol-related consequences” than other students — even after alcohol-abuse interventions. Students at fraternity/sorority parties view drinking games “as a means to get drunk quickly and to socialize.” And more alcohol is drunk on days with “high-profile athletic events.”

 The Colorado Department of Transportation installed a 28-foot-tall replica of a marijuana joint on the side of a hotel in downtown Denver. The huge joint, which was made from the wreckage of a mangled car, cost $35,000. Uncle Sam picked up the tab, via funding through National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

 A barely used airport in Mascoutah, Ill. — it handles just 20 flights a week and is so deserted that its few passengers can park for free — undertook $835,000 in renovations last year. Ninety percent of the costs were absorbed by the Federal Aviation Administration. That’s on top of the airport’s original $313 million construction — most of which was also paid out of the federal treasury. Mascoutah, meanwhile, has never come close to making a profit: It lost $12 million in 2014.

The other 46 examples are just as fatuous, dubious, or ludicrous. Which is not to say that none of the projects has merit, nor that those who lobby for them are charlatans. The developers of a museum featuring holograms of dead comedians (Chapter 2), the investigators comparing men’s and women’s ability to identify different Barbie dolls (Chapter 20), and the researchers studying monkey drool (Chapter 48) can no doubt make a plausible case that what they do is beneficial in some way. Indeed, each year’s Wastebook release triggers indignant protests from scientists who point out that what may seem goofy or purposeless can lead to unexpected discoveries and insights. Who knows what breakthroughs may eventually be derived from examining fish on a treadmill or how boys and girls relate to dolls?

But that isn’t the litmus test. For responsible budgeteers in Congress and the White House, the threshold issue should never be whether a given expenditure might lead to something good. It is whether the government of the United States should be the one spending the money.

Why must federal, rather than Colorado, tax dollars subsidize a gigantic sculpture of a doobie in Denver — even to promote safe driving? Why should the money to examine monkey saliva come from Washington, rather than a university endowment fund or a corporate research budget? America’s national debt is about to reach a staggering milestone: Twenty. Trillion. Dollars. If even that can’t persuade Congress to stop funding comedy museums and comatose airports, what can?

Flake took over the Wastebook project from Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, who retired after the 2014 election. Coburn’s inspiration, in turn, was the late Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin, who used to issue monthly Golden Fleece Awards to dumb or risible expenditures of federal money.

America’s national debt is about to reach a staggering milestone.

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Proxmire, bless him, was a Democrat; Coburn and Flake are Republicans. Just as big-spending wastrels can be found in both parties, so can principled spending hawks. If only the former weren’t so common, and the latter so rare.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.
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